If Michigan's coach, Bo Schembechler, had not scored a touchdown himself on that famous old play, the Statue of Rules, it might have been impossible to tell that a new season of college football had come veering into the hearts, minds and linebackers of America last week. A year had passed, but hardly anything looked different. Nebraska was still deep, powerful and red, Woody Hayes still had a fullback and a taste for high scoring, Stanford still had a quarterback, USC was still heavy on talent and light on luck, and LSU proved it could still lose an opener when everyone least expected it. And although a lot of schools had new coaches who were wearing the caps and whistles of saviors, they did the same old thing. They lost.
All in all, Schembechler's act was the most fascinating of what has come to be known as football's "early week," which began last year when an 11th game was added to many schedules. Michigan had one of the tougher and more vital first games, against Northwestern, a serious Big Ten contender, a fact that had Schembechler grumbling all spring. "The pros have six exhibitions to get ready," he said, "and we have to open with this." The Wolverine coach was obviously alert to winning the game with whatever device was necessary—and as it developed he had a part in doing so.
Here is the playlet: Michigan holds 7-0 lead early in third quarter even though Northwestern looks more physical and hints it might take control at any moment. Michigan tries field goal from midfield. Kick is short but Northwestern jumps up and slaps ball down in end zone, "goaltending." Northwestern Back Jack Dustin trots off field, happy. Michigan End Bo Rather falls down on ball, happier. Schembechler runs on field and calls touchdown, Michigan. Officials scratch heads. Schembechler quotes rules. Officials scratch heads again. Schembechler quotes rules again, slowly and specifically. Officials learn rules and Michigan now leads 14-0.
"I thought the play was over," said Dustin. But it was a live ball, all right, just as if someone had fumbled a punt in the end zone. And later on it was a live 21-6 Michigan victory—a victory that goes a long way, even in fresh September, to setting up another Wolverine-Ohio State climax in the Big Ten.
Gone were the Rex Kerns and Jack Tatums at Ohio State, but nobody missed them last Saturday in Columbus. Woody Hayes had his usual earthbound attack, a "robust" running game, as it is labeled, and he got the usual 52 points against poor Iowa, which would permit him to sleep well. It was 52-21, a new experience for Iowa Coach Frank Lauterbur, who had been accustomed to whipping folks at Toledo.
Yes, Woody had a whole new cast last week, even if his act was the same. For starters, here came Don Lamka, who had spent two years on defense behind Jack Tatum, to run the quarterback option for 100 yards and four touchdowns. And here came John Bledsoe, a solid fullback who had played all of three minutes last year, to hammer away for 151 yards and two touchdowns. Altogether Woody's Buckeyes rushed for 402 yards, a figure that is as robust as ever.
In another stimulating area of Midwest football, there were those who felt Nebraska might have some real trouble with a harsh opener like Oregon if Bob Devaney's Cornhuskers were anything less than they were a year ago, or if, perhaps, they were still celebrating all the No. 1s they inherited after the bowls. Oregon was not without weapons and had beaten some goodies last season, such as USC and Air Force.
The weather was hot in Lincoln, approaching 100° on the artificial turf, and all of those 67,437 red-clad Nebraska fans might have made it seem even hotter to Oregon. But the Cornhusker football team provided the worst heat. In relentless fashion it simply marched along 34-7, featuring some familiar stars, like Quarterback Jerry Tagge and I-back Jeff Kinney, who got 124 yards despite hay-fever troubles. The Cornhuskers indicated they would do as much from the beginning. They drove 80 yards after the opening kickoff, but fumbled into the Oregon end zone. So they quickly got the ball again and drove 67 yards and scored. A 147-yard touchdown drive, in other words.
Tagge, the co-captain, let there be no question about who was running the team. On that first drive, Kinney, having carried the ball three or four times, asked Tagge to stop calling his number and give him a rest because his hay fever was bothering him.
"Get in the huddle and play football," said the quarterback. Whereupon he called Kinney's number and Kinney ran 22 yards.
"O.K.," said Tagge. "You've earned yourself a rest now."
When Kinney rested, Nebraska did not lose much potency. In came a transfer named Gary Dixon, and all Dixon did was score three touchdowns. But that's Nebraska, isn't it? Deep and still winning.
USC is deep and still losing. Everybody keeps looking at all those big, fast Trojans and marveling at their ability, but now Coach John McKay's team has started off doing what it did too much of last year—failing to win the close ones. In 1970 the Trojans lost four games even though they whomped Notre Dame and Alabama and tied Nebraska.
