It was, first of all, the day Darrell Royal either lost the meat on his Wishbone or found a Woo in his soup, a day when the Texas Longhorns, who had been No. 1, 1-a or 1-b since before the midi, bombarded Notre Dame with so many fumbles the Cotton Bowl looked like an Easter egg hunt for leprechauns. That was for all of you disaster fans.
It will also be remembered as the day Woody Hayes and his tank corps from Ohio State came down with a hard case of Plunkett's Disease, right there in the Pasadena birthplace of the great tankman himself, General George Patton, while the Nattering Nabobs of Novelty, as the Stanford band calls itself, made things even more embarrassing for the visitors from Middle America by cheekily serenading "the party school from Ohio" with an old jitterbug tune. That one was for all of you holocaust fans.
Ah, but finally the day will go down in college football history as certainly the greatest thing to happen to Nebraska since the Union Pacific started laying track out of Omaha. When it was all over last Friday night, when all of the funny hats, the whistles, the horns—and the remains of Steve Worster—had been scooped up off of the carpets, all that anyone from Texas or Ohio State could say was, well, here's to the New Year, all you good folks out there in Box Butte and Otoe and Gosper counties in Nebraska. Win streaks and Buckeye leaves are out. Corn husks are in.
And that one was for all of you starvation fans.
January 11, 1971
Naturally, this final explosion of the 1970 college season took a lot of doing by a lot of people. Not the least was Joe Theismann of Notre Dame, that quick-footed, whippet-armed piece of wire in a golden hat gliding across the cover of this magazine. He started it all. In fact, it can almost be said that if it hadn't been for Theismann, last weekend would have been just another chapter in the continuing saga of the pitch-out. Good for Texas, of course. But bad for plot lovers who needed distractions from their holiday headaches.
What Theismann did was this: he got a second chance against Texas in Dallas, having lost to the Longhorns last year, and before the attention of the Texans was fully directed to the rematch, Theismann's arm and dancing feet had practically ended it. With a big and angry Notre Dame defense giving him the ball every two seconds or so, Joe passed for one touchdown and ran for two more in the game's first 16 minutes. After that, not even LBJ, sitting up near midfield in his burnt-orange shirt and his maxi hair, nor Texas' own quarterback, Eddie Phillips, who was struggling to be himself and Worster and Jim Bertelsen and some sort of Theismann all at the same time, could do much about the Longhorns' situation. Not this day.
The irony was stinging. Phillips would be voted the offensive star of the game, setting a total offense record (164 yards rushing, 199 passing), just as Theismann was a year ago, but Phillips would lose—like Joe a year ago. Little by little, then, the day began taking its weird shape. And along the way that Texas "Hook 'em" gesture would begin to justify the definition the rest of the Southwest Conference has for it: a nearsighted carpenter ordering four beers.
So it sank in on the believers of Saint Darrell. Texas was finally going to lose a football game after winning 30 straight, and Royal was going to say, "I guess a defeat is good for you now and then, but 1 don't really recommend it."
Maybe everyone understood the lesson of Dallas and maybe not: Texas' loss to the bitterly eager and thoroughly deserving Irish was required if the day of the big bowls was to have any prolonged drama for the followers of Ohio State or Nebraska. The reason was that Texas had already captured 1½ regular-season No. 1s, those of the UPI (which the Longhorns won outright) and the Hall of Fame (for which the Longhorns tied Ohio State). Moreover, Texas held a big lead over Ohio State and Nebraska, in that order, for the remaining national championship awards, those of the AP and the Football Writers' Association. Thus there might never have been any suspense on Jan. 1, 1971 had Texas experienced about eight less fumbles and a little less Theismann.
Going in, Ohio State understood its problem: in Stanford and Jim Plunkett it seemed to have a less fierce opponent than anyone else—a team rated only No. 12 and with nothing to play for but fun, its hilarious band and the right arm of the Heisman Trophy. Another hohum Buckeye victory wouldn't mean much if Texas won again over so glamorous a foe as Notre Dame. And how could the Bucks get excited about Stanford? Especially since Woody wouldn't give them more than just a quick sniff of Disneyland, just like 1968. How?
