'A FAIRLY SUFFOCATING THING'
The pass is called 84-Z and it is an old one in the University of Southern California's playbook. A receiver split wide to the left delays for one second after the snap, sprints dead ahead for five steps, fakes outside, then cuts sharply down and across toward the middle of the field. The quarterback drifts straight back and throws to the spot. Last Saturday in Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum, with one minute and 43 seconds remaining in the last big football game of the regular 1964 college season, USC worked the play perfectly. Quarterback Craig Fertig threw the ball chest-high to Halfback Rod Sherman for 15 yards and a touchdown. And in that single dramatic instant, while 83,840 people screeched, gasped and whooped, as suddenly and with the finality of a Hollywood fade-out, able-bodied Notre Dame was no longer the No. 1 team in the nation. In a mad, mad, mad, mad season of upsets, USC scored the biggest one of all over the Fighting Irish, 20-17.
Unfortunately for Coach John McKay's feverish Trojans, the victory—another treasure to be filed away among USC's many illustrious deeds—was dulled before the evening ended. Faculty representatives of the Athletic Association of Western Universities curiously voted for co-champion Oregon State to represent the conference in the Rose Bowl against Big Ten champion Michigan. The decision on whether Oregon State or USC would go had been delayed for a week—until after the Trojans met Notre Dame. The Trojans, whose vote doubtless caused the delay, assumed with some justification that they would receive the Rose Bowl honor if they defeated the Irish and wound up the season with a fine 7-3 record. Oregon State had finished 8-2, but no one could argue that State had played as tough a schedule as USC.
The bad news arrived as McKay and his team were in the midst of a celebration dinner at a suburban restaurant. It was met with stunned silence. But not for long. USC Athletic Director Jess Hill finally said, "So far as I am concerned, this is one of the rankest injustices ever perpetrated in the field of intercollegiate athletics."
December 7, 1964
But if USC was disappointed, Notre Dame was crestfallen. The Irish, after all, had lost a much more valuable prize: the national championship. After its sixth game of the season Notre Dame became No. 1 and, carrying that sometimes awesome burden, it rumbled on past Pittsburgh, Michigan State and Iowa as Quarterback John Huarte passed his way to the Heisman Trophy, as End Jack Snow set record after record, and as Coach Ara Parseghian nervously tried to avoid being compared with Knute Rockne.
For Parseghian, this last role was especially difficult to act. Most of the members of the Notre Dame team were the same ones who managed to win only two games in 1963. Huarte had not even earned a letter. But here was Notre Dame with a glittering 9-0 record, the second best offense in the country, the best defense, with at least three players—Huarte, Snow and Linebacker Jim Carroll—already named to various All-America teams and now a 14-point favorite to destroy USC and launch one of the grandest celebrations Pershing Square has seen since the invention of sandals. USC Coach John McKay had his own part to play, and he handled it with ease. A witty, pleasant man with a white crew cut and, usually, a cigar, McKay said the Monday before the game: "I studied the Notre Dame-Stanford film for six hours last night and I have reached one conclusion: Notre Dame can't be beaten."
McKay knew what grim and worried thoughts must be traipsing through Parseghian's mind—his own Trojans had won the 1962 national title. He had another observation on Tuesday. "I've decided that if we play our very best and make no mistakes whatsoever we will definitely make a first down," he said.
Nor did the USC team appear, outwardly at least, to be consumed with intense dedication. The practice sessions were brisk but not laborious (McKay has ordered a scrimmage only once in four years, anyway). And they were flavored by a caustic, mildly blasphemous (at least in South Bend) little chant concocted by a Trojan squadman, which went, "Offense, offense, win one for The Gipper."
By Wednesday McKay was joking more than ever, and making sure the local press broadcast his "game plan." Said McKay for worldwide quotation: "We can't run inside on Notre Dame. Their tackles weigh 262 and 245 and nobody has blocked them yet. We'll have to run outside and pass." Over a huge steak that night McKay lifted his knife and fork, shrugged, and then said, "The condemned man ate a hearty meal."
The day before the game the Trojans acted as if they had already won. The players tore down photographs of Notre Dame stars that had been tacked to the walls of their locker room and took turns doing weird dances on them while circles of teammates sang, chanted, hollered and clapped. "You know," said McKay in a corner, "if we knock these guys off I could probably become governor of Arkansas or Alabama [the only other undefeated, untied teams]. Well, just tell 'em to send money."
In between all of this, from Monday through Friday, McKay, his staff and his players had done a lot more than dance on the newsprint likeness of John Huarte, make fun of The Gipper and joke about the seemingly impossible task of trying to beat the nation's No. 1 team. USC, as a matter of fact, had mastered a plan that could just possibly succeed.
