It had been a crazy season of upsets anyhow, so it was only appropriate that the New Year's Day bowl games should have a kind of crazy logic of their own. Three perfect-record teams, Michigan State, Arkansas and Nebraska, were seeking the national title, and all three were humiliated. A gutty UCLA defense stunned the Spartans and provided the biggest sensation. A huge LSU line outblocked Arkansas. These games set the stage for Alabama, behind the marvelously accurate passing of Steve Sloan, to plunder Nebraska, suggesting in the end that Bear Bryant's light, fast Crimson Tide was the best of them all
ROSE BOWL: In practice for the Rose Bowl game, outweighed and out-manned UCLA defeated heavily favored Michigan State 14 straight days, and Coach Tommy Prothro said, "I've just about mesmerized myself into thinking we can win." On the day of the game itself Prothro, a tall Southerner, was the perfect portrait of a grimly committed man who had keyed his team for a desperate effort against near-impossible odds. "We're ready," he told an interviewer on the sideline just before the kickoff. "We gone try to swarm 'em."
What followed was almost exactly what Prothro promised. The Bruins hovered around Duffy Daugherty's rangy, talented Spartans like gnats, and when shadows fell across the field at the end the 100,087 exhausted spectators and millions more on television had witnessed the biggest upset on a bowl weekend of memorable upsets. UCLA, unorthodox but undaunted, outplayed the Spartans in the first half of the game, then tenaciously defended its 14-point lead to win by two points.
The scarred turf of the Rose Bow I was littered with UCLA heroes, for, as Prothro admitted later, "If one less person had put out one less percent, we would have lost." But two young men stood out above the rest. First there was Defensive Back Bob Stiles, the player who led the Bruins' swarming assault on a Michigan State team that had swept past 10 straight opponents, including this same UCLA team in their opening game of the season. Then there was UCLA Quarterback Gary Beban, the miracle-working sophomore, who kept the Spartan defense in total disorder and put both Bruin touchdowns on the scoreboard.
January 10, 1966
Like a struggling actor trying to be discovered, Stiles was everywhere. He patrolled the secondary as if he were assigned to three different positions, and intercepted two passes. He flashed up to the scrimmage line again and again to help his eager friends wrestle the churning, green-jerseyed Spartan runners to the ground inches short of where they always needed to go.
Stiles, a junior transfer from Long Beach City College, made the big play whenever it was necessary—and it got more and more necessary as the game progressed. One of his best was a jolting tackle on Michigan State Fullback Bob Apisa 31 seconds from the end, when the Spartans were going for a two-point conversion that would have provided them with a 14-14 tie and, as it turned out, a strong claim to the national championship.
Apisa, who already had sprinted 38 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown that narrowed UCLA's edge to 14-6, took a lateral and started around right end. For an instant he seemed to have the running room he needed. Then UCLA Co-captain Jim Colletto, an end, got him by the head. Apisa kept plowing—there was still room. UCLA's Dallas Grider, a linebacker, next got a hand on him, but Apisa lurched on toward the yellow goal stripe. And then came Stiles.
With a force that could be felt not only in Westwood Village but in Glen Ridge, N.J., Stiles's home town, and East Lansing as well, Stiles, who is 5 feet 9 and weighs 175, shot into Apisa like a jet on takeoff, burying his head and shoulders in the big fullback's side. It was the hardest blow of the game, and one of the most damaging ever inflicted on the Big Ten. Apisa crashed two feet shy of the end zone, and Bob Stiles had to be revived and helped off the field to accept the most valuable player trophy.
While Stiles was busy stifling Michigan State's offense, Beban was plotting guerrilla warfare. "We decided that it was no use tryin' to get at Michigan State with anything but unorthodox tools," said Prothro. "We're gone all the way with the bomb. When it's third and one, or third and two, don't look for us to run for the first down."
Indeed, UCLA played unconventional football throughout, employing such shenanigans as the onside kick (it worked), the tackle-eligible pass (it worked) and—the key to the Bruins' offense—a thing called "the shadow set" in which UCLA's two best receivers. Split End Kurt Altenburg and Flanker Dick Witcher, were stationed on the same side of the field, one directly behind the other. "With this," said Prothro, "we could seep toward our strength. If they overshifted, we could run away from it. And if they closed up quickly we could throw long to Witcher or Altenburg." The shadow set, designed by UCLA Assistant Coach Pepper Rodgers, worked just fine.
On UCLA's first offensive play Beban faked from the shadow and sprinted to the opposite side of the field for 28 yards. "That gave us confidence," said the sophomore, "and gave them the hint we could run on them." UCLA got its first touchdown when a fumbled punt put the Bruins in possession at the Spartan five. Beban carried twice from the three. He was stopped once, but the second time he edged over from the one for the first of the two touchdowns he scored. The other also came from only one yard out.
