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MIKE DOWNEY

COLLEGE FOOTBALL : It Was No Time to Be Caught Napping

November 05, 1995|Mike Downey

Calling himself "just stupid tired," All-American receiver Keyshawn Johnson summoned up enough energy to catch a touchdown pass with 39 seconds remaining Saturday to put USC ahead of Stanford, 31-30. Then he did something that receivers seldom do, except the rare ones (or Deion Sanders). He came back into the game, on defense.

Johnson lined up at free safety. Trojan coaches wanted someone tall, fast and sure-handed in there. They had made this same move in the Washington game, and Johnson had experience as a two-way player from high school and junior college. Ordinarily, though, when a game is in his hands, it's on offense.

Johnson dropped back. With three seconds to play, Stanford took a timeout after a completed pass to its own 48. This was too far away for a field goal. The only prayer for the Cardinal would be a "Hail Mary" pass, and everyone in a homecoming crowd of 62,368 at the Coliseum knew it was coming, in particular Keyshawn Johnson. Because that Hail Mary was headed his way.

Stanford quarterback Mark Butterfield let it fly. No fewer than nine players had converged at the USC goal line, but the football flew directly into the arms of only one of them . . . Keyshawn Johnson. The finest pass-catcher in college football was about to end the sweetest victory of his career not with a touchdown, but with an interception.

And he dropped it.

The ball slipped through Johnson's fingers, falling toward the turf. A Stanford man smothered it. Shielded from the play, an official never saw the ball touch the ground. He placed the ball six inches from the USC goal. However, since the clock now read 0:00, it scarcely mattered when other officials overruled their partner, calling the pass incomplete.

By then, Johnson didn't know whether to leap for joy or collapse. He said later: "I'm out there going to the ref: 'Come on, dude! You saw the ball bounce, man!' Then another one starts going: 'No catch, no catch, no catch! Game over! Good-by!' "

That was all Johnson needed to hear. He was exhausted. Midterm exams in history and Portuguese had worn him down. So had a cold. As a result, he had neither practiced much (twice all week) nor slept much, rising at 4 a.m. on the morning of the game, without going back to bed. Johnson blamed fatigue for dropped passes and lazy running.

Teammates got on his case. They needled him on the SC sideline, with tart talk that can't be repeated here, even though Johnson cleaned it up later by using abbreviation. The other Trojans pushed him into giving everything he had, because a Rose Bowl bid and a whole season's work were hanging in the balance.

Keyshawn also pushed himself, saying: "I can't punk out now, especially with everybody watching all over the country, going, 'Uh, oh, he's tired. Clutch time, but he's tired.' " Pro scouts don't know that a guy's been up all week cramming for his Portuguese exam. They only know that he looks slow.

When quarterback Kyle Wachholtz ran interference on an end-around, for example, Johnson gained 30 yards, but ran out of steam and stumbled over a fallen player at the Stanford 20, with nothing but daylight ahead of him. Wachholtz was intercepted on the next play.

A nationally ranked squad was in danger of going 0-2-1 over three weeks.

Johnson's help was desperately needed. He tried, boasting at one point that he blocked one would-be Stanford tackler "into the band." But when the Trojans finally got the points that gave them their first lead, 25-24, with 7:42 remaining, it was Keyshawn's cousin, Chris Miller, who caught the two- point conversion pass.

Yes, two-point pass. USC could have gone for a tie. It didn't. Coach John Robinson had crammed all week for his midterm mathematics exam, calculating that some weeks, extra points add up to one, while other weeks, extra points add up to two.

Johnson spoke in defense of his recently criticized coach, "We don't care about anything that other people say. If the man says go for two, then we go for two. If he says go for five, we go for five."

How do you go for five?

"You tell me," Johnson snapped. "Everybody's got an answer for everything else, so you tell me."

This was USC's toughest test yet, and everyone passed.

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