Former UCLA QB Cade McNown shares the magic of sweeping USC

Nobody can line up their fours like Cade McNown.

In 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998, UCLA’s top passer defeated USC to earn an honor among the hundreds of quarterbacks on both teams dating back to the rivals’ first meeting nearly a century ago.

He is the only quarterback to start four rivalry games and go 4-0.

McNown, 45, still looks fit enough to trot onto the field and throw a deep post route. He jokes that he will fold his thumb in and give USC fans a four-finger handshake whenever the situation calls for it.

“It’s only for the people who are a little aggressive,” McNown said, laughing. “It’s tongue-in-cheek, it’s fun.”

At his final game in the rivalry on November 21, 1998, McNown essentially gave the Trojans a far less sane hand gesture. The Bruins’ 34-17 win at the Rose Bowl was assured, he faked a pitch and ran a bootleg while sprinting 23 yards. TV replays showed USC coach Paul Hackett fuming on the touchline and yelling at his defensemen to beat up the quarterback.

McNown said he doesn’t go off the script to rub it in, just perform the piece that trainer Bob Toledo called out. The Bruins continued playing in the Rose Bowl game and haven’t been back since, although there’s a chance the 23-year drought could end in January, in large part due to quarterback McNown’s breaking records.

Last weekend, Dorian Thompson-Robinson made his 45th start, relegating McNown to second on the school’s all-time list. The fifth-year senior needs 783 passing yards — worth about three games — to break McNown’s record of 10,708.

“It’s fun to watch stuff,” McNown said of his records falling, “and honestly I can’t believe I have any records here. The changes in the game, it’s so different and when I was playing I’d say we were a pretty balanced offense, we ran a lot with the ball and just because I played four years I had the opportunity to set some career records while in UCLA history you couldn’t even play most of the story as a freshman.

After watching Thompson-Robinson since his collegiate debut as he jogged onto the field in the second quarter as an injury substitute, he said he was impressed with the growth, which has improved Thompson-Robinson’s running talent and arm strength.

“He has demonstrated tremendous athleticism and ability to manage rides and manage games every year,” McNown said. “What I think is different this year is that he’s doing it more consistently, right? Game after game after game. And you see everyone’s going to make mistakes and he made a few mistakes here and there but overall I think he managed the games really well. He’s always good for a few highlight roles in almost every game he plays.”

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown is being chased by USC defensive tackle Darrell Russell.

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown is being chased by USC defensive tackle Darrell Russell.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Looking around the Rose Bowl last weekend before the Bruins played Arizona, a long-missed buzz that could be felt among boosters and alumni who filled one end of the field, McNown said he treasured his alma mater again in contention for a Pac-12 title. It stayed that way after UCLA’s 34-28 loss to the Wildcats.

UCLA has sold all 70,865 tickets it is providing for Saturday night’s showdown of the No. 16 Bruins against the No. 7 Trojans at the Rose Bowl and removed four of the 12 end zone tarpaulins to make room for additional fans. A win would give Thompson-Robinson his second consecutive triumph in the rivalry and third in five years after he was on the field for a game as a freshman in 2018.

“People show up when they’re passionate about UCLA football,” said McNown, who works in private equity as managing director of The Carlyle Group, “and I think that’s starting to develop and I would expect that this team has continued interest continues to win.”

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown fights for a win against USC.

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown battles for a win against USC on November 22, 1997.

(Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times)

Like Thompson-Robinson, McNown became a starter as a freshman. McNown beat concussion-ridden teammate Ryan Fien to make his first start in his fifth game of the ’95 season. The Bruins were not expected to beat the Rose Bowl-bound Trojans this year, especially with the star running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar with a sprained ankle missing. But McNown showed determination, battling for 21 yards on thirds and 13 yards to help UCLA earn a 24-20 win.

The 1996 game is McNown’s favorite rivalry memory. For most of the game, it looked like a day the Bruins would rather forget. They fell 17 points behind with five minutes left when USC receiver R. Jay Soward, who had just scored a 78-yard touchdown, looked into a side camera and pointed out UCLA’s winning streak in the series.

“5 years?” Soward said before making a throat-slitting gesture with his right hand. “It’s over.”

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown comes off a pass despite tight defense in the second quarter against USC's Scott Fields.

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown comes off a pass despite tight defense in the second quarter against USC’s Scott Fields.

(Lori Shepler/Los Angeles Times)

Not quite. McNown rallied the Bruins to force overtime, where they clinched a 48-41 triumph in double overtime to extend the streak and make Soward look stupid, especially after he dropped a pass in third overtime .

“Well we didn’t see that, that was in the TV coverage,” McNown said of Soward’s throat cutting, “but I sure felt good when I saw that later.” I was like, oh yeah, you get that.”

McNown sparked a three-touchdown pass in a 31-24 win over the Trojans in 1997 and extended the rivalry-record winning streak to eight games a year later, sealing his Bruins legacy.

“The fact that he’s been able to play all four years as a starting quarterback is impressive in itself,” said UCLA coach Chip Kelly, “and then winning all four of those games obviously cements his place in history. He was an all-timer here and is an all-timer in college football history at quarterback.”

After finishing third in the 1998 Heisman Trophy pick, McNown was drafted 12th overall by the Chicago Bears in the NFL Draft. He also played for the Miami Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers over a four-year career. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2020.

Another McNown could roam the Rose Bowl in 2026 if son Johnny, a wide receiver who just helped Los Angeles Loyola High’s freshman team end their first undefeated season since the late 1970s, grants his wish, a bruin to become. A change of position could even put him in a position to challenge his father’s record.

“Any UCLA supporter would love to see someone beat the Trojans 4-0, so I fire for it every time,” McNown said. “But hey listen, if we can just go 1-0 this year I’ll be ecstatic.” Former UCLA QB Cade McNown shares the magic of sweeping USC

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