The day of the Poll Bowl was sunny and pleasant, as Knute or Grantland would have ordered it, and into the tunnel of love, which is sometimes called Notre Dame Stadium, came this huge Fighting Irish football team in the blue shirts and gold hats—a team that had been picked by everyone from the sausage stringers of Padua to the cleaning ladies of Bunkie, La. as the best in the whole world. Notre Dame was No. I in the spring and in the summer and in the early fall, and even though it had lost a squeezer to Purdue it was still No. 1 in the frozen hearts of the oddsmakers, who made it a 12-point favorite in this game against an old, familiar enemy, Southern California, which was really No. I. The logic was that Notre Dame wins at home, even if it has to use nuns in the secondary. When Notre Dame is decent, and in its own habitat, amid all of that love, it wins. USC might have the speed and the cunning, but Notre Dame has spirit and ghosts and mystery and, above all, athletes. Especially athletes. Doesn't it?
Apparently not. Last week in the biggest game of the season, on this gorgeous Saturday, before a full house of 59,000 worshipers, with banners commanding the Fighting Irish to GET A TROJAN FOR THE GIPPER, and all such as that, Notre Dame came up without a runner, without a kicker and without a passer, three things that a football team sort of needs.
The result, of course, was the loudest plunk at South Bend in ages. The slick Trojans took advantage of the most mistakes a supposedly good Notre Dame team is ever likely to make in a single day—or year—as they scored three touchdowns and a field goal in one burst of about 13 minutes and left town with a 24-7 victory.
USC will certainly place this Saturday right up there among its more cherished memories—along with the 20-12 victory in 1939, which was the last time it won in South Bend, and the 16-14 victory in 1931, which also came among the Indiana sycamores—because the Notre Dame-USC game has been the most important rivalry in modern college football. Going into last week's 39th meeting since 1926, when two coaching titans named Knute Rockne and Howard Jones decided to test each other, the winner of the game has ended up as the national champion in somebody's poll 14 times. If this indeed was the Poll Bowl, as the Irish-Michigan State game was in 1966, then still another national champion will come out of the glorious series this season. About all the Trojans have to do now, after defeating Texas, Michigan State and Notre Dame, is handle tenacious Washington this week in Seattle, and then poised UCLA later on. Very puny schedule those Trojans are playing.
Without meaning to deflate the Trojans or spoil these hours of delirium in the lives of USC Coach John McKay and Orange Juice Simpson and Earl the Pearl McCullouch, there were things about the Poll Bowl which did not suggest that this was a crashing together of two giants settling the national championship. It was, from beginning to end, a game with a weird, exotic quality, a jerky momentum, almost a comic overtone.
For one thing, it featured a total of 10 intercepted passes and eight fumbles, which may be just a couple shy of a prison offense. The scoreboard clocks failed to function properly, which resulted in strange consultations at the sidelines and the feeling that somewhere down there a man with an egg timer was controlling sporting destinies. And the game was repeatedly slowed down by the officials, who kept having little meetings among themselves, as if they were experimenting with a new set of rules.
Just as curious was the fact that with all of the offensive weapons out there on the field—O. J. and Earl the Pearl, the USC sprinters, and Notre Dame's Terry Hanratty and Jim Seymour, who were called the Baby Bombers a year ago but now are Mr. Fling and Mr. Cling according to the publicity department—the game quickly settled into a raging and ragged battle of defenses.
With a fraction over four minutes left in the third quarter, the score was tied at 7-7, and each touchdown had been a marvelous gift of destiny. Notre Dame had driven three yards for its score in the second quarter after an interception. USC had gone 18 yards for its tying touchdown at the start of the third period after a fumble recovery. So far the heroes were not Orange Juice or Mr. Fling at all but two tough, busy linebackers who were everywhere, making it seem as if possession of the ball was the surest way to lose the game and also to get yourself bruised.
One of these linebackers was Adrian Young, a USC senior born in Dublin, Ireland, which is only an incidental jolt to the Fighting Irish. As the game progressed he became Terry Hanratty's favorite passing target. He wound up with three of the five interceptions Hanratty threw, and he came up with a total of four in the game.
Hanratty, who is 10 pounds heavier and had been appearing more mature and confident than last season when he was a true sensation, could not believe what was happening to him. He would stand back there with good protection and then whip the ball to Adrian Young, No. 50, white jersey, Trojan. He would then clasp both hands to his gold helmet in disbelief, go to the sideline and throw up his arms before Ara Parseghian, his bewildered coach.
In chronological order, Mr. Fling's frustrations went like this: with a third down and four yards to go at the USC 18-yard line, Hanratty threw the ball to Adrian Young. With a first down and four yards to go to the Trojan end zone, Hanratty and his fullback, Jeff Zimmerman, fouled up a handoff and USC recovered the fumble. With a first down near mid-field, Hanratty threw the ball to Adrian Young. With a second down at the USC 10-yard line, Hanratty threw the ball to Adrian Young. With a first down at mid-field, Hanratty threw the ball to—oops—Bill Jaroncyk, a USC defensive back. And, finally, with a third down at mid-field, Hanratty threw the ball to USC Safety Mike Battle, who wove back 36 yards with it, running over Hanratty in the process and knocking him as cold as Notre Dame's hopes. Benevolently, some said. In all, the interceptions not only ruined two splendid scoring opportunities for Notre Dame in the first half, they set up the second-half points for USC.