Those closest to Texas or Ohio State might have known before the kickoffs that neither team was ready to play its best of all possible games. When a couple of prominent Longhorns missed a Cotton Bowl awards dinner in midweek, for example, one of the Texas coaches mused, "I think we're having a mild attack of the No. l's and the Double A's," the latter meaning the All-Americas, one presumed. Meanwhile, some Ohio State seniors were apparently so riled at Woody's concentration-camp preparations—he ordered ankles taped on the flight out, God's truth—it was rumored that they almost voted to come home before the game.
All of this, of course, was terrific for unbeaten but once-tied Nebraska, which had wound up No. 3 after the regular season. Down in Miami, Nebraska was rooting for the long-shot triple miracle which, indeed, occurred.
First, Joe Theismann and Ara Parseghian's "mirror," or inverted defense, similar to the one UCLA had used to scare Texas, hooked the Horns by a score of 24-11. Then Jim Plunkett, a better passer than the Buckeyes had ever seen, did it to Ohio State by 27-17. And so in the daffy space of six hours it was all there for Nebraska. Everything. "It's all yours," Bob Devaney told his players. "All you have to do now is go out and win it."
Strangely, this same thing had happened to Nebraska five years ago. The Cornhuskers had wound up undefeated in the 1965 season, but so had Michigan State and Arkansas. Nebraska was No. 3 again. But Michigan State and Arkansas were upset in the Rose and Cotton during the day, and there was Nebraska in the nighttime Orange Bowl against Alabama. But Nebraska lost.
This time, however, Nebraska wasn't facing a team like that Alabama outfit, and the Cornhuskers knew it. Nebraska could go out there and outscore stodgy LSU for sure, and finally it could show all those effete snobs with their magazines and networks, and all of those dummies who vote in the polls (except Bob Devaney, of course) just who bad deserved to be No. 1 right along.
Nebraska did exactly this. Just when it seemed the Cornhuskers were trying to choke it away again, they steamed up a drive behind Jerry Tagge—hardly a household word in quarterbacks—for the 17-12 victory that hoisted the Cornhuskers all the way to the top.
They did it, essentially, by seizing on the gigantic momentum of the occasion. But it has to be said—to the outrage of both, one may be sure—that Nebraska had the extra good fortune to be confronted with an opponent that had somehow managed to discard offensive football a short time after the center snap was invented. LSU plays rugged football on defense, but the interception and the punt return are closer to what the Tigers think of in terms of an attack than the pitch and the pass.
Before the game Nebraska's tough roverback, Dave Morock, was discussing the topic with SI's Pat Putnam. "LSU's offense?" said Morock. "Aw, they've got some kind of half-assed little draw play." Well, maybe a few other little bits and pieces. Nebraska had to come from behind to win, and in the wild last couple of minutes No. 1 was being booted around like the loose balls on the field.
In Dallas the defense that Notre Dame used to shut down Steve Worster with only 42 yards running, four fumbles and a busted nose and to close off Jim Bertelsen with only five yards will be discussed all spring as the heaven-sent answer to the triple option. It is a good defense, of course, especially when Notre Dame plays it, but was the one Royal expected—and the reason why Phillips had such a fine day running and passing. Parseghian decided to make Phillips a star, to take away the yards from Worster and Bertelsen, at any risk. Ara felt those two runners could control the ball for Texas. Worster, after all, had gained 155 yards on the Irish in the 1970 game.
"Texas wasn't noted for its passing," Parseghian said, "so we wanted them to try to pass, and we wanted to spread them out so they wouldn't have that lead blocker in the backfield. It worked—but it almost didn't."
And Royal said, "Our opportunities were there. We didn't get beat so bad that we didn't have our opportunities. Their inverted defense didn't cause us to mishandle those kickoffs and punts. I've never said the Wishbone offense won a football game. Angry people win football games, and Notre Dame was angrier than we were."
An indication that it wasn't Texas' day came on its first series of plays. Phillips cut away for 63 yards, and it looked like another wonderful afternoon for all the Texas statisticians. But Texas only got a field goal as Bertelsen fumbled a wide pitchout on what would have been a walk-in touchdown. It was the first of nine Texas fumbles. Some of them might have been caused by Notre Dame's hardhitting, but some of them weren't.
Thereafter, Steve Worster started fumbling—often on first down—and Notre Dame got so far up on the scoreboard, 18 points, that Texas could never afford, really, that next mistake which always seemed to be on the verge of happening.
