Goodby, Nebraska, hello, USC. Last Saturday night in Little Rock, much to the dismay of 54,461 Arkansas fans who thought their team might be this year's national champion, the Trojans crushed the Razorbacks 31-10, thus making it an absolutely delightful weekend for Los Angeles football fans.
Poor Arkansas. Nowhere in the country are people more wrapped up in the fortunes of the state football team. Its symbol is a razorback hog with scary tusks and curly tail, and it shows up on just about everything sold or given away in the state—sugar packets, ashtrays, purses, lamps. So anxious are people to listen to games that there are 93 stations on the Arkansas Radio Network that carry them. Interest had been especially high this summer because the Hogs had all but five starters back from last year's squad that was 8-2-1, including Quarterback Joe Ferguson. If Arkansas could get by USC, only Texas seemed a threat to an undefeated season.
Of course, everyone knew getting by USC would not be easy. Reports filtered into Little Rock that the Trojans had 20 pro prospects to only four for Arkansas. The team was huge. One scout said, "When we line up against USC, every one of our men is going to face the best player he's ever seen."
And yet that is what people have thought about USC for the past two seasons, a team loaded with talent but beset by problems, a team good enough to twice rise up and knock down an undefeated Notre Dame and yet finish the season 6-4-1, out of the Rose Bowl, out of contention for top honors. Perhaps the 1972 team would be another of these.
September 17, 1972
For the first half this seemed to be the case. USC started miserably, fumbling and losing the opening kickoff to set up an Arkansas field goal, then fumbling the ensuing kickoff but managing to keep the ball. The Razorbacks put on a hard-nosed goal-line stand in the second quarter, holding USC four downs inside the two. On the next series USC settled for a field goal and the score was tied at halftime 3-3.
But whatever the Trojans had been missing, they found it in the second half. Tormenting the Hogs with strong running and passing attacks and fresh troops when needed, Quarterback Mike Rae marched USC to three touchdowns, two of them by Rod McNeill. Sophomore Quarterback Pat Haden led the last drive, which ended with Sam (Bam) Cunningham dashing 17 yards up the middle. Overall, Rae completed 18 of 24 passes, getting marvelous protection, while McNeill and Cunningham showed no ill effects from the injuries that sidelined them last year.
Best of all for Coach John McKay, who is after his third national title in 13 seasons, his supposedly inexperienced defense stood up very well against the Arkansas attack. In fact, sophomore Linebacker Richard Wood was the star of the game, jarring Hog runners with his tackles, harassing Ferguson with his rush and intercepting a pass in the third quarter.
"They kept us off balance all night, run or pass," said Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles. "Their offense was as strong physically as any we've faced."
Ferguson, who ended up with a bloody and perhaps broken nose, did not seem crushed by the loss. "If it was a big conference game, I might worry," he said. "I'm down about losing, of course, but tonight's game doesn't mean that we're not going to win."
McKay had warm praise for Ferguson, who has been boomed as a Heisman Trophy candidate, but he was even warmer about Rae: "If he keeps this up he's going to be a No. 1 draft pick."
But it was the quick, hard-tackling Wood who had the biggest part in butchering the Hogs. He is the younger brother of ex-Detroit Tiger Infielder Jake Wood, and McKay says he is "the best linebacker prospect we've had since I've been here." A few more assault and batteries like Saturday night's and there will be nothing prospective about it.
"I've just got to try harder than anyone else because I want to be a great football player," said Wood in the jubilant Trojan dressing room. "I know we have the quickest and fastest defense in the country. I'm not worried about the national championship. I just want to go to the Rose Bowl three years in a row."