If Michigan State did not seem bothered too much by that first touchdown, it had a right to its confidence. The Spartans had trailed six opponents during the regular season and always had won. But this time things were different. The Bruins, unafraid of what State could do to them if they failed, promptly pulled their onside kick. They won the gamble, had the ball and field position. It was time, they told themselves, for the new alignment again.
In the huddle Beban called "shadow set Michigan, spread left post." Out went Altenburg and Witcher, split wide. Both receivers sprinted deep and crisscrossed, with Witcher going all the way to the end zone, Altenburg inside him. Beban calmly spiraled the ball to Altenburg, running at the four-yard line between two defenders. Altenburg fell forward to the one, and Beban quickly stabbed through for the score. "It was a perfect pattern, a perfect throw and a great catch," said Prothro.
But almost everything about the day was perfect for UCLA, whose players had; as only collegians do, dedicated the game to their families, their school and West Coast football.
"They kept us off balance from the start," said Daugherty, a gracious loser. "They forced us into mistakes."
COTTON BOWL: A lady whose intention undoubtedly was kind wove through the balloons and paper hats at the Cotton Bowl New Year's Eve party and clutched the arm of Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles. "Frank," she said, "you have nothing to worry about tomorrow," meaning the Razorbacks were certain to beat Louisiana State for their 23rd straight win. "Lady," said Broyles, "that is exactly what worries me." Later, thinking about the mood of the game, Broyles said, "LSU is sitting behind a log with its 7-3 record. We know they're good, but we're having a hard time convincing people."
Early in the game, when the Razorbacks drove 87 yards for a 7-0 lead, largely on the dazzling pass catches of End Bobby Crockett, the lady and not Broyles appeared to have been right. But the Tigers had a game plan, and soon began to put it into effect. The place where they could beat Arkansas, Coach Charley McClendon reasoned, was on the left side of its big, hard-blocking line. There LSU had Tackle David McCormick (6 feet 6, 240), Guard Don Ellen (6 feet 1, 225) and Tight End Walt Pillow (6 feet 2, 215), and they were capable of blocking straight ahead like steamrollers. Moreover, Arkansas' best defensive lineman, All-America Tackle Lloyd Phillips, played on the opposite side. The question was whether LSU could control the ball long enough for Halfback Joe Labruzzo to get the goal lines clearly in focus. LSU could. First, Labruzzo squirted behind McCormick, Ellen and Pillow from three yards out to top off an 80-yard drive for the touchdown that tied the score 7-7. Then, as the last few seconds of the first half ticked away, Labruzzo banged for five straight downs and finally barged over for the winning touchdown. In the second half LSU clamped double and even triple coverages on Crockett, and the Arkansas offense, sputtering on the sore arm of Jon Brittenum, was far from the smooth thing it had been all season. At the game's end the Tiger players went into the kind of ritual only upsetting teams enjoy: they grabbed a red practice jersey with 23 on it (for Arkansas' expected 23 straight) and gleefully shredded it.
ORANGE BOWL: The games in Dallas and Pasadena were over. After a long day of college football and a season that began in the heat of September, it was left, almost miraculously, to the last two teams scheduled to play—Alabama and Nebraska—to decide between themselves which should be considered the country's best. If one team appeared to have more of an incentive, and therefore an edge, it was Alabama. In the same Orange Bowl exactly a year before, the Tide was embarrassed as it now hoped to embarrass unbeaten Nebraska. On that occasion, undefeated and already voted No. 1, Alabama failed to move the ball the length of a bow tie in the last few minutes and lost to Texas 21-17.
Coach Paul Bryant heard a lot about that Texas game in Miami last week as he prepared for this year's Orange Bowl. At the kickoff luncheon the master of ceremonies pointed out the incredibility of Bear Bryant coaching 30 years and not having a play in his repertoire to get over the Texas goal. No amount of needling, however, could alter the fact that in 1964 the polls had closed early, and that Alabama—though a loser—was still ranked No. 1.
This season an overpoweringly simple, reasonable alternative was decided on. One of the wire services—the Associated Press—announced it would hold off its final vote until after the bowl games, the bowls being the closest thing to an actual play-off of contenders from the various sections (SI, Sept. 20). The AP also advised Alabama to crate up the championship trophy and be ready to send it along to the new champion. There were three unbeaten teams in bowl competition and Alabama was not one of them. The Alabama publicity director took the instructions under advisement but did not hurry to get the crating done. In fact, he never even started the job. Any farsighted partisan could see that the three unbeatens—Michigan State, Arkansas and Nebraska—would not survive the day and by natural accession once-beaten, fourth-ranked Alabama would again wind up at the top.
It happened just that stunningly. On a glittering, perfectly splendid New Year's night the team that could not make six inches to beat Texas made 512 yards to beat Nebraska 39-28. The Crimson Tide poured into the crannies of Nebraska's pass defense as Quarterback Steve Sloan took an exacting toll, spearheading a 17-point rush in the second quarter that left Nebraska forever in a rut.
