Every Tuesday morning during the football season USC Coach John McKay sits down in a campus conference room for a Continental breakfast with a group of sportswriters. This informal gab session is facetiously known in various quarters as Rolls and Rhetoric, Doughnuts and Doubletalk or Munch with McKay. Last week the munch bunch heard the silver-haired coach voice his respect for Notre Dame and especially its nation-leading defense, which had allowed a mere eight touchdowns all season and an awesomely meager average of 2.2 yards per rush.
"They do not leak," he said. "They submerge you."
Apparently pleased with this nautical expression, McKay moved on to Notre Dame's 266-pound defensive end, Steve Niehaus, who "looks as big as a whale and moves like a porpoise." The Irish had, he added ominously, "a lot of big guys running around hitting people. You're not going to make a lot of points on them."
Ha! That just shows you how much coaches know. Last Saturday in the Los Angeles Coliseum, before 83,552 in-person guests and a national TV audience, USC sportingly spotted Notre Dame 24 points and then started one of the most remarkable scoring blitzkriegs in college football history and the worst disaster for the Irish since the potato famine. The rampaging Trojans came back from 24-0 to win going away, 55-24.
This is how it happened—the plays that Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian will have nightmares about for years to come:
Quarterback Pat Haden hits Tailback Anthony Davis on a swing pass for seven yards and a touchdown. Conversion attempt smothered by the center of the Irish line; 10 seconds left in the first half. Notre Dame 24-6.
Kickoff to start the second half. Davis, who scored six TDs against the Irish in the Coliseum two years ago, catches the ball two yards deep in his end zone, races up the middle, gets a key block from Ricky Bell, cuts to the left sideline and goes all the way for a touchdown (the sixth time he has done it in his career, an NCAA record). Two-point conversion attempt no good. Only 14 seconds used up. Notre Dame 24-12.
Davis squirts six yards for a touchdown following a 31-yard pass from Haden to the coach's son, Johnny McKay. Kick good for the extra point; 3:25 gone in the third quarter. Notre Dame 24-19.
Kevin Bruce's fumble recovery and two long Haden pass completions put USC on the Irish four and Davis carries it over. Davis dives in for a two-point conversion; 6:23 gone in the third quarter. USC takes the lead 27-24.
Marvin Cobb's 56-yard punt return has helped USC reach the Irish 18. From there Haden hits McKay in the end zone. Kick good; 9:23 gone in the third. USC 34-24.
Charles Phillips' interception has stopped an Irish drive. Haden connects with McKay for a 44-yard touchdown pass. Kick good as the third period ends. USC 41-24.
After Bruce makes his second fumble recovery, Haden hits Shelton Diggs in the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown. Kick good. Just 17 seconds gone in the fourth quarter. USC 48-24.
Irish Quarterback Tom Clements tries a long pass. Phillips makes his third interception of the day and returns it 58 yards for a touchdown, holding the ball aloft for the last 20 yards. Kick good; 1:44 gone in the fourth. USC 55-24.
In just under 17 minutes USC had scored eight touchdowns and 55 points, the dazzling Davis had accounted for 26 of them, Haden had completed eight passes in eight attempts for 144 yards and four touchdowns, McKay had caught four passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns, Phillips had intercepted two passes and returned them 83 yards, Bruce had recovered two fumbles and Parseghian had contemplated hara-kiri with a yard-line marker.
Up in the press box Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes was doing the color commentary for ABC television. He is the only top coach to have a winning edge over McKay, and his Buckeyes will meet the Trojans once again on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl. After the eighth touchdown Saturday, the USC rooting section chanted, "Woody, you're next!"
With some 13 minutes still to play, the Trojans had conquered Ireland, but before they could roll over Austria, Poland and Denmark, McKay pulled out his first string and let Quarterbacks Vince Evans and Rob Adolph finish out the game. McKay seldom shows any emotion on the sideline. Train the binoculars on him when an entire stadium is erupting in cheers, boos or hiccups and he usually will be calmly pacing back and forth like a commuter waiting for the 7:14 or standing with his arms folded across his chest like a bored spectator at a street-corner political rally. But when his son came off the field with Haden and Davis for the last time in the fourth quarter, none of them measuring more than six feet tall or weighing more than 183 pounds, he hugged them all at the same time.
"There have never been three smaller kids who have done so much so often," he told them.
It was the second-straight clutch performance on national TV for Davis (he gained 195 yards from scrimmage against UCLA the week before), but it probably came too late to win him the Heisman Trophy. Ballots for that award had to be in the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City by Tuesday, Dec. 3, and it is likely that most of them were mailed before Saturday's game and that most of them named Ohio State's Archie Griffin. Perhaps there should be a recount after the two of them match footwork in Pasadena Jan. 1.
