Imagine reading this headline:
Leinart Has Measles, May Miss UCLA Game
USC quarterback Matt Leinart is fine, of course. But in 1988 -- the last time an undefeated USC team met a UCLA team with only one loss -- Trojan quarterback Rodney Peete was hospitalized because of measles the week of the game, setting off a mini-panic.
Players from both teams were immunized. Public health officials discussed whether it would be appropriate to postpone the game.
And then Peete played, and No. 2 USC defeated a No. 6 UCLA team led by Troy Aikman, 31-22.
The conspiracy theorists weren't all crazed fans.
"Rodney had the measles -- or so he said," Aikman said this week with only a hint of playfulness. "The story was that this guy, they weren't sure he was going to live to see the next week, let alone be able to play football. Then, miraculously, 'Hey, he can play!' "
Six years later, Peete landed with the Dallas Cowboys for a season, and Aikman was waiting for him.
"He's a great teammate and a very, very good friend," Aikman said. "But my first question when he joined us in 1994 ... I asked him if he'd gotten over the measles yet."
Call it a spotty chapter in the USC-UCLA saga.
"It's so funny," Peete said. "I've got myself and everybody in my family on Google Alert, and whenever something comes up with our names I get an e-mail. That measles game has been mentioned like 50 times on different websites this week.
"It's about the measles, that I was faking, that it was just a ploy to throw UCLA off guard, all that kind of stuff.
"I always tell people we didn't need any extra incentive to beat UCLA. You don't need to stir it up. You don't need tricks."
In a rivalry that has seen plenty of big games, this year's meeting between No. 1-ranked and two-time defending national champion USC and once-beaten No. 11 UCLA is one of the really big ones.
Exactly how big is for the beholder to determine -- not the holder or the kicker or the lineman or the running back, because to the people who compete in them, every USC-UCLA game is immense.
"The truth is, every one you play in feels about the same in terms of pregame hype in the city. Emotionally, they're all the same," former UCLA coach Terry Donahue said.
"There's not any game you go into against USC that's less important than the one the year before or the year ahead. It's not the way it works."
If you go by the numbers, though, this one ranks high.
Only once, in 1952, have the teams met when both were undefeated and untied late in the season, when No. 4 USC edged No. 3 UCLA, 14-12, but lost to Notre Dame the next week before going on to win the Rose Bowl.
This is only the third time, along with 1954 and 1988, that the teams have met with only one loss and no ties between them.
It also marks only the sixth time in 75 years one of the teams has been ranked No. 1 entering the game.
The Trojans also were top-ranked in 1962, '68, '72 and 2004, and the Bruins have never toppled them from that perch.
UCLA was the No. 1-ranked team in 1967, but a No. 4 USC team that had O.J. Simpson and was on its way to a national championship defeated a UCLA team led by Gary Beban in his Heisman Trophy season, with Simpson scoring the winning touchdown on a 64-yard run in one of the most famous games in the rivalry's history.
The USC-UCLA game is one of such emotional importance that Aikman, who went on to lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories, considers his 0-2 record against USC the blemish on his career.
"That's really the only disappointment, the thing that has bothered me," Aikman said.
"I was very fortunate in my athletic career to have achieved a lot of really great things, and my only real major disappointment at any level was the fact that in the two years I started at UCLA, I failed to take the team to the Rose Bowl.
"If you narrow that spotlight a little more, what I'm ultimately saying is I failed to beat USC either time, because if we had won either of those games we'd have gone to the Rose Bowl."
In 1987, USC's Erik Affholter made a controversial juggled catch in the corner of the end zone in the fourth quarter of a 17-13 victory over the Bruins.
In '88, Peete left the hospital Thursday, then passed for 189 yards and a touchdown without an interception at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
Mike Lodish, a Bruin defensive lineman who went on to a long NFL career, wasn't surprised.
"You'd have to be on your deathbed or something," Lodish said. "Hey, buddy, it's USC-UCLA. You get your butt out and play."
Had the game been a few days earlier, Peete said, there would have been no way.
"Monday morning, I woke up and couldn't get out of bed," he said. "I thought it was the flu, but it got worse and worse and Monday night the trainers came over and decided to take blood tests. Then they checked me into the hospital. I was 22 years old, and it's kind of dangerous to get measles at that age."
For two days, reporters questioned why Peete wasn't at practice.