Afterward, locked with his team in the Alabama dressing room, Bear Bryant jumped up on a bench and said, "I don't know how you'll end up in the polls, but with me you're definitely No. 1." Nebraska's Bob Devaney conceded at least that. The Alabama offense, he said, was "probably the best I have ever seen."
In the week of the game, Devaney sat in the home of a friend and discussed the contingencies of this classic match—his big slugger of an offense against the cunning and dash of the smaller, tougher Bryant team. Much had been said about the overwhelming advantage in size that Nebraska would have. What was being overlooked, Devaney agreed, was that Alabama never really has a very big team and that he doubted if he could match the Tide's speed and quickness. He said he would rather play a team "like Harvard, or somebody of that nature." Miami was a place for fun, he said, "but I can't say I'm having a good time because I'm too nervous."
As it turned out, Nebraska scored more points on Alabama than has any other team in Bryant's eight years at the school. Three of its touchdowns came by passing, a shocking development, since Nebraska is not supposed to have a passing attack. Devaney once pointed out that his team threw just enough to amuse the student body, but against Alabama's stunting defenders the only consistent means of travel turned out to be via Quarterback Bob Churchich's arm. In all, Nebraska totaled 378 yards.
But what is the use of scoring 28 points when the other team scores 39? The little giants that operate in the Alabama line move people. It was inconceivable, perhaps, that Center Paul Crane, at 191 pounds, could handle Nebraska's middle guard, 239-pound Wayne Meylan, considered by Alabama coaches to be the best of the Nebraska linemen, but Crane did it with regularity. Not with brute force, by any means. Alabama linemen block at fine angles, aiming for the outside of a knee or a piece of a hip. They seldom trap, but double-team often. It is not likely that anyone who has ever been greeted simultaneously by End Wayne Cook and Tackle Cecil Dowdy would doubt the effectiveness of the double-team. Nor will Walt Barnes, the 252-pound All-America tackle, soon forget being gored by Dowdy at the two-yard line and then slammed on his back into the end zone by the atavistic rush of Fullback Steve Bowman, scoring the final Alabama touchdown.
But, more important, Alabama linemen use the impetus of a charging opponent to turn him away from the play. The hole, therefore, might change in a flicker, and the Alabama backs—Bowman, Ike Kelley and Frank Canterbury—are excellent at cutting back to take advantage. They outrushed Nebraska, the rushing team, 222 yards to 145, and then Alabama threw everything at Nebraska, including three tackle-eligible passes to a former fullback, Jerry Duncan. Three times Bryant ordered onside kicks after touchdowns, and twice Alabama successfully recovered.
The magnificence of the Alabama offense, of course, is in its passing game, and that means Quarterback Sloan and half a dozen excellent receivers. Sloan wound up on the religious pages of the Miami newspapers as often as he did on the sports pages in the days preceding the game, for he is an active worker in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Nebraska's Freeman White was much impressed when he got to know Sloan and said he couldn't imagine getting mad at him.
Well, you don't have to get mad at Sloan to be beaten by him. Almost deferentially he has gone about wiping out Joe Namath's Alabama passing records: he had 20 completions for 296 yards, despite having to throw in the face of a persistent Nebraska rush and despite playing from the second quarter on with torn cartilages in his right side. Weeb Ewbank of the New York Jets put in a frantic call to the Orange Bowl press box at the half to make sure Sloan got a message: "Please don't sign anything with anybody until we have a chance to talk to you."
Sloan was brilliant. With Nebraska's huge linemen always on the verge of sending him to an early grave, he adapted by rising on his toes and cocking his arm farther back, over his helmet rather than at his ear. Unable to follow through completely, he tended to loft the ball, but when he did so the astoundingly quick Alabama receivers almost always were there, curling back or stretching out to make the catch.
Most of the stretching and the lunging and the curling and the diving was done by Ray Perkins, the flanker back who has three holes in his head. As a freshman Perkins suffered a severe concussion and had to be drilled to relieve blood clots. He does not wear a steel plate as the story goes, but the holes are there, all right, and if he did not want so badly to play for Alabama he would have been allowed to continue on in school without doing so. Perkins is known around Tuscaloosa as a great man with his hands. He painted Assistant Coach Dude Hennessey's house, he rebuilt Coach Ken Meyer's washing machine and he is frequently called on by Coach Howard Schnellenberger to keep Schnellenberger's car running. But what Perkins does best with his hands is catch passes. He caught 10 against Nebraska for 159 yards, including two for touchdowns.
Possibly the only thing more spectacular than Perkins' touchdown catches was the chain reaction they set off in the Orange Bowl's east end zone. Touchdowns there were the signals for soaring rockets and Roman candles, lighting up the Miami sky, and when somebody kicked an extra point or a field goal into the fountain-and-garden area behind the end zone two lovely things in bathing suits—the color of the suits was described as navel orange—went wading delicately after them. It always took both of them to bring the ball out. To have all that and the Alabama offense too was really having all that heaven should allow.