The last time UCLA had to admit USC was the best team in town, a Trojan freshman named Johnnie Morton lined up at receiver with seconds left in the game, glanced at the quarterback, and saw Todd Marinovich pointing his way.
"He was pointing at the corner, Dion Lambert," said Morton, the former USC All-American receiver now in his fourth season with the Detroit Lions. "Dion didn't say anything. He just shook his head, like, 'You're not going to get it on me.' "
Moments later, Morton did.
Lambert fell as Morton broke for the corner of the end zone, and Marinovich's 23-yard touchdown pass to Morton with 16 seconds left became the exclamation point on USC's victory--an extraordinary 45-42 shootout between Marinovich and UCLA quarterback Tommy Maddox in 1990.
The Trojans piled atop Morton, already hurting from a shoulder injury earlier in the game, as they reveled in what none of them could imagine would be USC's only celebration so far this decade over the Bruins.
"They all piled on me, and I thought I was going to suffocate under there. I really did," Morton said. "I know it sounds crazy, but I thought I was going to die."
It was a game that marked Marinovich's last moment of glory at USC, the beginning of a troubled period in his life that has yet to end. He is scheduled to begin a six-month jail term on drug charges in January.
The day Marinovich called his shot against the Bruins marked the last time USC has beaten its cross-town rival. UCLA has won six in a row, the longest streak in the 66-game history of the series.
"We need to win this year," said Morton, whose younger brother, Chad, is the Trojans' speedy sophomore safety-tailback. "I know they're heavy underdogs. That makes it better in this game. And with Chad still at tailback? That gives them a better chance of winning. He can score at any time."
Chad Morton was only 13 the day his brother beat UCLA, a youngster left home to watch the game with his brother, Eric, while his parents went to Pasadena to watch the game.
Minutes before the game-winning catch, Johnnie caught a pass to give USC a 38-35 lead.
"After he caught the first touchdown, we were all yelling and screaming," Chad said.
When UCLA's Kevin Smith scored on a one-yard run with 1:19 left, it appeared that the wild game might end with UCLA winning, 42-38.
"After he caught the second one, we were just going crazy," Chad said.
"I feel like I was a little kid then. It seems longer than six years--a lot longer than that."
It seems even longer when you count the losses, one after another.
In 1991, UCLA broke its own four-game winless streak with a 24-21 victory, holding off a Trojan comeback in the closing minutes when Bruin linebacker Arnold Ale sacked USC quarterback Reggie Perry to force a fumble that UCLA recovered.
The next year, 1992, was the year of John Barnes, the walk-on fourth-string quarterback who passed for 385 yards and brought UCLA from behind to win, 38-37, after USC failed on a two-point conversion in the final minute.
In 1993, with a Rose Bowl berth on the line, USC fell behind by 17 points at halftime, but quarterback Rob Johnson brought the Trojans back and had them on UCLA's doorstep before Marvin Goodwin intercepted Johnson's pass in the final minute. Final score: UCLA 27, USC 21.
In 1994, UCLA endured a six-game losing streak during the season, but dominated 13th-ranked USC, 31-19.
Two years ago, USC was 8-1-1, ranked 11th and on its way to the Rose Bowl, but UCLA still won, 24-20, in Terry Donahue's last season as coach.
Then came last year's game, the double-overtime thriller that erased the 1990 game as the highest-scoring game in the series.
A record-setting 260-yard receiving performance by Trojan freshman R. Jay Soward wasn't enough to keep the Bruins from winning, 48-41.
That is the streak, and much as the team on the wrong side of it might want to think the past has no bearing on the present, even USC Coach John Robinson has come to think otherwise.
"I suppose it does," he said. "There's pressure on the side that's down to get out from under it. I resisted that statement every year with Notre Dame--until we won. After that, I said my back felt a little less pressure."
Pressure is always part of the USC-UCLA game. So is disappointment.
In that 1990 game, Maddox set a UCLA single-game passing record with 409 yards and threw three touchdown passes--but also threw three crucial interceptions.
"I was crushed," Maddox, now a Dallas insurance agent, said two years ago. "I wish I could have found a way to win that game."
The lead changed hands four times in the final 10 minutes, and the teams combined for 42 points in the fourth quarter.
It was Marinovich who struck last, but he would play in only two more games for USC--a loss to Notre Dame and a bowl-game loss to Michigan State--before his team suspension and a drug arrest preceded his jump to the NFL.
But when Marinovich pointed his way, Morton didn't doubt him.