While McKay had told the press repeatedly that USC could not run inside on Notre Dame, he believed all along the Trojans could, and behind the locked gates of the practice field—even favored newsmen were barred—they worked on it. McKay, the strategist now and not the happy sacrificial lamb, explained his plan to the team: "They play a split 6 defense with those big tackles slanting in. Everybody has tried to double-team their tackles, and their linebackers have taken advantage of the hole that creates to slip in and do a good job. We'll block down on the tackles with just one man and pull our guard behind him to take the linebacker. Then our ballcarrier can follow another back into the hole. We ought to be able to gouge our men through. And if we can make our inside running go, we can make the passing go."
On defense USC's problem was equally severe. While the Trojans would be seeing more or less the very offense, a power I, that McKay invented for his 1962 champions, even the originator had to admit that Notre Dame's was more diversified. USC Scout Mel Hein's report on the Irish was the thickest—two inches—McKay had ever seen. Digesting it to useful size, McKay figured that nobody could stop Notre Dame, but USC could slow down the strong side running, the screen pass and the deep pass. "We'll use a confusion rush," the coach said. "We'll loop our tackles outside, use crisscross stunts and play a three-deep secondary—very deep."
The day of the game began bizarrely for the Trojans. At a 10 a.m. brunch Linebacker Ernie Pye accidentally walked straight through the plate-glass window of a motel private dining room. The shattering of glass could have been heard for blocks, and the crash was followed by the slow, building noises of blended laughter and alarm. After making sure that Pye was not sliced in half (he cut his heel and missed the game), McKay walked to a blackboard that had been set up for last-minute skull sessions, and in his usual good humor said, "O.K., fellows. Ernie's given us the idea for today. We've got to crash their glass."
Throughout the first half, the only thing that almost crashed was USC's scoreboard. Notre Dame built a 17-0 lead as John Huarte hit 11 of 15 passes for 176 yards and one touchdown—to Jack Snow, beyond McKay's very deep secondary. Parseghian's team looked as unstoppable as ever. USC, meanwhile, had hammered away on the ground, refusing to open up in McKay's customary style, moving the ball fairly well, but blowing its best drive by losing an errant pitchout.
For the more astute observer, however, one thing was as apparent as the 17-point deficit that USC faced. The Trojans were running inside on Notre Dame, luring its linebackers steadily toward the middle, making Parseghian's defense run-conscious. Remarkably calm at half time, McKay told his team, "Our game plan is working. Keep doing your stuff and we'll get some points." And to a friend, McKay said, "If we can get on the scoreboard quick, we can put some pressure on 'em. They've won nine games without any duress. If we can make this thing close, they might not know how to react."
In the second half USC's inside runs continued to work neatly. Mike Garrett, the Trojans' brilliant halfback, and Ron Heller time after time squeezed through the gaps created by the power blocks at the tackles. When Notre Dame adjusted its defense to USC's strong side, Craig Fertig hit Rod Sherman (seven times for 109 yards in all) over the middle and in the opposite flat. And just as McKay had hoped they would, the Trojans had taken the second-half kickoff and drove to a quick touchdown that made it 17-7.
But it was not USC's sudden ability to score that shifted the momentum of the game, though it certainly helped. A Notre Dame fumble when the Irish had reached the USC nine later in the third quarter helped more. And a holding penalty nullifying another Notre Dame touchdown when Bill Wolski drove over from the one helped even more. The Trojans entered the last period 10 points behind but buoyed by the fact that somehow they and the fates had managed to stop Notre Dame from scoring down close. Fertig thereupon struck for five completions, the last to End Fred Hill for a touchdown. The bristling 82-yard drive had left the Irish with only a 17-13 lead and their nerves quaking.
"I knew we had 'em then," said McKay later. "The momentum was all ours. In a situation like that the No. 1 rating is a fairly suffocating thing."
USC kicked off and for the second time that afternoon Huarte could not move his team for what would have been precious, time-consuming yardage. Notre Dame was forced to punt, and USC's Garrett returned the ball 18 yards to the Irish 35. Now the giant clock below the Olympic torch on the Coliseum signaled that there were only two minutes and 10 seconds to go.
When Garrett failed to gain an inch at Notre Dame's frantic middle, Fertig called time. Then the quarterback—"the best pure passer in college football," says McKay—spotted Hill on a down-and-in pattern for 23 yards. First down on the Irish 17. Fertig called time again and then shot a flat pass to Garrett, which carried out of bounds on the 15. On the following play Fertig found Hill racing wide open in the end zone, and blistered a pass toward him. The end made a diving grab that looked good, but an official ruled he was out of bounds on the catch. If USC considered the call debatable, it was no more so than the earlier holding penalty on Notre Dame that Ara Parseghian will have nightmares over for many a winter's night. When Fertig threw incomplete on third down, the Trojans' hopes sagged, but the senior quarterback had one more play left—a thing called 84-Z.