October 06, 2023
Regions Greatest Moments: Wisconsin vs USC - 1963 Rose Bowl Game
It was dubbed a "Dream Game" by the Los Angeles Evening Citizen. A postseason bowl game pitting the No. 1 and No. 2 teams against each other. Today, the concept is well-known amongst fans of all levels of sport: the top two teams duking it out to determine the champion. Unfortunately, in the realm of college football it was unheard of back in 1963.
Prior to 1968, the national champion was crowned at the conclusion of the regular season by various press organizations and poll releases. Bowl games were rewards for teams to travel from their fridged campuses during winter break to warmer climates like Dallas, New Orleans, Miami, or Pasadena. Invitations for these games often fall back to conference tie-ins. Historically, the Cotton Bowl always featured the Southwest Conference champion whereas the Sugar Bowl always featured the champion of the SEC. The Rose Bowl had always featured a West Coast team against a team from the East regardless of conference affiliation. It wasn't until 1963 that the eldest bowl game contractually invited the Big Ten champion and Pacific 8 champion.
The journey for head coach John McKay and his Trojans team was as easy the drive from the Inglewood to Pasadena…well minus the traffic. The Trojans cruised to an undefeated regular season and a conference title with little to no resistance. At the end of the regular season, the team was the consensus national champions The Trojan’s offense was well-balanced as QB Pete Beathard threw for 989 yards, 10 touchdowns, and one interception. Beathard’s favorite target was undoubtedly Hal Bedsole (HOF 2012). The end from Chicago caught 33 passes for 827 yards and 11 touchdowns. The leading rusher for the Trojans was HB Willie Brown with 574 yards.
Meanwhile in Madison, the Wisconsin Badgers had just one blemish on their record—losing to Ohio State in late October. The loss was forgotten when they upset No. 1 Northwestern and a victory over rival and fifth-ranked Minnesota. The Badgers finished the regular season as Big Ten Champions and were given a berth in the Rose Bowl. QB Ron Vander Kelen threw for 1,582 yards and 14 touchdowns. Vander Kelen was also named First-Team All-Big-Ten and conference MVP. All-American End Pat Richter (HOF 1996) led the conference in receptions with 38 and caught six touchdowns. Las Vegas placed Wisconsin as three-point favorites as various media outlets stated the Badgers defense could contain the Trojan’s offensive attack.
The Rose Bowl Game kicked off before 98,698 spectators and the Trojans drew first blood with a Beathard 13-yard touchdown pass to WR Ron Butcher early in the first quarter. Wisconsin answered the call with a goal line score but did not see the endzone again until the second half. Southern Cal controlled the first half, tacking on two more scores from FB Ben Wilson and HB Ron Heller, making the score at halftime 21-7.
The Badgers felt the game was slipping out of their reach as USC scored in the early seconds of the fourth quarter. The Trojan’s lead now blossomed to 42-14. The Badgers needed a miracle to complete the comeback. They didn’t have a miracle, but they did have a Ron Vander Kelen. Ignoring the scoreboard, Vander Kelen had a fantastic second half throwing for 269 yards and willing the Wisconsin offense back on its feet. After the score by the Trojans, Vander Kelen completed seven of eight passes for 63 yards to cap off a long 80-yard drive with a rushing touchdown by Lou Holland.
A USC fumble on the ensuing drive gave the Badgers the ball on the Trojan’s 29-yard line. Vander Kelen capitalized by finding HB Gary Kroner for the Badger score. The lead now slashed to 42-28, the Badgers took possession after a three-and-out by USC with 6:33 to play. Vander Kelen wasted no time setting up first and goal with five straight completions, but his next pass was intercepted in the endzone by none other than Trojans HB Willie Brown. Apparently, the tide was turning towards the Badgers as an overhead punt snap resulted in a safety for the Badgers. Time was now of the utmost essence for Wisconsin. Vander Kelen’s 19-yard touchdown connection to Richter pulled the score within one possession for the Badgers with 1:19 remaining. The Badger’s onside kick attempt was unsuccessful as the Trojans recovered. The game’s final play was a foot or two away from being a miracle as the Badgers failed to block the Trojan’s punt as time expired giving Southern California the victory, 42-37.
Over eleven Rose Bowl records were broken as Co-MVP honors were given to Pete Beathard and Ron Vander Kelen. The 1963 Rose Bowl was just a preview for college football fans for high-stakes postseason play. From 1964 to 1997, No. 1 versus No. 2 in a bowl game only occurred 11 times. The next time the Rose Bowl Game had a top-two matchup was in the 1969 Rose Bowl when No. 1 Ohio State faced off against No. 2 Southern California.
With the introduction of the BCS system in 1998, New Year’s Bowl games were able to be slotted as sites for a proper national championship game. The 2006 Rose Bowl was the first time that the game hosted a de facto national championship game, but that’s a story for another time.