"We lost four times but we were four plays away from a perfect season," said McKay last winter. "We'll be better."
The Trojans may well be that, but they have started off in a very bad fashion to prove it. Last Friday night a better Alabama team than USC saw a year ago turned up in the Los Angeles Coliseum and triple-optioned USC's defense to the tune of a 17-10 shocker, giving Bear Bryant his 200th victory as a head coach on the eve of his 58th birthday.
"We're on our way back," said the Bear.
There is no reason, of course, why Bryant should not be more comfortable with option football than he ever was in that era of pitch-and-catch he had been forced to play. Alabama has a new quarterback, Terry Davis, who can work the wishbone T quite well, and Bear has a couple of quick, hard-running backs in Johnny Musso and Joe LaBue. Against USC, Davis worked the option to perfection, and Alabama ripped off a 17-0 lead before McKay could get his defense to settle down.
"I tried to convince our team that Alabama was 200% better than the team we beat 42-21 a year ago," said McKay. "I also tried to convince our men that Bear enjoys revenge. But they took it to us and we were found wanting."
All was not gloomy for the Trojans. They fought back with repeated drives and produced another running star in Lou Harris, who gained 116 yards. USC might easily have won or at least tied the game with its second-half effort had it not been for a fumble at the Alabama eight-yard line and a crucial penalty which nullified a first down at the Alabama 16. McKay is two plays away from a perfect season already.
So a question suddenly arises: If USC isn't the team on the West Coast, can it possibly be Stanford again? Without Jim Plunkett? Well, it is far too early to say, naturally, even though six Pacific Eight teams were beaten over the weekend. But Stanford apparently has a post-Plunkett quarterback who might work out just fine. He is Don Bunce, who hung around for a fifth season waiting for Plunkett to take his Heisman Trophy to New England.
Bunce's baptism came on foreign soil, in Columbia, Mo. against a team noted for its defense. Result: a handy 19-0 win for Coach John Ralston and Stanford, and a grade of, say, B-plus for Bunce.
Not that he would ever be deemed capable of making the Indians forget Plunkett, but Don Bunce might be a better all-round collegiate quarterback, inasmuch as he is niftier on the option play. He scampered for 52 yards against Missouri and still drifted back and hit 12 passes for 149 yards, including one of 26 yards for a touchdown to the new Randy Vataha, a sophomore flanker named John Winesberry.
"I liked the way he scooted for good yards when he wasn't throwing," said Ralston. "This wasn't a bad opener for us."
It was dreadful for LSU down in Baton Rouge, where so much was expected. But that's not anything new. How about last year? LSU began going to the Orange Bowl last season by losing to Texas A&M in its opener 20-18, one of only two games the Aggies won all year. How about 1961? The Tigers blew any possible shot at No. 1 that year by losing their opener to Rice, and then going 10-1. Maybe this is another of those seasons for LSU. It may take 10 straight to redeem the loss to Colorado Saturday night. The score ended up 31-21, but the game was not even that close.
What rugged Colorado did was what nobody ever does on Charles McClendon and LSU—run. Led by a sizzling sophomore, Charlie Davis, who got 174 yards, the Buffs tore into LSU for 293 yards on the ground. Coach Eddie Crowder's team had the Tigers down by 24-7 before anybody could say Tommy Casanova.
Some of the Colorado heroes were more familiar than Charlie Davis. There was Cliff Branch of the 9.2 speed getting off another of his punt returns, this one for 75 yards and a touchdown. And there was Bad Dude Stearns making an interception and managing to punt after a bad snap and just generally being a bad dude.
Meanwhile, it was not difficult for Defensive Back Casanova to distinguish himself, although it was difficult for him to get any points for LSU. He covered Cliff Branch so well on deep patterns that after the game Branch said, "He's the best I've ever faced."
Some losses are not too crippling in college football. Not when a team has other top opponents ahead against which it can regain its national prestige. LSU has some, including Notre Dame. So does USC. And Colorado cannot celebrate too long. The Buffs must visit Woody Hayes next week, so the trip to Baton Rouge had better not be too much of a fluke.
As for Nebraska, Michigan, Stanford and Alabama—the other heroes of the "early week"—they have a little breathing time ahead.
And as for all the coaches with new problems, well, Bo Schembechler has taught a new way to get points at least.