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Looking back at Ohio State and USC’s 3-year ‘War of the Roses’

For an unprecedented three consecutive Rose Bowls, USC and Ohio State tussled with national championship implications on the line.  

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at UCLA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Rose Bowl is the granddaddy of them all — and two of its favorite grandkids will renew their acquaintance in the Cotton Bowl.

Ohio State and USC have met 23 times. Seven of those match ups have been in the Rose Bowl. Those games, spread over four different decades, helped define these two storied programs. Often, national championship implications were on the line. And for an unprecedented three consecutive years in the 1970s, the Trojans and Buckeyes clashed in Pasadena — a feat that has never happened before, nor since, in 104 Rose Bowl games.

Let’s look back on the three-year war for the roses between the Trojans and the Buckeyes, and the moments that defined the games:

1973: USC 42, Ohio State 17 — What does greatness look like? It was on display on both sides of the field in the 1973 Rose Bowl. The USC team that lined up was not only the best of the bunch that season, but one of the greatest teams in college football history. Behind a touchdown from USC wide receiver Lynn Swann, and four second-half scores by running back Sam Cunningham, the Trojans rolled to victory before an all-time Rose Bowl record crowd of 106,869.

The game would mark the first of four consecutive Rose Bowls for the Buckeyes, and a then-freshman running back from Eastmoor High School, Archie Griffin. Ohio State would finish the season with a 9-2 mark. With a perfect 12-0 record, the Trojans became the first team to receive every No. 1 vote on every coach and media poll ballot. Keith Jackson would call that Trojans squad the greatest team he ever saw.

Washington State coach Jim Sweeney, whose Cougars were pounded by the Trojans 44-3, would say of the team, “USC’s not the No. 1 team in the country. The Miami Dolphins are better.”

1974: Ohio State 42, USC 21 — Before Round 2 against USC in the Rose Bowl, the Buckeyes squared off in one of the most controversial Michigan games of all time. An undefeated No. 1 ranked OSU, played to a 10-10 tie of undefeated No. 4 ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines failed to convert on two late game-winning field goal attempts, leaving the Rose Bowl birth to be decided off the field by a vote by conference Athletic Directors. Much to the protest of Bo Schembechler, the Buckeyes would win the secret ballot 6-4 and head to Pasadena.

In the rematch against USC, Buckeye running back Pete Johnson would score three times, and Archie Griffin would add another as OSU pulled away in the second half for the victory. With a 10-0-1 record, the Buckeyes finished the season at No. 2 in the country — behind Notre Dame — in the AP Poll.

1975: USC 18, Ohio State 17 — The rubber match of the three-consecutive Rose Bowls featured a 10-1 No. 3 ranked Ohio State versus a 9-1-1 No. 5 ranked USC squad. The game was a nail-biter. With 2:03 remaining USC trailed by 7 and USC quarterback Pat Haden hit Johnny McKay, son of Trojan coach John McKay, for a 38-yard touchdown. Now trailing 17-16, the Trojans opted to go for two. Hayden found wide receiver Shelton Diggs on the two point conversion to give USC a 18-17 lead. On the next drive OSU kicker Tom Skladany launched a 62 yard field goal. It fell short.

The victory would catapult the Trojans to a No. 1 ranking in the UPI and Coaches Poll, splitting the national championship with the AP Poll’s top team — Oklahoma. It would also mark the start of a run of seven consecutive victories for the Trojans against the Buckeyes. That streak has continued — and will be tested again in this year’s Cotton Bowl.