With considerably less potent opposition two other candidates for national honors opened their fall campaigns with convincing, vote-grabbing wins. In Atlanta, Tennessee touched off a four-touchdown, second-half explosion and walloped Georgia Tech 34-3, the widest winning margin in their 30-year series. The game was historic for another reason: for the first time in major Southern college football both opposing quarterbacks were black. Tennessee's Condredge Holloway got the best of this particular confrontation with Tech's Eddie McAshan, completing eight of 12 passes before sitting out most of the second half, but the jarring Vol defense is what suddenly turned a close game into a rout. It took the sting out of the Yellow Jacket offense by forcing and falling on five fumbles and intercepting three passes during the nationally televised game, and it set up all four second-half scores with turnovers. Though overshadowed by the defense, Holloway, a sophomore, looked impressive in his varsity debut. "People have yet to see some of the things Condredge Holloway can do," announced Vol Head Coach Bill Battle after the game, sounding an ominous chord for future opponents.
In Birmingham, Alabama also produced some second-half fireworks to defeat surprisingly tough Duke 35-12. In the first quarter the Crimson Tide marched impressively to scores the first two times it had the ball. The second quarter belonged to Duke, which scored two touchdowns on passes by Quarterback Bob Albright. But finally it was Alabama's running game that turned the Tide around. It hammered out 333 yards and put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter when Steve Bisceglia raced 39 yards from scrimmage for his team's fourth touchdown.
"We found out tonight we can play when we have to," said Tide Quarterback Terry Davis, who was a perfect six for six passing. "When Duke put the pressure on us, we didn't fold. It definitely brought this team together a little more. We needed that."
Meanwhile, three other highly rated teams showed more sputter than crunch in scoring rather unimpressive victories. In Boulder the Colorado Buffaloes launched an irresistible stampede the first time they had the football against California, moving 80 yards on a series of deftly executed pitchouts to Charlie Davis, who finally scored from the one. But then the Buffs went flat, grinding out a listless 20-10 victory thanks to two long field goals by Fred Lima, a Chilean who kicks barefoot, and a 48-yard touchdown runback by Linebacker Ed Shoen of a pass interception.
"We thought we had a sound offense and a questionable defense," said Colorado Head Coach Eddie Crowder, "but it turned out to be just the opposite. I'd rather have it that way. We know we have an offense. We just have to smooth it out."
In Pittsburgh, Florida State stumbled, bumbled and fumbled its way through a 19-7 victory over the Pitt Panthers, rescued by the strong arm of Quarterback Gary Huff, who lofted touchdown strikes of 71 yards to Wide Receiver Barry Smith and 54 yards to sophomore Joe Goldsmith, and the sure foot of freshman Placekicker Ahmet Askin, a 17-year-old Cypriot. The Seminoles gained only 69 yards rushing. Pitt's new Wishbone attack had its effective moments but few when it counted against a sturdy Florida State defense. "Our defense won it for us," said Coach Larry Jones. "Our offense takes a little while to get cranked up."
Out west in Seattle a sullen, faintly mutinous crowd of 57,500 booed as Washington barely slithered through its opener, a 13-6 win over Pacific in what should have been a light workout. Husky Quarterback Sonny Sixkiller sat this one out with a sprained ankle and though backup passer Greg Collins completed 19 of 28 passes for 240 yards, the running game operated at more of a crawl, gaining only 16 yards on 24 first-half attempts. The heavily favored winners escaped a humiliating tie with less than six minutes left in the game. Fullback Pete Taggares scored the winner over right tackle from three yards out and Washington avoided a fate that would have been more disastrous than that which hit Nebraska and Arkansas.
Finally Houston, traditionally a winner, lost to intracity rival Rice 14-13. The Cougars almost pulled it out when they moved to the one-foot line in the last 30 seconds. But when they tried to win by a touchdown instead of a field goal, perhaps remembering that a misplayed snap was the reason they trailed, Linebacker Rodrigo Barnes and End Larry Walling stacked up Leonard Parker on the first dive and Quarterback D. C. Nobles was nailed on a second as the gun sounded. John Coleman, a freshman, was the leading rusher for the Owls with 84 yards. He is from Los Angeles, a blue-chipper who somehow escaped from UCLA and USC. On Saturday they didn't need him.