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Jim Murray

Trojans Saw Enemy--It Was Them

November 22, 1987|Jim Murray

The USC Trojans slaughtered the UCLA Bruins Saturday, 17-13.

That was the easy part. The Bruins were duck soup. First, the Trojans had to beat the USC Trojans. And that took a bit of doing.

Before they could even get at the Bruins, the Trojans had to struggle with their real foe--themselves.

How's this for a tough afternoon at the office?

--Early in the second quarter, USC quarterback Rodney Peete completes a 34-yard pass for a touchdown to tie the score, 7-7. But it is called back because the Trojans were guilty of, of all things, delay of game.

--Later in the second quarter, USC has the ball on the UCLA one-yard line when the tailback fumbles the ball away on the goal line and loses it, ball and touchdown.

--At the end of the second quarter, USC has a first down and goal to go on the UCLA five-yard-line when quarterback Peete fades and throws a pass that ends up in the arms of a UCLA safety who runs 89 yards with it as the first half ends.

--At the start of the second half, USC takes the kickoff, runs three ineffectual plays, then punts the ball a full 19 yards to put UCLA in field-goal range to make the score 13-0.

--In the third quarter, quarterback Peete completes another pass for a touchdown but this one is called off because the team has an ineligible receiver downfield.

--When UCLA turns the ball over on a fumble in the third quarter with the score 13-3, USC misses a field goal anyway.

--They have the ball 12 minutes and some seconds of the third quarter and come away with three whole points.

The Trojans had no trouble with UCLA. It was the Trojans who gave them fits. They say some teams beat themselves. The Trojans only wish they could.

They play a weekly double-header, their team and the other guys'. Their team is a lot more resourceful. When you fumble away one touchdown, throw an interception on another, then have two touchdowns called back on dumb procedural plays, then you are tough competition. You can see where USC is in deep every week. Some weeks, they are a one-touchdown underdog to themselves.

Which is why I say they "slaughtered" the Bruins Saturday. You add up the scores they should have made and the game is as one-sided as an earthquake.

In fact, if it weren't for a guy who was so overlooked and so little expected of a couple of years ago that they almost kicked him out of school, they would have beaten themselves.

Look, we all know what a football wide receiver looks like. Blinding speed, the leaping ability of a horned animal, moves so devastatingly quick you can never catch his number.

Then, there's Erik Affholter. Erik is not slow. But no one ever mixed him up with Carl Lewis or Bobby Hayes. Or Lynn Swann or Cliff Branch or Willie Gault, for that matter.

Erik Affholter is one of those guys who can get lost in a crowd. He'd make a great spy.

It's his great talent. The other guys don't figure out how dangerous he is till too late. He starts off the line of scrimmage like guy on his way to buy a pound of butter.

But he's in a great tradition. The annals of football are fecund with Erik Affholter-type receivers--the Fred Biletnikoffs, Steve Largents, Raymond Berrys.

If the ball stays in the air, they catch it. They have flypaper for fingers, they have the peripheral vision of Moby Dick and they seem to float around into the picture out of nowhere when the ball is in the air.

Still Erik Affholter is a guy they used to take out of the game on third downs. They wanted the speed burners in the game. The guys who could run fast enough to get under long passes in time to drop them.

They didn't even think Affholter was a receiver. They got him as a kicker. He once put a 64-yarder through the uprights at Oak Park High in Agoura, which was a scholastic record.

Wherever he went, they handed him a kicking tee--Arizona schools, Pac 10 schools, Big 10 schools.

Affholter was stubborn. He held out for receiver. He wanted to touch a football with something besides his shoe.

USC figured they'd humor him. Promise him anything but get him a holder.

Turned out that the trouble with Erik Affholter was not that he couldn't catch a football, it was that he couldn't cork a bottle. He didn't drink a lot, just too much. He thought college was just the biggest cocktail party he'd ever been to. He showed up sober on game day but the rest of the week was pretty much on its own.

Pretty soon he got kicked out of his dorm and the school seemed to be next on his agenda. He was as big a threat behind the wheel of a car as on a gridiron. He ran very disciplined routes on the field. Off it, he was making them up as he went along. It was one route that wasn't going to end up in score. Night court seemed more likely.

The then-coach, Ted Tollner, suggested to his wide receiver that he clean up his act or he wouldn't even be around to kick.

Erik Affholter started going to the team chapel service and he found that his future didn't come in a bottle, it came in a book. The best playbook he ever studied, the Bible.

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