"We had them figured," said John McKay, "and our people were able to get in the right places. Hanratty was off, and we got him to throw impatiently on a few occasions," which was a simple and straightforward explanation for the fact that Hanratty constantly aimed at the wrong receiver.
Hanratty's unusual bad form had the effect of keeping an abnormal amount of pressure on the Notre Dame defense, which was led by the second busiest linebacker in the stadium, Bob Olson, a dandy sophomore from Superior, Wis. Over and over Notre Dame's defense rescued the day, keeping the clamps on Simpson, just giving him bits and chunks, shutting him out on key downs and staying up with Earl McCullouch when he raced deep.
Notre Dame's Friday night pep rally had exploded when Defensive Coach Johnny Ray, a husky fellow who jumps up and down and hollers and hugs his defensive unit when it comes off the field, had said, "Our defensive team is embarrassed because of the Purdue game. It won't be embarrassed tomorrow." And it wasn't, really. It just had to keep going back in—and nearly always in moments of stress. In addition, there is ample proof that nobody stops O. J. Simpson all day long. Without him, USC might be an ordinary team, but O. J. now has slashed and darted for 762 yards in only five games, which would be a whopping figure for a whole season.
When USC recovered that second-half fumble of the kickoff at the Irish 18 it was trailing 7-0, and it went to O. J. exclusively to get back into the game. He ran for three yards, for 11, for a loss of four, for six, for one. It was O. J. butting into those big blue shirts and Notre Dame was growling back, and every inch seemed precious. Finally, on fourth down for the final yard, O. J. somersaulted over the left side and scored his first of three touchdowns. He carried 38 times during the day for 160 yards, and McKay has run him like that all year. "He is not in a union," smiles John. "He can carry the ball as many times as we want him to."
Down on the sideline, where things are always frantic around the Notre Dame bench, all of the defensive concern was naturally over Simpson, who has skinny legs but 9.4 feet. As a play developed, Johnny Ray, on the headset to the Notre Dame coaches upstairs, would shout as if he were yelling to the players. "Too many yards," he would say. "Too many." Or he would bellow, "Good, good...good shot, Bobo, no gain," when Olson slammed into the Trojans.
Johnny Ray was on the headset when O. J. broke away on an option sweep for the 36-yard touchdown that sent USC ahead. Quarterback Steve Sogge, a gritty 5'10" junior who was unawed by the atmosphere of South Bend ("I thought the stands would be a mile high and they would throw rocks and bottles at us," he said), worked the pitchout just right. O. J. had it—and daylight. "Too many yards," shouted Ray. "Too many." Simpson sprang clear. "Oh, no," Ray said. "Oh, no...No...!" Simpson was gone now, and so, for all purposes, was the ball game, and Ray screamed, "No...! Oh...damn...Geeeawed!"
A trifle more philosophical about the ordeal was Roger Valdiserri, Notre Dame's smiling publicity director, who named Hanratty and Seymour the Baby Bombers last year after deciding against the Two Horsemen. "Simpson's nickname shouldn't be Orange Juice," said Roger. "It should be Oh Jesus, as in 'Oh Jesus, there he goes again.' "
But where, oh where, has Notre Dame gone? Where did the Irish leave it? Weren't there all these stars back from the 9-0-1 team of a year before, not just Hanratty and Seymour, but Coley O'Brien and Kevin Hardy and Tom Schoen and Rocky Bleier, plus the fiercest sophomores anyone had ever seen, and Ara Parseghian's program in the full flower of its fourth year? Wasn't everybody in an absolute flap that Notre Dame, with Parseghian, with the recruits pouring in, with the legends resurrected, would dominate the college sport until there is a bowl game on the moon? So in just four games how did the empire crumble? It surely has, and the Irish look like they can lose again any Saturday if Hanratty is not hitting.
Part of the answer, say the coaches, is that Notre Dame is fighting a lot of myths. Their recruiting is not that successful, they say. Their sophomores are coming too slowly, they say. Their spring game, which was on national TV, blew their potential all out of proportion, they say. They knew they weren't a No. 1 team all along. They sadly miss Nick Eddy and Larry Conjar, who gave them running, they say. They sadly miss blockers like Tom Regner and George Goeddeke, they say.
And then there have been irritating injuries. Jim Seymour has a dislocated finger on his left hand, and he tapes three fingers together, which might take away the marginal pass catch. Kevin Hardy has a sprained ankle and cannot move the way he should on defense, but more important, he cannot punt with the hurt foot. Neither can anyone else on the Notre Dame team with a good foot (the punting average against USC was an absurd 28 yards). Moreover, Hardy's injury prevents him from playing end—he is not agile enough as yet—so this forces the juggling of other talent. An offensive tackle, Bob Kuechenberg, goes to defense, and the best tight end, George Kunz, to tackle. The woes mount up.
There is some truth in all of that, to be sure. If you mix in the fact that Notre Dame's opponents are not only tougher but wiser to their ways, that the Irish confidence has suddenly been shaken and that the team is somehow bereft of running backs, what you come out with is an 8-2 team, or 7-3, or maybe even 6-4. Why, before it's over, Notre Dame could drop all the way to eighth or ninth in the polls.