The pairings for postseason bowl games can often be about as enthralling as the lopsidedness of one's head on New Year's morning. Anacin will be a 10-point underdog, and so will the opponent for the No. 1 team out there in Pasadena, Miami, Dallas or New Orleans. Elsewhere it will be a lot of No. 6s going against a lot of No. 10s, almost all of them from the Southeastern Conference. Every now and then, however, the fates and the sponsors accidentally get together and up comes a day that makes it look as though Sonny Werblin and David Merrick have bought the NCAA. Such a day is upon us.
What has occurred this time is a jolly good stirring up of geography and conference champions. The Southwest and the Southeastern will be after one another in both the Cotton and the Sugar, as Texas plays Tennessee and Arkansas plays Georgia, and the East has a shot at the Big Eight in the Orange, where Penn State meets Kansas. The six teams involved have won a total of 52 games and lost only four. And in the runner-up bowls we find the Southwest against the Big Eight in the Bluebonnet and the Southeastern against the Big Eight in the Gator.
But as interesting and action-crammed as all of these games threaten to be, they could be played simultaneously in the parking lots outside the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, and hardly anyone would want to climb to the top row to glance over at them. Inside the old Pasadena portals will be one of those games that do not come along often enough. Ohio State vs. USC is No. 1 against No. 2, undefeated against undefeated, conference champion against conference champion, coaching great against coaching great, the state of Ohio against the state of California—most of the best players being homegrown—and, for a final bit of glamour, a whole huddleful of brazen sophomores against the Heisman Trophy winner.
Throughout the entire history of bowls you can't find many games that equal this one. It has been five years since anything approached it. That was when No. 1 Texas met No. 2 Navy in Dallas, with Navy bringing along the Heisman fellow, Roger Staubach. It was six years ago that the Rose Bowl had a smash hit on its hands, the time USC was No. 1, with Pete Beathard and Hal Bedsole, and Wisconsin was No. 2, with Ron VanderKelen and Pat Richter. Before that you have to go back to 1951 when New Orleans was all gaudied up for No. 1 Tennessee against No. 2 Maryland. And then you have to go way, way back to the old standby of the '20s—the season when Notre Dame sent the unbeaten Four Horsemen out to Pasadena to meet Ernie Nevers and undefeated Stanford.
December 23, 1968
History, tradition and statistics rarely help to unearth a possible winner in a game like this one, of course, but they can aid the nervous. Woody Hayes's Buckeyes will be happy to learn that No. 1 teams in somebody's poll usually win the bowls. They've won 20 and lost three in Pasadena, they are 9-5 in the Sugar, 4-2 in the Orange, 4-0 in the Cotton. The Buckeyes may also take comfort in the fact that Big Ten teams are 16-6 in the Rose Bowl and that Woody Hayes has won the two times he's been there.
On the other hip pad, however, USC has a habit of winning Rose Bowls, the Trojans being 11-4. John McKay is 2-1 himself, but more important is the fact that McKay is undaunted by Big Ten teams. In his eight seasons as head coach he has won 12, tied one and lost only five to the imposing Midwest.
Getting down to basics, the game will be one of glorious emotion. Ohio State will probably be a three-point favorite at the kickoff, but forget it. The Buckeyes will not be the team that buried Michigan 50-14, and USC will not be the team that got tied by Notre Dame 21-21. In other words, Ohio State will not be that powerful, and USC will be better than you think. Both offenses will move, and O. J. Simpson will make his 55 yards against the Irish look like the freaky thing that it was—a figure caused by field position and the scoreboard as much as by Notre Dame's defense.
The key to it all could be the Southern California defense: whether McKay can find a defensive end to replace the injured Jim Grissum. He couldn't in the Notre Dame game, where he tried four guys, and that's where little Joe Theismann killed him. The USC defense will have to avoid, most of all, an Ohio State attempt to keep the ball, as the Irish did. Quarterback Rex Kern, one of Woody's sophomore wonders, will try to do just that by driving Fullback Jim Otis behind his two talented tackles, Dave Foley and Rufus Mayes (who will sometimes play side by side for tough yardage), by running Larry Zelina wide and by keeping the ball himself.
The Trojans, meanwhile, will retreat to Plan 1, which they had to throw out in the Notre Dame tie when they fell behind by 14. This calls for running Simpson doggedly and hitting the audible pass when Quarterback Steve Sogge senses the need for one. The short pass to Bob Klein when the defense is dug in for O.J. is a money-grabber.
"We can't fall way behind and we've got to have some field position," says McKay, "or we're desperate again." Which means long strikes to Sam Dickerson, and O.J., hit or miss. "This is the best offense we've ever had," adds McKay, "but not the best defense, so our defense is going to have to do the job."
If it comes down to intangibles, as so many big games do, then there are these things to consider. USC has faced a tougher schedule—its opponents were 49-38-4 compared to 39-41-0 for Ohio State's. USC is at home in the Rose Bowl, going there for the third straight year, which means that its juniors and seniors will be unawed and unannoyed. Woody will try to keep his sophomores calm, sophomores who played only three times away from home this season, all in the Midwest. The Trojans, though calm, will be revved up mentally by the fact that there are still three national championship trophies to be won, those of the AP, the Football Writers and Helms.
The track record of these Trojans over the last two seasons is that when they truly relished playing a game, they win. "That's right," said O.J. the other day. "And we're going to play the best game we've ever played in the Rose Bowl."
Which means USC should win, but remember one thing. Didn't Ernie Nevers outgain the Four Horsemen and the Seven Mules combined and still lose?