John McKay's week had begun in the gloom of Southern California's 45-20 loss to UCLA. The slight, white-haired coach looked as if his world had ended. In the dressing room his face was blank, his cigar unlit. Behind lay four defeats and a tie for a team that should have been one of the best in all college football. Ahead lay undefeated Notre Dame, favored by nearly two touchdowns to give McKay the coup de gr√¢ce. To optimists who brought up the narrow margins by which Notre Dame had scored its most recent victories over Georgia Tech and LSU, McKay said, "Of course, Notre Dame isn't as good as everybody says they are. They're better than that."
To a photographer who arrived on Tuesday for a shooting date, McKay said, "Why don't you go across town and shoot Tom Prothro. No one wants me after that loss."
When the Trojan offensive guards failed to boom the defensive unit out in practice, McKay charged at them. He made like a blocker—all 160 pounds of him. "This is how you do it," he yelled.
McKay woke up Saturday staring at black clouds and a bit of mist and listening to a forecast of driving rain by midmorning. It was still only misting several hours later when he walked over to chat with Ara Parseghian as SC and the Irish awaited their TV introductions, but rain was falling as the Irish took the kickoff—and then drove 80 yards to a touchdown in 12 plays.
December 7, 1970
With McKay nervously prowling the sidelines, Troy took its first shot. Clarence Davis went up the gut. Then a swing pass to Charlie Evans got 19. SC kept moving and finally Davis slashed through Notre Dame's Bob Neidert on the goal line to score. Troy was even, and then suddenly ahead after shackling the Irish and marching 51 yards. McKay lost some of his Forest Lawn look.
"Speed's the difference," said a scout sitting up in the press box close to Arkansas' Frank Broyles and Texas' Darrell Royal, one of whom will take on the Irish in the Cotton Bowl. "Speed's on the Trojans' side."
Royal thought maybe emotion was the difference. "It can close an unbelievable gap," he said. "When that adrenalin flows you get there faster, you jump higher, you dive deeper and you even come up dryer."
Some tender California fans ducked out of the rain before the quarter ended and missed Troy's third touchdown—a brilliant, you might say emotional, catch by Sam Dickerson of a 45-yard bomb from Quarterback Jimmy Jones. It was down in "Dickerson corner," the northwest slice of the Coliseum field where almost a year before a similar catch had blown Dennis Dummit and UCLA out of the Rose Bowl picture. Now John McKay and Co. began soaring to a high that hasn't ended yet, for they not only went on to defeat the Irish 38-28 but did so despite an astonishing show by Joe Theismann: 33 completions in 58 attempts for 526 yards.
Sadly for Theismann, SC picked off four of his passes and, more damaging, got two quick, cheap third-quarter touchdowns—one on a fumble in the end zone by Joe, another when SC Tackle Pete Adams plopped on teammate Mike Berry's fumble. Berry's came first. The ball slithered around for seconds among Irish defenders before Adams cuddled it to his belly in the end zone, and after Theismann's fumble Notre Dame needed miracles. They were not forthcoming, although the Irish scored twice more.
McKay shuddered at what might have happened if it had been dry, if Theismann had had a field to his liking. As it was, the skinny senior's passing performance in Saturday's deluge was fabulous. It would have been fabulous in any weather. Theismann's yardage was only 28 off the NCAA single-game record established by Greg Cook of Cincinnati against Ohio U. in 1968. It was the heaviest aerial attack in Troy's history, obliterating the record of 401 yards set by Ron VanderKelen of Wisconsin in the 1963 Rose Bowl game. It also shattered the Irish game mark of 366 by Terry Hanratty against Purdue in 1967.
"I don't know how he did it," said a disbelieving Jimmy Jones when told of Theismann's yardage. "There were times in the second half when all I'd have was a handful of mud after the snap."
"It was pretty sloppy," admitted Theismann himself. "I guess the one thing that made it possible was the turf. It was in fine condition. That helped."
But, as Joe noted, not enough to overcome "some horrible offensive mistakes." He said, "I made a big one, that fumble in the end zone. That cost us the ball game. But I have no excuses. They beat us. They beat us bad. If we could have sustained our running game [the Irish netted only 31 yards rushing], we'd have been in there. In the Cotton Bowl we'll have to be like the Trojans were today."
Parseghian, totally soaked, was totally distraught as well. "It doesn't matter if you lose by one point or 40," he said. "What happened was just what I feared after a review of their films. They caught the football. They didn't make the mistakes they had been making. They didn't get the penalties they'd had."
Over in USC's locker room John McKay, jaunty now, strode toward the shower sans all but his mud-soaked shoes and a fat cigar. "Well," he said, "it makes the winter livable."