But trophies and bowl games were not the prime issue Saturday in the latest episode in what McKay the Elder calls "the greatest intersectional series in college football." The Irish-Trojan war has been raging since 1926, and the two teams make a habit of knocking each other out of national championship contention. It has happened at least eight times. The rivalry is made a little more interesting because USC, founded by Methodists but now non-denominational, has a large Catholic enrollment. In fact, McKay is an Irish Catholic, while Parseghian is an Armenian Presbyterian.
USC, fourth in the UPI poll and sixth in the AP, was favored by four points over Notre Dame, ranked fifth by both wire services. USC was 8-1-1 while Notre Dame was 9-1 and it figured to be just the rugged defensive battle that McKay envisioned. He predicted "fierce hitting on both sides" and on that point he was correct. It was just that Notre Dame did all the hitting in the first half and USC did it all in the second.
Quarterback Clements, relying mostly on Fullback Wayne Bullock up the middle, led the Irish to a touchdown the second time they had the ball, after which USC pulled a bonehead play. With fourth down and inches to go on their 29, the Trojans—that is, Coach McKay—elected to try for it. But when Notre Dame switched into a goal-line defense, McKay couldn't get Haden's attention to call a time out. Haden tried a quarterback sneak against a stacked line that had everybody but George Gipp waiting for him. No gain. On Notre Dame's first play Clements hit Pete Demmerle with a 29-yard TD pass. 14-0.
A short field goal and a fine 79-yard drive to still another touchdown made it 24-0, and USC fans nervously remembered the disastrous 51-0 loss in the Coliseum eight years before. The Haden-to-Davis TD pass at the halftime gun cut the margin to 18, but the Trojan cause still seemed hopeless.
In 1964 USC had gone to the locker room down 17 points and had come out in the second half to overtake Notre Dame and rob the Irish of a national title. McKay was not hesitant in reminding his players of that game 10 years before.
"We needed a catalyst to do it," he said later. "I said if we could score the first time we had the ball—which I said in 1964, too—I thought we would win.... We agreed at halftime that there is no NCAA rule against blocking on a kickoff."
Block they did and Davis took care of the rest.
"I had to keep wiggling," he said. "I didn't see daylight until that last block. Then I just kept going. They weren't going to catch me. It's the best all-round game I've played. I did everything well. I caught passes, ran from scrimmage, returned kickoffs and even blocked pretty well."
The blitzkrieg was on ("A.D.'s return was a spark, like a firecracker exploding," said Phillips) and nothing Notre Dame did from then on turned out right and everything the Trojans tried worked beautifully. USC never did move consistently on the ground against the whale and his friends, but with fumble recoveries, interceptions, kickoff and punt returns and Haden's arm, there was not much need for infantry. Parseghian thought he knew at least one reason for the second-half Irish debacle.
"Our problem is that we did not have a good week of preparation," he said. "It was 20 and 30 degrees all week and we had to practice indoors almost all the time. The cold weather seems to thicken the blood or something. We've never had a good second half out here."
Over in the Trojan locker room there were heroes aplenty, but McKay seemed to take the greatest delight in Haden's big day because, to the coach's disgust, for the third year in a row Haden probably will not be the all-Pac-8 quarterback and many people have scoffed at McKay's statement that Haden is the best passer he has ever seen.
"I said it in the beginning, I said it in the middle, I say it now," McKay told the press. "Pat Haden is a great quarterback—an excellent runner and a great passer."
The game was a statistician's dream. Haden, a potential Rhodes scholar, equaled the USC record for most touchdown passes in a game, with four. Davis upped his career Pacific-8 rushing record to 3,657 yards and his touchdown total against Notre Dame to 11. The Trojans have not lost in the Coliseum in 20 games. USC fell just four points short of the most ever run up against the Irish (a Blanchard-Davis Army team scored 59 in 1944). USC's 35 points in the third quarter were the most ever given up by the Irish in one period. Nine out of 10 Notre Dame fans interviewed in the parking lots thought Davis returned kickoffs so well because he has thin blood.
USC fans streaming out of the huge stadium were thinking of Buckeye blood, thick or thin. You see, if USC beats Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and Notre Dame cooperates by beating undefeated Alabama in the Orange Bowl, with undefeated Oklahoma excluded from the UPI poll, McKay could have his fourth national championship. Or at least half of it. He'll take it.