by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This Saturday marks the 92nd edition of the Victory Bell football contest between intracity rivals, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with the former entering the game ranked 7th in the NCAA’s Division I, while the latter are at the 16th spot. The Trojans lead the series 51-33-7, though the team was forced to vacate its wins in 2004-2005 due to rules violations and sanctions.
The first game, played in September 1929 when the Bruins were a much smaller school led to the team being handed a 76-0 drubbing by the Men of Troy, but, last year, UCLA outgunned their rivals 62-33. USC is slightly favored this year and rolled to a 55-17 home win against the woeful Colorado Buffaloes, but, after 4-6 Arizona stunned the Bruins 34-28 last weekend at the Rose Bowl, maybe UCLA will be extra motivated in this matchup.
This post highlights, from the Museum’s holdings, an unused ticket, pasted down on a photo album page, for the Trojans’ matchup at the Los Angeles Coliseum on 17 November 1928 against the Washington State Cougars. A previous post here featured a program from the next weekend’s contest against the University of Idaho, in which USC rolled to a 28-7 victory against the Vandals and captured the Pacific Coast Conference championship. As pointed out there, the Trojans were a powerhouse in the 1928 campaign, allowing only 59 points in ten games, while scoring 267—and it is notable that the team played all these contests at home.
Coming into the game against USC, the Cougars sported an impressive 7-1 record, though three of the victories were against non-major schools. The team’s 4-1 conference record including their lone defeat, 13-3 at the hands of Cal, while Washington State eked out a 9-7 win against Oregon State.
Their previous three contests before playing the Trojans were shutouts, including a 26-0 blanking of Idaho and a 38-0 shellacking of UCLA. There were hopes among Cougars faithful that an upset on the scale of the shocking 17-12 win against the Trojans in 1925 would lead to a PCC championship.
In its pregame coverage on the 17th, the Los Angeles Record observed that this game, in addition to the battle two weeks later between Stanford and Cal, looked to be the one that would determined the PCC crown. Though Trojan quarterback Don Williams was out with the flu, USC was still favored to best the Cougars with sophomore Marshall Duffield, a multi–sport star at Santa Monica High and later briefly an actor and then a neighbor of former Trojan football player Marion Morrison (best known as John Wayne) taking Williams’ place.
Columnist Stub Nelson, in his “Second Guess” feature, observed that Washington State had a chance to win, but thought it highly unlikely and based this at least largely on the fact that the PCC squads from the north were located in small towns (outside of Washington, which rolled to five consecutive shutouts to open the season, but then dropped four PCC contests being blanked on each occasion and notching shutouts in its two conference wins—so it had the distinction of being involved in a shutout in all ten games that year!) and had much lower enrollments than the likes of Cal, Stanford and USC.
In that day’s Los Angeles Express, sports page editor Sid Ziff, who was just 19 when he took that role in 1924 and who went to a controversial and colorful career that included a long stint at the Los Angeles Times, noted that the Trojans “will face the strongest team in the Pacific Northwest” with the Cougars having only the blemish against Cal on its record. Ziff warned that over-confident Trojans fans needed to be careful as Washington State “has had a punch throughout and is adding to it instead of fading out with time” while it sported “a stout defense” against the run.
Ziff also noted that the Cougars favored more of a passing game than USC’s “Thundering Herd” style of rushing the ball and also pointed to halfback and kicker Porter Lainhart as a field-goal threat, in addition to being an excellent runner and punter. Also mentioned was senior QB Ted Rohwer “who is having his best year.”
As for the Trojans, the key was how the team would do with Duffield guiding the offense with only some experience in the Cal game, which ended in a scoreless tie. Contingency plans for USC coach Howard Jones was to shift the backfield around in case Duffield could not do the job, while team captain and star tackle Jess Hibbs was considered by the journalist to be “rather a disappointment, but [who] has a chance to redeem himself by playing a brilliant game through to the finish of the season.”
Washington State, in fact, put quite a scare into the home team by keeping the game close well into the second half. The first quarter was scoreless, but also sloppily played with USC fumbling once early and the Cougars losing the ball twice. Early in the second frame, however, the Trojans got on the board first with a 10-yard touchdown pass from fullback Russ Saunders to halfback Lloyd Thomas and Hibbs providing the extra point. Later in the quarter, Washington State punted and Duffield utilized his speed and dexterity to race 75 yards for the score, though the extra point attempt failed, making the score 13-0.
