Throwback Thursday: The wackiest USC football game ever vs. UCLA

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images /

There has arguably never been a more wacky game in USC football history than the 1943 UCLA game, which featured 14 fumbles between the two rivals.

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On this Throwback Thursday, it’s time to talk about how the 1943 USC-UCLA game was bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

Plain and simple, it’s likely the most ridiculous USC football game in history.

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“Thrills and fumbles danced hand in hand on the Coliseum greensward Saturday as SC’s unpredictable stallion roared through the stretch to overhaul the tiring Bruins,” the Daily Trojan read in the aftermath of the 26-13 victory.

What makes this 76-year-old rivalry game worth remembering?

There were 14 fumbles between the two teams. Two blocked kicks resulted in touchdowns. A lateral was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. In fact, all six of the scores in the game came either via a turnover, a blocked kick or a punt return.

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The Daily Bruin might have summed it up best:

“The Trojans, who were the better ball club, apparently didn’t want to be for most of the game, and did their best to give the contest to their crosstown foes…However, Babe Horrell’s Westwooders seemed determined to give away the hoghide at every opportunity.”

How it went down

The November 27th meeting between the two teams at the Coliseum was actually their second of the season. Smack dab in the middle of World War II, travel restrictions limited the available opponents for both teams. So they squared off in September with the Trojans easily dispatching the Bruins 20-0.

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The later meeting in late November came under less desirable circumstances for USC. They were coming off two straight losses, first falling 10-7 to the San Diego Navy before a 35-0 drubbing to March Field, a team fielded by the Air Force. That game still holds the record for the most points scored by a USC opponent in one quarter, 28.

Still, the Trojans were still in control of their Pacific Coast Conference fate with a 3-0 record. UCLA was winless in the PCC.

The game played out as one would expect between two rivals with patchwork, wartime teams who might as well have greased up the ball before kickoff.

USC opened the scoring when Bill Gray blocked Don Malmberg’s punt. USC’s Gordon Gray picked it up and returned it 23 yards for the touchdown.

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There would be no reason to name the punter under normal circumstances, but this was not a normal game. Of course it was Malmberg who later blocked a punt himself to turn the tide. UCLA’s Dave Brown recovered the ball near the goal line and tried to lateral it to Mike Marienthal, who eventually fell on it back at the 24-yard line. From there, quarterback Dan Borden took off on an unexpectedly-effective run and scored. It was the first touchdown scored by a PCC opponent against USC all season.

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Things got worse for USC, down 13-6, when they drove to the UCLA 13-yard line. Jim Hardy, whose punt had been blocked earlier, attempted to lateral the ball to Earl Parsons, only for Brown, the Bruin, to intercept the pitch and return it 86 yards for another touchdown.

Fortunately for the Trojans, the Bruins offense was woefully ineffective and USC was able to recover the lead in the second half. In the third quarter, Ted Ossowski recovered a fumble to set up a 13-yard touchdown by George Callanan.

“The rest of the third quarter was spent in the fumbling department’s headquarters,” the Daily Trojan quipped.

After another turnover by UCLA, a 33-yard run by USC’s Johnny Evans set up a four-yard Parsons touchdown.

Finally, the Bruins’ joy over a goal line stand—they separated the Trojans from a touchdown by inches—was short-lived when Malmberg’s 40-yard punt was returned for the final score by Eddie Saenz, locking in the 26-13 win for USC.

The Daily Trojan, Nov. 30, 1943
The Daily Trojan, Nov. 30, 1943 /

Noteworthy stats

  • In case there was any doubt about where the forward pass stood in 1943, UCLA went 1-of-11 for 7 yards through the air. USC went 3-of-12 for 50 yards.
  • The Bruins had one turnover on downs, two passes intercepted and six fumbles, five of which were lost.
  • The Trojans had two turnovers on downs and eight fumbles, five of which were lost.
  • USC had nine first downs. UCLA had one.
  • Amazingly enough, 14 fumbles between the two teams doesn’t come close to the NCAA record for most fumbles in a game. In 1969, Wichita State and Florida State combined for 27 fumbles with 17 lost between them.
  • The record for most fumbles by a USC opponent is held by UCLA, but not for the 1943 game. In 1975, the Bruins fumbled 11 times and lost eight of them, a feat which ties a Pac-12 record.

What it meant

With the victory, USC locked in a trip to the Rose Bowl where the unranked Trojans faced undefeated, 12th-ranked Washington.

Interestingly enough, it was the first and only time the Rose Bowl game featured to teams from the same conference, thanks to the aforementioned WWII travel restrictions.

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The underdog Trojans didn’t look it, trouncing the Huskies 29-0 in a game which was broadcast on radio to troops in Western Europe. (Washington history buffs would argue the scoreline was impacted by the war, as the Huskies had just 28 players available having lost a dozen players to military duty before the end of the season.)

Thanks to their Rose Bowl triumph, USC finished with a 5-0 record in conference and took possession of the PCC championship for the season. An ugly, wacky, crazy rivalry win got them there.

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