It was October 15, 1988, and the Trojans were two points away from disaster.
After winning their first five games, including a 23-7 victory over #3 Oklahoma and a 42-14 blowout of #18 Oregon, the third-ranked Trojans had been ahead of the Washington Huskies 21-7 late in the third quarter at the Coliseum. Now, with under two minutes to play, Washington had closed to 28-27 and was lining up for the two-point conversion.
How did the Trojans get here?
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the running game. With starters Ricky Ervins, Aaron Emanuel, and Steven Webster injured, the USC backfield consisted of two unknowns: Scott Lockwood and Leroy Holt. But Holt scored on a one-yard run in the first quarter, and Lockwood scored on a four-yard run in the third. In fact, Lockwood, a sophomore from Colorado, would gain 133 yards on 27 carries.
Was it USC quarterback Rodney Peete? He was harassed much of the day by Washington tackle Dennis Brown, and sacked twice. While Peete himself scored on an eight-yard run in the second quarter and threw a 41-yard touchdown to tight end Scott Galbraith in the fourth, he also fumbled on the Trojans’ 17 yard-line just before halftime. The Huskies quickly scored and went into the locker room down only 14-7.
But you couldn’t blame Peete for that. “We made a bad call,” coach Larry Smith told the Los Angeles Times afterwards. “We tried to get a sucker pass on them deep and we didn't protect the quarterback. We gambled and lost when we should have played percentage football." In any event, Peete used play-action to more successfully avoid the rush in the second half.
Maybe it was the USC defense, which kept the Huskies out of the endzone for all but the final minute of the first half. But Conklin came alive in the second half, throwing three touchdown passes to flanker Brian Slater, including one for 54 yards. Conklin was 15 of 19 in the second half, avoiding USC’s All-American safeties Mark Carrier and Cleveland Colter to pick on five-foot-eight cornerback Chris Hale.
Conklin’s pass to Slater, who outran Hale 38 yards for the touchdown, brought the Huskies to within one point with 1:39 remaining. USC defensive coordinator Chris Allen brought Colter and cornerback Ernie Spears to blitz, but Conklin got free, saw tailback Vince Weathersby in the endzone and...
Underthrew him. There was no other way to put it. And just like that, USC survived. And the Coliseum crowd could breathe.
Washington had suffered a last-minute loss to #2 UCLA the previous week. They would have one final heartbreaker, losing the Apple Cup to Washington State, 32-31, before finishing the season 6-5.
USC improved to #2 and kept winning, eventually beating #6 UCLA, 31-22. That would set up the epic showdown of #2 USC vs. #1 Notre Dame, which the Trojans would lose in the Coliseum. USC would go on the Rose Bowl and lose there, too, 22-14 to Michigan State. USC would finish 10-2 and ranked seventh in the AP Poll. The Trojans would not win ten games in a season again until 2002.
Oh, and scrappy corner Chris Hale? He was drafted by Buffalo and played for the Bills during their four-year Super Bowl run.
A Notre Dame blogger explains why October 15, 1988 “one of the most exciting and memorable days in college football.”