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COLLEGE FOOTBALL '94 / SEASON PREVIEWS : Bad Pass : With UCLA Interception Behind Him, USC's Johnson Makes Victory His Goal

August 26, 1994|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When USC lost out in the Rose Bowl race Nov. 20, it happened in a way few could have imagined.

Rob Johnson, for 12 games, had been the most accurate passer in Pacific 10 Conference history, having thrown only four interceptions in more than 400 attempts. That Johnson would throw a game-deciding interception--and from the two-yard line at that--didn't make much sense.

But he did. UCLA won, 27-21, and earned the Rose Bowl date.

And so it was, late that night in a USC neighborhood apartment, Johnson's teammates gathered to console him, to share his pain.

There was some beer-drinking. There were some tears. And all there did share the pain.

"I told him that night--and I still feel this way--that part of me is still on the two-yard line at the Coliseum," said Tony Boselli, Johnson's roommate and an All-American offensive tackle.

USC, trailing by 27-21, reached UCLA's three-yard line with 1 minute 16 seconds left on pass plays by Johnson that covered 33 and 43 yards. He had already thrown for two touchdowns and 307 yards.

As he took his team to the line of scrimmage on first and goal, he was, by a wide margin, the leading passer in USC single-season history, with 3,630 yards.

Two running plays by tailback Shawn Walters to the left side netted only a yard.

Then, a pass was called, a short toss to tight end Tyler Cashman. But a lurking UCLA safety, Marvin Goodwin, intercepted. UCLA ran out the clock and went to the Rose Bowl. USC went to Anaheim to play Utah in the Freedom Bowl.

Afterward, Johnson could only say of Goodwin, "I never saw him."

"He really took it hard," Boselli said. "But we all did. I kept telling Rob, 'Hey, if we'd blocked for Shawn, he'd have scored and we wouldn't be having this conversation.' But we knew how he felt. Nothing seemed to help.

"We kind of felt sorry for ourselves at first, then we got . . . off. And the more beer we drank, the more . . . off we got.

"No one's really gotten over it. I know I haven't."

Jeremy Hogue, a guard, remembers Johnson that night the way everyone else does who was with him--disconsolate.

"When it was just the two of us talking, I told him if it wasn't for those two long pass plays he made, we wouldn't even have been down there, in a position to win.

"But it was one of those situations where nothing you could say to him would help him. And it's because he's a winner. He told me he'd rather play a horrible game and win than have great stats and lose. He said he'd give back anything he's ever done in football to have that play back."

Mike Riley, the Trojans' offensive coordinator, later viewed the UCLA-USC finish as supreme irony.

"Here's a guy who has a phenomenal year--he throws virtually no interceptions--and we go down on a high-percentage pass play in the final drive of the (regular) season.

"It was hard, and he took it hard. He got emotional, right after the game. (The coaching staff) tried to take some of the heat off him by telling him that the play developed too slowly, that we hadn't practiced it enough.

"That was all true, but it didn't help. This is a young team, and we'll all learn from that day."

In the aftermath, Johnson, a junior then, told his teammates he would be back. But he and his father, Bob Johnson, who was his high school coach, gave some thought to leaving USC early for the NFL draft.

At one point, Johnson said, his father told him, " 'Look, if you're thinking about coming out, you'd better make a decision--there's only two weeks left until you have to declare.'

"We sat down and talked about the positives and negatives, and we couldn't think of too many positives," the quarterback said.

"The negatives were, I'd be no better than the third quarterback taken--behind Heath Shuler and Trent Dilfer--and that probably meant the second round.

"But the main thing was, I want to take this team to the Rose Bowl."

Rob Garland Johnson is 21, 6 feet 4, 220 pounds and walks with a swagger.

Said Boselli: "I remember the first day I saw him on campus, four years ago. He was cocky and arrogant, but I mean that in a good way--the way you want your quarterback to be. He knew he was going to be a prominent player here from Day 1."

With Johnson's record-breaking 1993 in the bank and what seems to be a solid football team in place for this season, USC's sports publicity office has cranked up a campaign for a fifth USC Heisman Trophy.

Johnson says he's a bit embarrassed by summertime Heisman talk, even before the leaves have turned at Notre Dame.

The line from Johnson and his teammates goes like this: "If we have a great season, if we go to the Rose Bowl, that stuff will take care of itself."

One thing's for sure. If Johnson does have a Heisman season, the quarterback's father isn't going to miss a thing. He has been the football coach at El Toro High the last 12 years but is taking this season off so he can attend every USC game.

And this father-coach, who can be his son's toughest critic, tells all that those dwelling on awards and statistics aren't really seeing his son.

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