When you see Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian on television these days he is usually coaching away in a Ford XL commercial while the golden dome sparkles in the background like a giant hubcap. But to the dismay of USC and the wonderment of a few million football followers, Salesman Parseghian drove something different into the dens and living rooms of the nation last Saturday. It was a two-door hardtop called the Theismann, a glistening surprise model. And when Parseghian whipped the wraps off it, tires screeched and all sorts of wild things happened in a valiant 21-21 deadlock of a football game that will have old Irish and old Trojans and all your friendly neighborhood Theismann dealers talking for years.
The game turned out to be nothing like the 82,659 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or the hordes on television had anticipated. They had expected to see quite a contest, of course, with O. J. Simpson getting his usual 183.7 yards and scoring his usual two or three touchdowns and with the Trojans maybe winning by a point and becoming No. 1 again. What they saw instead was a splendidly prepared Notre Dame team that ate up Simpson on defense and kept the ball for hours on offense.
With sophomore Quarterback Joe Theismann (rhymes with Heisman) passing, running, faking and, most important, leading the Irish with unshakable confidence, Notre Dame whammed the Trojans into a 21-7 dizzy spell by the half, at which time one could mull over such statistics as these: O.J. had carried only nine times for only 23 yards; the Irish had gained 324 yards to the Trojans' 71; Parseghian's legions had run off 51 plays to just 24 for USC.
While everyone wondered where, oh where, O.J. had gone—the best theory was that either Notre Dame Tackle Mike McCoy or Linebacker Bob Olson had swallowed him—little Joe Theismann, 165 pounds of ears, nose, skin and speed, commanded Irish touchdown drives of 86, 77 and 45 yards.
December 9, 1968
The first thing Theismann did during the afternoon, however, was to aim a pass at Jim Seymour but deliver it instead to USC's Sandy Durko for an interception and a Trojan touchdown on the game's second play from scrimmage. Terry Hanratty has been throwing to Seymour for three years, but Hanratty was on the sidelines on crutches. When Theismann started off like that, Irish fans would not have minded if Ara had sent Terry in, crutches and all.
"I learned long ago not to tear into anyone for a mistake," said Parseghian later. "There was plenty of time to go and, for all his moxie, Theismann didn't need to lose any confidence."
Theismann—Notre Dame has dubbed him the "Squirmin' German"—didn't lose anything, except Trojan tacklers. He came right back and cranked up the 86-yard drive for the tying touchdown, largely on his own manipulations and the slashing runs of Ron Dushney and Bob Gladieux. Calling the plays himself, Theismann repeatedly came up with the right numbers when they were needed most. By game's end he had finagled the key yardage on third-and-if and fourth-and-how situations a total of 14 times.
The second Notre Dame touchdown was easy. On the fourth play of the series Gladieux banged over left tackle on a simple pitchback. He caught USC in a disorganized defense that was stunting around in a 9-1-1, or something, and he just ran away. Ah, but this was nothing compared to what Theismann had dreamed up for a little later. Near the end of the second quarter he moved the Irish into a threatening position on some Coley O'Brien running and a big pass to Seymour. Now he faced third-and-13 for a touchdown and out came one of the best Notre Dame tricks since the feigned injury. Theismann pitched the ball back to O'Brien, the ex-quarterback who has spent his career shadowing Hanratty and combating diabetes, and O'Brien ran to the right. A sweep, folks. Nope. Suddenly O'Brien stopped and hurled a pass back across the field to—yep—Joe Theismann, who had drifted out in the flat and was frighteningly alone. So make the score 21-7, and when was the last time a thin, inexperienced sophomore went into a big game, threw a horrendous interception to put his team in a well and still came back to get his guys two touchdowns ahead of a national champion before the half? Well, Joe Theismann had, and it didn't surprise any of his coaches.
Said one, who did not want to be quoted for fear of offending the departing Hanratty: "The thing about Theismann is he's brainier than Terry, he's a better faker, a better ball handler, a fine, fine leader and almost as good a thrower."
For Theismann, the game answered some questions about himself. He had gone to South Bend not knowing if he could make it as a football player. He was more proficient as a shortstop than a skinny quarterback and was not exactly overburdened with collegiate offers, though baseball teams had talked of up to $25,000. "I think I might just devote all my time to football now," Theismann said in the locker room after the game. He also said he never lost his calm, even after the interception. "We knew we could move on them, and that we had a lot of surprise stuff we thought would work. We were worried mostly about containing O.J."
It was a glorious defensive job that Parseghian's chief assistant, John Ray, coaxed out of his unit and built into a box that could hold an O.J. This was far from the same defensive team that Purdue frolicked against several weeks ago. Seven names in the unit were different, and all 11 were in a pure fit to get at Simpson. What the Notre Dame defense did was form a cup—a "triangle," Parseghian called it—designed not for penetration but for enclosure. Notre Dame felt that Simpson's best gains had occurred on improvised runs, sliding off, darting outside, stuttering toward the line, then changing holes. The idea was to wait for him more than to go after him and it posed a problem for Steve Sogge, the crafty USC quarterback who has always done everything better than he is credited for.
It was Sogge who finally picked up the Trojans and got them the face-saving tie with his passing. Taking the second-half kickoff, he directed USC 65 yards for the touchdown that narrowed it to 21-14. O.J. made his longest run of the day on this drive, seven yards. It seemed like 30. And he scored his only touchdown on a bounce-away, go-wide streak around left end from one yard out. The touchdown was his 22nd of the season, and it is indicative of the USC offense that only once has a player other than Simpson scored a Trojan touchdown from scrimmage.
It was this drive that made it evident USC no longer felt it could win in its usual fashion—by running O.J. The two-touchdown deficit had forced USC into the air, and Simpson, who is always a slow starter, never really carried the ball enough to get warmed up. Notre Dame kept him on ice in the first half, and events kept him cold after that as he made only 55 yards—a career low—in 21 attempts.
Early in the fourth quarter Sogge's underrated arm retrieved some of USC's dignity, sustained the Trojans' undefeated string and sent them into the Rose Bowl against Ohio State at 9-0-1 with a chance to wind up as the national champion after all. The USC offense seemed unimaginative, and it was still spluttering when Sogge wound up on the Notre Dame 40-yard line and tried his umpteenth mortar shot of the day. Sam Dickerson was racing at top speed just ahead of Chuck Zloch and Brian Lewallen into the Irish end zone when the ball arrived, and he caught it about one yard in play, almost catching one of the goalposts at the same time.
With the score tied, there was plenty of time left for somebody to win, and Notre Dame had its chances. Theismann moved the Irish to USC's 11-yard line on one occasion, whereupon he lost 20 yards in two successive plays, which was just far enough back for a field-goal try to be hopeless. And then he got the Irish down to USC's 17-yard line with 30 seconds left. There was time for one play, followed by a field goal, of course. What he didn't do was run the right next-to-last play. Instead of keeping the ball in the middle of the field to make it easier for his kicker, he sent O'Brien off tackle, which made the angle more difficult for placement man Scott Hempel, whose 33-yard try was just a bit wide.
But nobody wanted to fault Theismann, really, for that last-minute bit of sophomore logic. Hempel might have missed from the middle, and O'Brien might have scored. Joe Theismann had done quite enough in stealing the day's glory from a Heisman Trophy winner. And, after all, he had given Ara Parseghian a tie that Notre Dame for once could be proud of.