Intriguingly, it worked out that both coaches were right in their guesswork. Parseghian made the good defensive move, and Royal made the good offensive preparations. In between was Joe Theismann getting the points that mattered, and that was the real difference.
Theismann did his usual thing of hitting Tom Gatewood—on a beautifully open 26-yarder for a touchdown—and then he did his keeper things, once for three yards and the last time on a 15-yard scoot around his right end which saw him dance, crawl and wiggle the last fantastic eight steps, barely staying in bounds and flashing beneath a whole row of orange jerseys.
"We ran good enough to keep 'em honest," Joe said. "If you can't run on Texas, you're in trouble." It was, he said, the happiest day of his life in three weeks—or since he got married.
The Rose Bowl will probably rank as the happiest day in Jim Plunkett's life—until he signs his pro contract. He may be worth whatever sum he can bargain for. More than any discontent among the Buckeyes, who in three weeks weren't allowed to meet the press long enough to ask if any wars had ended in the world, it was Plunkett's arm that beat Ohio State.
Hitting 20 passes for 265 yards, he put more pressure on the Jack Tatums and Jim Stillwagons than they had ever known about, and Stanford just kept scoring and threatening. And the Stanford football team has as much fun as the Nattering Nabobs of Novelty. The Indians laughed in workouts, went out on the town continually and, as Billy Reed reported, whooped and hollered when they heard Woody had said at one point, "If we win it on the ground, what better place to do it than where the greatest tank commander of all was born—the great General George Patton."
In its raging moment of stress, Ohio State uncharacteristically panicked. After Plunkett had put Stanford ahead by 20-17, there were still 10 minutes left to play, plenty of time for the Buckeyes to move like the tanks they are. So Rex Kern threw an interception dead in the hands of Jack Schultz, a kid who grew up in the Pasadena area just like Patton. And Stanford got the ball at the Ohio State 25, and Plunkett hit Randy Vataha for another touchdown, this being the West Coast version of Theismann to Gatewood.
Schultz had never seen a Rose Bowl game until last Friday. "I always wondered what went on in there," he said. "Now I know."
Nebraska got to watch the Cotton Bowl on television and see the demise of the Longhorns. They marked it at 5:01, Miami time. Later, they were in their dressing room, getting ready to come out for the kickoff with LSU, when they heard the Rose Bowl final. They marked it at 8:07, Miami time. Bob Devaney told the squad, "There it is." And Quarterback Jerry Tagge, who despite a 63% completion average for the season, is neither Plunkett nor Theismann and often shares his job with another player, Van Brownson, nevertheless said, "Let's go get it."
The Cornhuskers literally howled onto the field, and in a very short time Tagge had howled them in for a 10-point lead. It looked then as if it might be a laugher. LSU's Buddy Lee explained later that this was because, "We weren't very interested in the first half."
LSU got interested in the second half, and with some surprising success at passing and whatever kind of draw play Nebraska's Dave Morock decided it was, the Tigers clawed out a 12-10 lead through the third quarter. By now at least a few Nebraska fans had to be thinking about five years before.
But not Tagge or his alternating tailback threats of Joe Orduna and Jeff Kinney. Which brings up the fact that Nebraska seems to have a lot of positions with four legs and four arms and two heads. Quarterback and tailback, for example. Tagge didn't shuttle with Brownson on the big drive, however; Devaney let Jerry handle it. "I don't really like to switch until one of 'em has the game won or gets stopped," Devaney explained.
Tagge would win the game. He took Nebraska 67 yards for the touchdown—maybe the most glorious 67 yards Nebraska ever would drive. He sent Orduna inside, and he went outside himself. He passed to Dan Schneiss and Johnny Rodgers. He ran again. And again. And he passed to Kinney—a big one, 17 yards, to the LSU five. Kinney ran for three. And Tagge for one. Finally they were one yard away.
Jerry Tagge sneaked for the score, leaning forward after being met, stretching out the ball with his hands. As he held the ball up there in that heap, Nebraska considered itself No. 1, and on the basis of the won-lost evidence among the major contenders, it is hard to disagree.
People will. Oh, will they. Texas...Ohio State...Notre Dame...even Stanford will say that on those given days football minds refer to—and on quite a number of them—they were the best team in the country. But on the given day which mattered the most, Nebraska, the forgotten team, taking advantage of some quaint circumstances, can say it last. And loudest.