40-Year CFB Anniversary: Top-Ranked USC Scores in Final Seconds to Stun No. 2 Oklahoma, 28-24

by Mike Ferguson

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USC and Oklahoma are two of college football’s most tradition-rich programs. The teams however, have only met eight times on the field.

The last was a 55-19 victory for the Trojans in the Orange Bowl for the 2004 national championship. That however, wasn’t the only match-up between the schools of No. 1 vs. No. 2.

On this day 40 years ago, the top-ranked Trojans rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter. A touchdown pass with two seconds left was the difference as USC edged second-ranked Oklahoma, 28-24.

Setting the Stage

USC had actually been ranked No. 5 to start the 1981 season, but ascended to No. 1 with convincing wins over Tennessee and Indiana. In its sixth season under John Robinson, USC was looking for its first regular-season win over a top-5 team in three years.

Oklahoma arrived at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Sept. 26, 1981 having played just one game. In their ninth season under Barry Switzer, the Sooners opened with a 37-20 win over Wyoming.

The Trojans Win it Late

Oklahoma led 17-7 at halftime and regained a 10-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Darrell Shepard’s 7-yard touchdown run gave the Sooners a 24-14 lead and seemingly made things tough on USC.

Despite the 2-score deficit, USC remained methodical offensively, scoring on a pair of long touchdown drives. With 6:37 remaining, the Trojans clawed back to with three on running back Marcus Allen’s second touchdown of the day — a 3-yard scamper. It capped a 78-yard-drive and the USC defense responded by forcing a punt.

The final march of the day for USC began at its own 26-yard-line. Allen was the star of the day for USC, finishing with 208 yards rushing, but the star of the final drive was quarterback John Mazur.

Mazur helped the Trojans march 48 yards to the Oklahoma 26 where they faced a critical 3rd-and-2. Allen slipped on the damp field and Mazur was forced to keep the ball, coming up just short. On the next play, Mazur again used his legs to pick up the first down.

Two plays later, USC faced 3rd-and-10 where Mazur found Malcomb Moore for 15 yards and a first down. After an incomplete pass, USC looked to have missed its golden opportunity to win the game as Mazur fired for an open Allen in the end zone, but tight end Fred Cornwell put a hand up and deflected the pass harmlessly to the field.

With the ball at the Oklahoma 7, Mazur came to the line with nine seconds to play. Faced with pressure, the left-handed Mazur was forced to roll to his left. Before he passed the line of scrimmage, Mazur threw to an open Cornwell who hauled in the 7-yard touchdown pass with just two seconds remaining.

That would be the decisive score as USC rallied for the 28-24 victory.

Leading Up

For Oklahoma, the contest was one of missed opportunities. The Sooners fumbled 10 times, losing five, which allowed USC to stay in the game.

Kelly Phelps and Stanley Wilson scored first-half touchdowns for Oklahoma to help build an early 10-point lead. Allen’s 27-yard touchdown run served as the lone first half score for the Trojans.

Mazur’s first touchdown pass — a 1-yard toss to John Kamana — cut the lead to 17-14 in the third quarter. It was a quarter that began with three straight Oklahoma turnovers.

In Hindsight

At the time, the contest looked as though it would have significant national championship applications, but that was not to be. After a tie with Iowa State the following week and a 20-point loss to Texas, Oklahoma fell completely out of the poll. The Sooners did go 6-2 the rest of the way and capped the season with a 40-14 win over Houston in the Sun Bowl to finish ranked for the 12th straight season.

USC started the year 4-0, but suffered losses to Arizona and at Washington. The Trojans closed the year with a 26-10 Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State.

Although neither team lived up to its potential, they gave fans a thriller in the Los Angeles Coliseum. It came on this day four decades ago.

References

New York Times
The Oklahoman

Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.

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