The 1979 USC football squad was thought by many at the time — and since — to be among the most talented teams in college football history. The roster was littered with future NFL stars like Marcus Allen, Ronnie Lott, Anthony Munoz, Bruce Matthews, Roy Foster, Dennis Smith, Keith Van Horne, Don Mosebar, Chip Banks and Joey Browner, to name just a few. Coming off a national title it shared with Alabama the previous season, it was the overwhelming choice as the preseason No. 1 team.
Though he was just 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, White epitomized the physical style of Student Body Right. A former high school hurdler, he had amazing endurance and was incredibly durable. Through three seasons, White had rushed for 3,795 yards and, despite Sims’ return, was considered the favorite to capture the stiff-arm trophy in 1979. The two appeared together that fall on the preseason edition of Sports Illustrated, engaged in a tug-of-war for the trophy (“Hey man, that’s my Heisman!” read the caption).
Things were a bit rough for White at the outset of that season. He suffered a shoulder injury early in the opener against Texas Tech and was limited to 39 yards against the Red Raiders. As a result of the injury, he was forced to miss the Oregon State game the following week. His Heisman hopes looked a bit bleak, but White roared back with 153 yards against Minnesota, 185 yards against LSU, 142 yards against Washington State and 221 yards against Stanford.
But as well as he played against the Cardinal, it wasn’t enough to prevent a shocking 21-21 tie that knocked the Trojans from atop the rankings down to fourth.
The next week’s opponent was No. 9 Notre Dame, and if USC was going to find a way to crawl back into title contention, it had to play with some urgency.
Most of all, it needed White to come through. South Bend was a nightmarish place for USC in those days. The 1977 “Green Jersey” game — a 49-19 Irish rout — was still fresh in everyone’s mind.
This week in Heisman history, the angry Trojans, led by White, blew up against the Irish in South Bend.
The first half of the game looked like more of the same from USC, though. Notre Dame fought the Trojans to a 7-7 tie and it seemed like the luster was permanently gone from a team that was expected to manhandle all of its opponents.
But the second half was a different story.
The teams exploded for 51 points, with USC getting 35 of them. White ran wild, scoring four touchdowns on his way to a career-high 261 yards on 44 carries. He out-dueled exciting Irish tailback Vagas Ferguson, who rushed for 185 yards and two touchdowns. USC quarterback Paul McDonald passed for 311 yards and two touchdowns. The two teams finished with a combined 1,126 yards of offense and USC won by its biggest margin ever in South Bend, 42-23.
Beating Notre Dame did wonders for White’s Heisman chances, and he went on a tear to finish out the year. White wound up with 1,803 yards and 18 touchdowns despite missing one full game and part of another. He averaged 180 yards per outing and 6.2 yards per rush. This time, he beat out Sims for the Heisman, totaling 1,695 points to Sims’ 773. He was the third USC tailback to capture the trophy.
Following the Heisman ceremony, White rushed for 247 yards and the game-winning touchdown to lead USC to a 17-16 win over No. 1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, which cleared the way for Alabama to win its second straight title. The Trojans finished No. 2 and White ended his career with 5,598 rushing yards, second all-time (at the time) to Tony Dorsett.
White went on to have a checkered NFL career, though he did win the NFL rushing title in the strike-shortened 1987 season.
But he was never better than that fall day in South Bend, 40 years ago this week.