All week people had been telling Ara Parseghian how to beat USC. No problem. Every time they snap the ball, just have 11 guys jump on Anthony Davis (see cover). Belt him with The Gipper. Run him down with the Four Horsemen. Drop the Golden Dome on him. Trip him getting off the bus. Get the son-ofaahggaggh! Do something!
Last season Davis shattered the Irish with six touchdown runs—on national television yet. In South Bend he is about as popular as the Rev. Ian Paisley. For days before the game they taped his picture on campus sidewalks. So they could walk on him. They hanged him in effigy. Sign painters denounced him. Fortunately for Davis, none of the students were versed in voodoo.
On the morning before Notre Dame dispatched USC without having to drop the Dome on anyone, Parseghian closeted himself in his office and said he wished that stopping Anthony Davis was all there was to beating the Trojans, something the Irish had not managed to do since 1966.
"There isn't any way we are going to key on Davis," he said. "In the first place, if we did they'd kill us with the passing game. And they have it. USC has a lot of weapons, and Davis is just one of them. Last year"—Parseghian shook his head and paused for a moment—"last year he scored six times but he only gained 99 yards rushing. No team had run back a kickoff for a touchdown against Notre Dame since I've been here. And he did it twice. Twice! That's what killed us."
A short distance away in Elkhart, in the cocktail lounge of a hotel sandwiched between two theaters featuring horror films, John McKay, the USC coach, was saying that he was more worried about the noise volume at Notre Dame Stadium than in trying to guess what Notre Dame would try to do with Davis.
"It's an awesome experience to play there," said Lynn Swann, USC's superb senior flanker and a terror on punt returns. "The fans are almost in your lap. They yell so loud you can't hear. When I'm out as a flanker and the quarterback calls an audible, I try to read his lips. If I can't, I check field position and try to guess. If it's a run and I figure a pass, then I'm in trouble. I just have to take my chances."
"If we can't hear the count," said McKay, "we'll just walk away. We have the right to be heard. We're not going to try and outshout 59,000 people."
McKay's blue Irish eyes twinkled and he grinned. He was thinking of the story circulating in South Bend how, after losing to the Irish 51-0 in 1966, he supposedly vowed he'd never again lose to Notre Dame. "I never did," he said mildly. "I'm stupid, but I'm not that stupid. That would be ridiculous. But talking about noise at that stadium, just think what I'll hear when I walk off the field if we lose Saturday. Still, I love it. It's all part of the game."
When it was over on Saturday, and unbeaten Notre Dame had won 23-14 by matching USC touchdown for touchdown and adding three field goals, McKay got the verbal abuse he had predicted, and he left the field humming the Irish Victory March. "There was nothing else to hum," he said. For the defending national champions it was their first loss in 24 games.
The strategy Parseghian finally designed for Davis was simple but effective. On kickoffs, he was sent chasing long and low squibs to his left or to his right, and by the time he could turn upfield the Irish had effectively shut off all routes of escape. He returned three for 80 yards but none past the USC 35. "I'm glad they put him back there alone without Swann or those squibs would have cost us a lot of field position," said Parseghian.
And on plays from scrimmage, Notre Dame defensed him the way they do any other fine running back, with equal respect for an air assault. Parseghian had decided Davis could gain 100 yards and not seriously hurt them. He gained but 55 on 19 carries, the longest for nine. "He's a great running back," said McKay. "His only problem is that everyone expects him to duplicate the impossible."
Notre Dame's defense expected no such thing. To a man they felt they had made Davis a star and they resented it. "He may end up on his knees," vowed Greg Collins, a 220-pound junior linebacker, referring to Davis' habit of sliding into end zones, "but he won't be doing it in the Notre Dame end zone. Last year he got six touchdowns. This year he'll be lucky to get six inches."
On his first carry, Davis managed two yards before being driven to the ground by Collins. Up rushed Tim Rudnick from his defensive back position to scream, "This isn't the Coliseum. Welcome to South Bend."
Rudnick had a private rage. Since last year's loss to USC, he had been personally blamed for all of Davis' scores. "And I wasn't even covering him," Rudnick fumed. "I'd be covering some receiver like J. K. McKay, hear a noise, turn around and there he'd be sliding past me on his knees. On all the All-America films, there he was and there I was with my mouth open."
Parseghian had hinted that he might throw away the book for USC. His record at Notre Dame was 79-15-4, but they claimed he never won a big one. "I guess they are only big if we lose," he said with a grin. Too, it has been mentioned that he never gambled if it might mean defeat. You do not win 79 games without an occasional gamble. Nevertheless.
Notre Dame burned the book on the first series. With a fourth and two at the USC 36, Parseghian sent in orders to go for it, but a delay of game penalty canceled the gamble. Still, it was an indication the Irish meant business.
In the first half USC's punting was a disaster. The first, partially blocked by Rudnick, went 15 yards and out of bounds at the Trojan 28. Notre Dame turned it into a 32-yard field goal by sidewinder Bob Thomas. His first of three. USC responded with the aid of an Irish personal foul and a varied attack to move 65 yards into a 7-3 lead. Davis got the last yard on a sweep. But Thomas' second field goal cut that to 7-6.
With little more than five minutes remaining in the second period Notre Dame marched again, starting from USC's 47. Clements handed off mostly to Russ Kornman and twice completed passes to Pete Demmerle as the Irish arrived at the Trojan goal line with a fourth down and 30 seconds left in the half. Clements took the ball in himself to put Notre Dame into the lead.
"Go for two," shouted Parseghian, who had used up all his time-outs. With the bedlam on the sideline, no one heard him and when Thomas kicked the extra point to make it 13-7, Parseghian covered his eyes.
At halftime, Parseghian elected to go with two tight ends, so bolstered, to run the powerful Notre Dame sweep at USC's weak side. The Trojans, who had hoped to win with the big play, were killed by it. Eric Penick, who finished with 118 yards, which was 50 more than USC managed, swept left from the 15 on Notre Dame's first offensive play of the second half, stepped over the wreckage left by Guards Gerry DiNardo and Frank Pomarico and Fullback Wayne Bullock and took off. At the 35, USC's Danny Reece grabbed Penick around the hips but he slipped away, and after that no one got close.
But USC was hardly through. The Trojans snapped right back to 20-14 on four Pat Haden-to-Swann passes, the flankerback making a dandy catch of the last one, a 27-yarder, at the edge of the end zone. And soon after, when the Trojan defense forced Notre Dame to punt, it seemed the game had turned around. But on the punt USC was offside and the five-yard penalty gave the Irish a first down. Big play.
Minutes later it was fourth and one at the USC 38. With the snap the ball popped out of Clements' hands but it was grabbed on the run by Kornman, who gained five yards for another first down. Again, big play.
Although the drive stalled, Thomas kicked his third field goal to give the Irish a solid nine-point lead, 23-14. From there on the Trojans contributed some big plays of their own—negative big plays—like a Davis fumble in scoring position and a J. K. McKay fumble after a completed pass. And so it was still 23-14 at the end and Ara Parseghian had indeed won a very big game.
Afterward everyone wanted to know what kind of a move Penick had put on Danny Reece at the 35.
"On who?" he said. "I didn't know anybody had me. I didn't feel a thing. In fact, I can't remember anything except being loose and running it out. It's all by instinct."
Someone suggested that perhaps Penick should have completed his 85-yard trip by sliding on his knees in the USC end zone.
The 213-pound junior recoiled at the thought. "On my knees?" he said in disgust. "I'm no hot dog. This is Notre Dame."