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Game of the Year of the Day, 1965: UCLA 20, USC 16

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Tommy Prothro’s 1965 UCLA Bruins: one of the 50 best* of all time.

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The date: November 20, 1965.

The matchup: No. 7 UCLA (6-1-1) at No. 6 USC (6-1-1).

The stakes: Winner of this big-time rivalry game goes to the Rose Bowl.

The back story: In Tommy Prothro’s first season at UCLA, his Bruins had already put together a pretty dramatic season. They went to Michigan State and gave the national title favorites a fight in a 13-3 loss. They went to Penn State the very next week and survived the Nittany Lions, 24-22. They went to Missouri and tied Dan Devine’s Tigers, 14-14. They survived Washington, 28-24, with help from trick plays.

The season was just beginning, though. If the Bruins could break a three-game losing streak to USC, they would get a rematch with Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. The rival Trojans featured soon-to-be Heisman winner Mike Garrett, and the Bruins started future Heisman winner Gary Beban. This game had star power, and it would have drama, too.

The game: From the San Bernardino County Sun:

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- "It looked pretty hopeless, but I didn't think we were out of it," said UCLA sophomore quarterback Gary Beban after passing his team into the Rose Bowl.

In a frantic stretch drive yesterday, Beban threw touchdown passes of 34 and 52 yards to Dick Witcher and Kurt Altenberg, respectively, giving the Bruins a 20-16 triumph over rival Southern California.

With just four minutes to play, USC had a 16-6 advantage and possession, but a fumble set up the UCLA rally and Beban took over.

UCLA Coach Tommy Prothro agreed with his quarterback:

"I told the boys we weren't beat. I told them just to play a full 60 minutes." [...]

"I think this is the biggest win I've had," Prothro said.

Next door, in the Trojan locker room, Coach John McKay said:

"This was the toughest defeat I've had to take by about 700 miles. We had one too many fumbles."

McKay paid tribute to Trojan halfback Mike Garrett, who gained 210 yards in 40 carries, playing one of his greatest games. And Prothro concurred:

"Garrett is the best all-around back I've seen in college."

The box score: From the LA Times:

1965 USC-UCLA box score

Beban was having his worst game in a while before the two late bombs. He finished 5-for-11 for 127 yards, two interceptions, and the two scores. (He also rushed 18 times for 67 yards.) Counterpart Troy Winslow, meanwhile, went 7-for-9 for 79 yards, two scores, and a pick. USC nearly doubled UCLA up in first downs and outgained the Bruins, 424-289. But the Trojans fumbled five times and lost all five. That'll make a difference.

This was the start of an incredible three-game stretch of dramatic football for UCLA. The next week, the Bruins made an oddly-timed non-conference trip to Memphis (Prothro’s home town) to play Tennessee. The Vols won, 37-34, via a last-second touchdown run that may or may not have crossed the goal line. Prothro was so frustrated by the officials that he proclaimed himself ashamed of being a Southerner after the game.

(There used to be highlights of this game on YouTube, and they were amazing. But they’ve been removed.)

A few weeks later in the Rose Bowl, however, came the coup de grace. In one of the best Rose Bowls ever played, UCLA upset Michigan State on a last-second stuff of a two-point conversion. The Pac-12 Network has highlights here.

The 1965 UCLA chapter was one of my favorites to write because of the drama and discovery involved. The Tennessee game was bonkers, and the Rose Bowl was amazing, and the run began with one of the best UCLA-USC games ever as well.