The Cougars nearly had its own punt return touchdown when halfback and punter Don MacDonald scampered some 60 yards before being pulled down by Hibbs. A score seemed likely but a pass attempt sailed over the end zone and denied the road team a touchdown. Still, the team got another long punt return and then finally managed, after a 17-yard pass play, to push the ball in for a touchdown, even as the extra point effort was for nought, and making the score 13-6 at the end of the first half.
With the onset of the second half came “the real hot potato of the day,” as the Times’ Paul Lowry put it, when the rare occurrence of a “runback of a kick-off to a touchdown in a major game” took place. Lowry wrote that “this was accomplished by the dashing Rohwer,” who ran into one of his own teammates while receiving the kick, stumbled, and succeeded in “finally getting the pill to chalk up a 95-yard run.” MacDonald converted on the extra point to tie the game.
Yet, almost immediately, another Cougars miscue occurred when Rohwer fumbled at his own 35-yard line and USC end Francis Tappaan, who became an All-American in 1929, scooped up the ball and ran in for the TD. With Hibbs successful on the extra point, the Trojans took a seven-point lead. In the fourth period, the home team scored again when Rohwer was intercepted by Jess Mortensen, later a 7-time national champion track coach for USC who raced 25 yards. Soon, Saunders hit Tappaan with a 10-yard touchdown pass to make the score 27-13.
The Trojans threatened to add more to their point tally, thanks to yet another Cougars fumble, which was recovered by Tappaan and who scampered some 30 yards. A penalty, a five-yard loss and two incomplete passes, however, stymied the home team, though USC managed to prevent Washington State from scoring again and secured a two touchdown victory. The Cougars actually outgained the Men of Troy, 370 yards to 328, with a decided advantage on kick-offs and punts (206-156), but the numerous turnovers, including five fumbles and an interception, badly hurt the visitors, who might otherwise have secured an upset.
Washington State’s linemen (it appears, however, that no one weighed more than 200 pounds on the field that day!) were singled out for praise by Lowry, including captain Mel Dressel, a tackle who was selected second team All-American by the New York Sun and garnered third-team honors by the Associated Press. The Cougars’ hard tackling was also noted as “they sent several Trojans to the showers with their viciousness.”
Accounted as the hero for the victors was Saunders for both his running prowess and his passing acumen, while Thomas played well but left due to a leg injury. Tappaan was given kudos and Hibbs was lauded for a pair of booming punts, one going 46 and the other 55 yards, as well as his touchdown-saving tackle of MacDonald. Finally, Lowry wrote that “Duffield played one of the best games of his career” and allowed Coach Jones to save Williams for the Idaho game.
Washington State followed the loss with another defeat, 6-0, on the 29th at Seattle against the rival Washington Huskies and finished the 1928 season with a 7-3 overall record and a 4-3 one in the PCC, in which they finished in 5th place behind the Trojans, California, Stanford and Oregon.
Coach Orin “Babe” Hollingbery was in his third season and went to coach 16 years at Pullman, compiling a .625 winning percentage and earning him a place in the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1930, the Cougars captured the PCC title and played in the 1931 Rose Bowl game, though, despite their dressing completely in red as a psychological ploy, they were blanked by the Alabama Crimson Tide, 24-0.
As for USC, they not only defeated Idaho the following Saturday, but vanquished the vaunted Notre Dame Fighting Irish, led by the famed Knute Rockne as coach, 27-14, on 1 December. Hibbs was chosen a first-team All-American, while Williams and center Nate Barragar secured second-team honors and Williams, Barragar, Thomas and end Lawrence McCaslin were also on the all-PCC squad.
While the Trojans finished 9-0-1 and were deemed the best team in the country by the Dickinson ranking system, it was Cal that went to the Rose Bowl to play Georgia Tech (the famous Roy “Wrong Way” Reigels fumble return took place in that game, handing, because of an ensuing safety, the Georgia team an 8-7 win) because a Cal alum on the Tournament of Roses committee swung the invite to the Golden Bears.
With respect to this year, will UCLA, which dropped far out of the Top Ten after the defeat by Arizona last week and seeks redemption, upset their crosstown rivals, who are 1 1/2 point favorites? Will the Trojan offense, which has score 40 points or more in all but two of its games (and a 30-14 win on the road against the Cougars) with a 43-42 nail-biter loss at Utah the only blemish, outgun a Bruins offense that has posted more than 40 points five times? More than likely, the contest looks to be a high-scoring barn-burner and very entertaining!