"People talk about philosophies, and about being up and down," said University of Southern California Coach John McKay, "but what is going to happen Saturday is that a lot of young bodies are going to collide."
That is what came to pass in Palo Alto last weekend when USC, ranked first in the nation, met Stanford, the "mystery team" that had beaten USC two years in a row. As 84,000 hollering people looked on, Cardinals and Trojans did fling themselves at each other for 60 solid minutes, and in most cases firm contact was made.
But it was not that simple. If it had been, USC, with probably the finest collection of young football bodies on the American college scene, would have won bigger than 30-21. Other factors—youthful minds, emotions and images, and also old ones—came into play. Because of its unpredictability, Stanford is recognized as "a psychiatrist's dream and a coach's nightmare" in its own press guide. USC has long been a symbol of raw, reliable power, but over the last two years it started to pick up its own strain of mystery-team virus.
The first time Stanford got under USC's skin was in 1970, when, after having lost to the Trojans 12 straight times, Stanford shocked them 24-14. "After five plays," recalls McKay glumly, "we had guys who looked like they'd been hit on the head with a baseball bat. We still don't know what happened." The Trojans had assumed that they were on their way to a fifth straight Rose Bowl appearance that year. Instead they finished 6-4-1, and Stanford, 9-3, took the Roses. Last year both teams repeated those won-lost records exactly, and Stanford won another Rose Bowl—after beating Southern Cal 33-18 in what McKay described in all due judiciousness as "the worst game in the history of football."
October 15, 1972
This year—the Stanford game aside—things have returned to normal for the Trojans. McKay says this team is better than his national champions of '62 and '67 (the tendency toward a five-year cycle will be noted). It has personnel like Kuwait has oil. The offensive line and the secondary are thin, which is to say that they have only one star to each position, but elsewhere the squad includes three standout tailbacks, two brilliant split ends and two quarterbacks who could play for anybody.
The USC wide-receiver corps is a track team: Split End Edesel Garrison might have qualified for the Olympic 400 meters if he had gone out for it, and Flanker Lynn Swann once beat Olympic champion Randy Williams and UCLA's James McAlister in the California state long jump. Outside Linebackers Dale Mitchell and James Sims can run 40 yards in 4.7 and 4.6 seconds respectively. Fourteen different Trojans scored touchdowns in the first four games this year, which USC won by margins of from 21 to 45 points.
Then last Saturday it was Stanford's turn to be overwhelmed, presumably. Stanford was also unbeaten, but not on anything like USC's scale. It had a defense that allowed 35 points to West Virginia the week before and an inconsistent offense with only one real lightning bolt, Running Back John Winesberry, whose ankle turned out to be weak.
And yet Stanford fever came pretty close to infecting the Trojans once again—close enough, at least, to deprive them of any real satisfaction. USC proved it was the better team, but something kept it from playing like the best in the country. The defense held Stanford to minus-16 yards rushing and mostly short pops in the way of completed passes, but the offense lost five fumbles, including one by Rod McNeill on a faulty pitchout at the USC 20 that was recovered in the end zone for a Stanford touchdown.
That gave Stanford a 7-0 lead when the game was barely three minutes old. USC came right back to make it 7-7, Anthony Davis scoring the touchdown on an eight-yard sweep. Even so, it was readily apparent that for the first time this season USC was facing some young bodies it could not overwhelm. The score was still tied (13-13) late in the first half when Stanford tried to punt from its 39. But the snap, as if jet-propelled, soared over the head of Kicker Dave Ottmar and by the time he caught up with the ball he was tackled on his five. It took USC just two darts up the middle by Davis to convert the mistake into a touchdown.
Although Stanford did not collapse after that, neither did it recover. USC moved farther ahead with a field goal in the third quarter and a touchdown with 5:40 remaining in the fourth. Stanford scored again late in the game, making it 30-21, but that was it. The lukewarm victory gave USC the nation's longest unbeaten streak at 10, but in spite of this many of its players were unhappy.
"It was the worst game we've played." said Swann, who caught five passes for 93 yards and a touchdown."I still don't think we've paid Stanford what we owed them. Two years ago up here their fans and players made very snide remarks, degrading us and our school. The fans did it again this year. There's a changing attitude among college football players today and I don't think those remarks help it along. I don't want to hate anybody."
"I guess they just wanted to beat the bleep out of us," said unimpressed Jack Christiansen when the Stanford coach was asked why he thought USC was trying, unsuccessfully, to pass for a needless extra touchdown in the last 10 seconds.
"They're the worst winners I've come up against," responded McKay, harking back to the previous two years. "They've shown no class against us. I'd like to beat them 2,000 points."
Snideness? Changing attitudes? Coachly spite? What is all this? What has all this to do with good old essential 22-youth collisions? Before the game McNeill stated the central issue involved, from the USC point of view, in this way: "People tend to think of Stanford players as being more intellectual. I don't place much credence in that. But Stanford felt we were nothing but jocks, and when they could beat us at our own specialty that made them far more superior than we were."
From the Stanford point of view, the case was stated by a writer in The Stanford Daily's Saturday football issue: "Today the Cards host a team that has never been able to keep football in perspective.... If they lose, maybe football tradition will die."
Now this would have been a great—and a vague—enough burden on the Trojans even had they been willing to accept the role of standing at Armageddon and battling for the cause of keeping football out of perspective. But the Trojans tend to see themselves differently. McNeill talks about "a new awareness" among football players in general and that includes USC's. "It grew out of the black athlete's troubles," he says, "a feeling of, wow, we're here together, why don't we get to know each other. We've made the coaches here realize that we're not going to play like instruments, that we can't be treated as a mass of athletes. We're individuals, with a diversity of interests ranging to things such as poetry and chess. Guys just enjoy those things for their esthetic value."
Granted, McKay still says things like "Players are in a world of their own. They're all the same. I was the same way. They enjoy ice cream, dances, aftergame parties and practice without pads." Granted, USC does not have a players' committee, like Stanford's, which brings to Christiansen's attention matters like "juice bars at practice, or what we should do when we get back Saturday night after a trip." As Split End Miles Moore puts it, USC does not have a place-kicker like Stanford's Rod Garcia, who has shoulder-length hair, who kicked a closing-seconds field goal in last season's astounding Rose Bowl win over Michigan and who, on the other hand, failed on five field goals in last year's astounding loss to San Jose State. Garcia says, at least for purpose of discussion, that "football games are a drag."
Nor by any means does USC have the sort of image worries that Stanford Fullback Reggie Sanderson describes: "People need to build up Stanford as the underdog. We're the Cinderella team that comes from the bottom of the ladder to win. Stanford is what the American way of life is all about—lowly Stanford versus those giants. A guy who thinks he'll never get ahead in life, he says, 'Well, Stanford beat USC yesterday—maybe there's hope for me.' "
"I can't say we've ever played a hell of a game against Stanford," says McKay's chief assistant, Dave Levy. "We've never been able to get our guys to take them seriously." But it seems more likely that USC takes Stanford too seriously. Maybe even McKay, who says, "We've cut out the before-game huddle, where the players jump up and down on top of each other. All they did was step on the coaches' feet," gets too fired up over Stanford.
Fortunately for USC, the only issue involved in the rest of its games this year will be physical, colliding with other flying young bodies. And nobody has bigger, stronger or more capable young bodies than USC.