Michigan State, led by former Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach George Perles, had its best team in many years, beat traditional Big 10 powers Michigan and Ohio State, and won the Big 10 by 1½ games over Indiana and Iowa, who tied for 2nd place. The Spartans followed up the USC win by a 31-8 loss at Notre Dame, and then a 31-3 home loss to Florida State. The season got back on track with a 19-14 win at Iowa. A dramatic 17-11 win over in state rival Michigan occurred on October 10. On October 31, the Spartans defeated Ohio State, making this the first season since the 1966 National Championship when the Spartans defeated both Michigan and Ohio State. The Indiana Hoosiers also had beaten Michigan and Ohio State, and the meeting between Michigan State and Indiana on November 14 determined the Big Ten championship. Michigan State won 27-3 to clinch their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1965 season. Note that they are the only team in college history to not only beat Big 10 powers Ohio State and Michigan in the same season, but also the USC Trojans twice.
USC struggled early and was only 4-3 after 7 games, but won its next 3 to set up a showdown with rival UCLA (9-1-0) for the Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl berth. The UCLA Bruins, with Troy Aikman at quarterback and Gaston Green at running back were favored, and led 13-0 at halftime. It could have been worse, as on the last play of the first half, UCLA's Eric Turner intercepted a deflected pass at the UCLA goal line and had nothing but green grass ahead of him as he appeared primed to return it for a touchdown. But USC QB Rodney Peete ran down Turner and tackled him at the 10-yard line as time expired. USC had cut the lead to 13-10, and then midway through the 4th quarter, quarterback Rodney Peete threw to WR Erik Afholter in the back of the end zone. Afholter juggled the ball atop his shoulder pad as he slid out the end zone; television replays indicated no possession but the referees ruled it a touchdown. Leading 17-13, USC then intercepted Aikman as he tried to lead UCLA back and ran out the clock.
The game was a rematch of the season opener in East Lansing, Michigan, that Michigan State won 27-13. The game was dominated by defense; the story was Michigan State linebacker (and game MVP) Percy Snow, who had 17 unassisted tackles, and 4 USC turnovers. After USC tied the game early in the 4th quarter at 17, Michigan State marched to a game winning field goal by John Langeloh with 4 minutes to play. The key play of the drive was a 3rd down play in which Michigan State quarterback Bobby McAllister was nearly sacked, then scrambled and at the last instant found receiver Andre Rison at the sideline for a first down that kept the drive alive. USC had time to try to come back, and Trojan QB Rodney Peete led USC on a drive to the Spartan 29-yard line with 2 minutes to play. But Peete fumbled the next snap, Michigan State recovered, and the Spartans ran out the clock.