Sometimes, even a loss can be a win. Such was the case the night of Dec. 1, 1978, when the University of Hawaii Rainbow Warriors hosted the perennial football power, the USC Trojans. Yes, the No. 3-ranked Trojans ultimately prevailed, but the game elevated the UH program and created a swell of fan support never before seen in Hawaii.
The Trojans arrived in Honolulu with a 10-1 record and was coming off a thrilling victory over the Joe Montana-quarterbacked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. No one on the team thought Hawaii, at 6-4, would pose much of a challenge. Even running back Charles White, a Heisman Trophy candidate, admitted afterward, “I never thought I’d wind up carrying the ball 31 times [against Hawaii]. I didn’t think I’d even play in the second half.”
White was the featured star on a typically talent-rich USC roster, which also included defensive backs Ronnie Lott and Dennis Smith, linebacker Riki Ellison (then known as Riki Gray), offensive linemen Anthony Munoz and Brad Budde, and a freshman halfback by the name of Marcus Allen.
Hawaii, under second-year head coach Dick Tomey, was in its final season as a Division I independent. (The School would officially join the Western Athletic Conference in 1979.) This team featured senior QB Jeff Duva, safety Blane Gaison and young talents such as Gary Allen, Dana McLemore and David Toloumu.
Hawaii’s David Toloumu tries to elude a crowd of USC defenders.
A crowd of 48,767 – a new Aloha Stadium record – were in attendance on this night. The home fans had plenty to cheer about early on, as Hawaii DB Bryan Hanawahine recovered a Trojan fumble on the fifth play of the game. That led to a 37-yard FG by Peter Kim, giving UH an early 3-0 lead. USC, however, struck right back, going 68 yards in 8 plays for a TD. It was White who got to the end zone, racing 18 yards on an off-tackle play. USC 7, Hawaii 3.
Hawaii fans braced for the impending Trojan onslaught. But it never came.
The second quarter came and went, with neither team scoring.
Then, incredibly, the third quarter came and went, and again neither team scored.
In the opening minute of the fourth, deep in their on side of the field, the Trojans misfired on a punt attempt. The ball flew over the punter’s head and bounced out of their end zone for a safety.
USC 7, Hawaii 5. The Aloha Stadium crowd was in a frenzy.
The Rainbow Warriors actually could have regained the lead in the third stanza. With the UH offense deep in Trojan territory, the coaching staff called for a trick play.
”We had worked on that play all week,” recalled Duva in Tomey’s 2017 memoir, Rise of the Rainbow Warriors. “We were saving it for a big moment during the game. We were driving on USC, and we called the play. I pitched the ball to our tailback, David Toloumu, and I snuck out to the left side of the field, near the sideline. I was wide open. David threw this high, floating rainbow pass – no pun intended – and I had to get on my horse to get to it. All I was saying to myself when I saw the ball in the air was, ‘I got to get to it! I got to get to it! We’re going to win if I catch this!’ I got to the ball, and I think I shocked myself. The ball it my hands and bounced right off.”
When Duva returned to the huddle, offensive lineman Jack Wright greeted him with, “Nice hands.”
“There was just dead silence,” Wright recalled in the book. “Jeff had this blank look on his face. I just said, ‘Nice hands, Jeff.’ I wanted to break the ice and get everyone to laugh.”
UH QB Jeff Duva under center against the No. 3-ranked Trojans.
Still, the score remained 7-5 midway through the final quarter. Then disaster struck. Ronnie Lott, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer, intercepted a Duva pass and returned it 16 yards to the Hawaii 29-yard line. Eight plays later, USC QB Rob Preston found TE Vic Rakhshani in the end zone for a 2-yard score.
Then, on Hawaii’s next possession, Riki Gray picked off another Duva throw at the Rainbow Warrior 25-yard line and raced untouched to the end zone. Just like that, USC was ahead, 21-5.
That would be the game’s final score.
USC was led by White’s 152 rushing yards on 31 carries. The Hawaii attack was led by Duva, who passed for 161 yards. On the defensive side of the ball, UH linebacker had a stellar performance, finishing with 20 total tackles. Fellow linebacker Junior Talaesea and cornerback Burton Coloma added 12 tackles apiece.
After the game, Tomey told reporters, “I was pleased, but I wasn’t satisfied. I thought we could win. We all did. I’m sick and tired of reading how we couldn’t win and how great it was for USC to come and play us. It’s about time the media and the people start appreciating the team we have.”
Tomey added, “I don’t want to talk about Charles White anymore. I don’t want to talk about USC, either. I’m not taking anything away from them, but I’ve been eating humble pie all week. It’s been USC this and USC that. And now I want to talk about our football team. Our guys had so much guts. They were so tough. Nobody believed in us. Everybody thought they’d murder us. But we really believed in out hearts that we could win this game. And we had a chance to win it, almost right up until the end.”
The Trojans, meanwhile, lambasted the officiating after the game. USC had amassed 157 yards in penalties, while UH had 100. The officiating crew was a mix of Pac-10 and local officials. Trojan defensive lineman Rich Dimler remarked, “Hey, where did they get those [officials] from, Rent-A-Ref?”
USC head coach John Robinson, however, made sure to credit the home team. “The story of this game was Hawaii,” he said. “They played hard. Give them credit. They blitzed us. They played just a great game.”
Postscript: USC would go on to beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl and claim a share of the national title. Alabama (who USC beat earlier in the season) finished atop the AP Poll, while the Trojans were voted No. 1 in the UPI coaches’ poll.
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