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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / WEEK 9

Oh, Baby: USC Gets Rattled on Last Play

College football: Stanford expected Pitts to be double-teamed and McCullum was wide open for the winner.

October 22, 2000|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALO ALTO — Stanford had not practiced the play all week. Stanford hadn't run the play once in Saturday's game against USC. Stanford waited until there were four seconds left to call it for the first time.

And Stanford won the game because of the play.

The play is called "Rattler" and it certainly lived up to its name Saturday because it bit the heck out of USC in Stanford's 32-30 victory.

On fourth down from the USC 20 and with four seconds left, Stanford quarterback Chris Lewis took the snap, dropped back a few steps and lofted a pass into the right corner of the end zone toward a wide-open Jamien McCullum, who caught the football behind Kevin Arbet and squeezed it to his chest.

As McCullum fell to the ground, Stanford's improbable victory over USC was complete--two touchdowns in the last 5:22 that sent the Trojans to their first 0-4 Pacific 10 record ever.

Paul Hackett, the USC coach, knew the score. Said Hackett: "The guy just snuck in behind us . . . no excuses."

Lewis was nearly at a loss for words.

"This is like the greatest play," said Lewis, who is from Long Beach. "This one is like, ooooh."

When you pull out games like Stanford did, you are allowed freedom of expression, so let's go with it.

What do you call it when the quarterback who throws the winning pass wouldn't have been playing if the starter hadn't been hurt . . . and the player who catches the pass that wins the game is mostly an afterthought in the offense?

Lucky? Good? Destiny?

Maybe all that and more. There is already a Big Play legacy in the Bay Area--lest we forget Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark and the Cal kickoff return through the Stanford band--but this one certainly wasn't bad. It's probably perfect for Hollywood ("OK, cue the Rattler.")

And how Stanford arrived at the Rattler is a story in itself. Quarterback Randy Fasani, who has a bad left knee, was forced out of the game on the last drive after running for three yards.

Lewis came on and ran for five yards, passed to McCullum for seven yards and a first and goal at the USC 10. Three times Lewis threw passes that were incomplete. Trojan linebacker Markus Steele almost picked off one of them.

"If I could only have picked that ball," Steele said.

On fourth down, Stanford was penalized five yards for delay of game. On the next play, Stanford was penalized five more yards for a false start.

It was still fourth down, now for the third time, and the ball was at the 20. It was time for the Rattler.

"We knew they would double-team [DeRonnie] Pitts and we were hoping Jamien would be open and Chris would be able to deliver him the ball," Stanford Coach Tyrone Willingham said. "That's exactly what happened."

With Pitts double-teamed, Lewis had one other option besides McCullum--tight end Russell Stewart.

Was he covered?

"I don't know if we got that far," Willingham said.

Pitts said he suggested calling the Rattler because he was certain McCullum would draw single coverage. "I told him, 'Just give him your best move and beat that guy.' And that's what he did. I could just tell the way they were playing that it was going to work."

McCullum wasn't as sure, but he was hopeful. The Rattler is designed to get the safety to bite on the inside, to help the cornerback cover Pitts.

"Of course they thought we would try to get the ball to DeRonnie," McCullum said. "What, 13 catches? He's the man. So, yeah, I expected to be that open."

And, come to think of it, those back-to-back penalties allowed Stanford a little more room to operate, another 10 yards to spread the field and give Lewis the chance to put a little more air under the football.

"I guess those penalties were like a blessing or something," he said.

Or something.

Lewis knew he shouldn't have been in the game because Fasani is the starter, coming back after knee surgery. But there he was, jumping off the bench and into the huddle with the game on the line. And there he was, throwing those three consecutive incomplete passes . . . until the Rattler.

"Oh, I wasn't worried or anything," he said. "Being a quarterback, you live for those kind of throws. So I threw it. And I saw Jamien catch it, and just waited for the referees to get their hands up."

Up went the hands. Down went USC. It was no mystery this time. The Rattler did it.

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