On the hangover day of his Orange Bowl loss to Notre Dame, Bear Bryant entered his name on the side of justice, brotherhood and the significance of bowl games. He voted for USC as the top team in the nation. "And you can quote me," said Bryant, raising his voice. It was one of the few times he had not mumbled in a week.
The vote went into the hopper of United Press International's poll of college coaches and came out as one of those that got USC elected national champion. Having beaten, by a hair and a couple of hairy Pat Haden passes, Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, USC emerged, finally, much like the spindly bodybuilder who has come to the end of the 90-day miracle course to discover all the swells and golden ripples the ads promised. It was the best team still playing when the season came to a head New Year's Day.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, won the Associated Press' version of the championship. No surprise there. From the perspective of the AP's balloters—63 media types—the bowls proved nothing. The status was irreversibly quo. It was a dandy way to show they were more liberal than the coaches. Oklahoma had been stricken from the UPI ballot this season because the brotherhood elected to exclude teams on NCAA probation (there were five, including Oklahoma) from championship consideration.
But there are other, sounder reasons to exalt USC, reasons beyond the obvious ones: that coaches know more about football than sportswriters and sportscasters; and that Oklahoma barely got by Texas, which was crushed by Auburn in the Gator Bowl, that in the fourth quarter it led Baylor only 7-5 and the Bears were trounced by Penn State in the Cotton Bowl, and that no matter how good Oklahoma is it cannot be presumed a victor in a game it did not play. The same goes for Michigan.
The catch phrase is "still playing." Ara Parseghian, the resigning Notre Dame coach who recently experienced a day with USC that will haunt him often enough during the sabbatical he is taking before ascending to the pro gold mine in the sky, cast his vote for Michigan, perhaps without spite (USC beat Notre Dame 55-24). But Michigan was also locked out of the postseason. It is not USC's fault that Oklahoma and Michigan were not given the chance to lose on New Year's Day. There is, after all, something to be said for trial.
To polish off the point, consider poor error-ridden, Ara-rattled Alabama, which has come a blustering to the threshold of the national championship three straight years now only to wind up dry (with the exception of the UPI vote before last year's loss to Notre Dame). Oklahoma does not deserve the national championship any more than Alabama would if it had announced after its 11-0 season that it was giving up bowl games (something it might be tempted to do anyway) and taking its national championship on home, thank y'all very much.
In effect, you could say Alabama was penalized for not being on probation. Which you would not really want to say. And Notre Dame, having won one for The Ara just before his sunset ride (he was so emotional in the dressing room afterward that he could barely address the team), thus granted UPI's tabulators a chance to produce a logical order of finish to a season of illogical finishers. Which it did: 1) USC, 2) Alabama, 3) Ohio State, 4) Notre Dame.
One hundred and nine days before the Rose Bowl, USC's Pat Haden threw four interceptions as the Trojans lost their first game of the season to Arkansas in Little Rock, an upset that sent Razorback fans hog calling far into the night. The headline in the next morning's Los Angeles Times sports section said, TROJANS' DREAM OF NO. 1 IS JUST HOGWASH, 22-7. On New Year's Day the hogwash turned into champagne.
With his team trailing Ohio State 17-10 and just over two minutes left on the clock, Haden, an English major who was named a Rhodes scholar 11 days before, connected with his close friend Johnny McKay on a 38-yard touchdown pass play, then drilled a two-point pass to Shelton Diggs for a thrilling 18-17 victory. That, coupled with Notre Dame's 13-11 win over Alabama, gave USC the national championship.
For Johnny's dad, Coach John McKay, it was the fourth national title. It was also his fifth Rose Bowl victory in eight trips. He and his team did it despite having Tailback Anthony Davis sit out the second half with injured ribs, despite having a punter who took a snap, stepped forward smartly, kicked and all but missed the football, and despite trading away a 39-yard field goal for a mere first down. And a pretty important final despite—playing against a fine Ohio State team that indeed was only one point worse than the national champion.
One of the interesting aspects of the game was supposed to be the dipsy-doodle, yard-gobbling duel between Ohio State's Heisman Trophy winner, Archie Griffin, and USC's Heisman runner-up, Davis. But neither was much of a factor. Davis averaged 5.2 yards a carry but spent the second half on the sideline. Griffin was impressively quick through the holes, but he fumbled twice and was held under 100 yards for the first time in 23 games. The co-players of the game turned out to be young McKay and Haden, who have been playing pass-and-catch for eight years, four at Bishop Amat High School in nearby La Puente and four at USC.
On the bus ride to the game, Haden sat next to Coach McKay, inhaling cigar fumes and strategy in nearly equal doses. Haden had attempted 39 passes in last year's loss to Ohio State.
"We're not going to beat Ohio State throwing 40 times," Haden said. "This year we're going to run the ball better. We'll throw, but the key to the game is how well we run against them."
USC, with a 30-yard field goal from Indonesia-born Chris Limahelu, led 3-0 at the end of the first quarter. The margin might have been greater had not Ohio State's brilliant defensive back, Neal Colzie, intercepted a Haden-to-McKay heave. USC's running attack was purring.
The second quarter was weird. Ohio State marched from its 29 to the Trojan 2½. Then Tight End Doug France moved before the snap, and all of a sudden it was fourth and six on the 7½. Tom Klaban, who put the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl with his four field goals against Michigan, missed from the 14.
What McKay later called "the worst punting game in the history of collegiate football" led to Ohio State's half-time lead. USC's Jim Lucas attempted to kick from his 17 but his foot made only slight contact with the ball. Remarkably, he was able to recapture the ball and run 16 yards for a first down. Four plays later his punt was blocked and Ohio State took over on the USC 17. Griffin and Davis exchanged fumbles before Buckeye Fullback Champ Henson, who bearded Coach Woody Hayes, demanding to be put into the game, bulled in from the two. The kick was good and Ohio State led 7-3.
All this was strange enough for any single quarter, but there was more. With 31 seconds left, Limahelu kicked a 39-yard field goal, but Ohio State was offside and McKay decided to give up the three points and take a first down on the Buckeye 16. The gamble failed. USC got down close but couldn't score and had to settle for a 24-yard Limahelu field-goal try. He missed.
Well, 7-6 or 7-3, what's the difference to a team that scored 55 points on Notre Dame in less than 17 minutes? For one thing, Davis was not there to run back the second-half kickoff for the go-ahead touchdown. Ohio State might have taken the lead for good in the third quarter, but USC got lucky. Colzie intercepted his second pass, returned it 21 yards to the Trojan nine and exuberantly spiked the ball. Zap. Penalty. Unsportsmanlike conduct. Instead of first and goal at the nine, the Buckeyes were first and goal at the 24. They couldn't score.
USC went ahead 10-7 on a Haden pass to Jim Obradovich, but State answered with an 82-yard touchdown drive and a 32-yard Klaban field goal to make it 17-10 and a probable second-straight Rose Bowl victory.
With barely more than two minutes to go, the Trojans ran 96-X corner, a play Haden and McKay have worked on a thousand and one times.
"I'd been double-covered by Colzie and their right-side roverback all day," said McKay. "This time we decided to go against the man on the other side—Steve Luke. He's a good cornerback, but he's not fantastic like Colzie."
Haden had the proverbial "all day to throw," McKay slipped behind Luke and caught the pass over his right shoulder in the far right corner of the end zone.
There was no question that Coach McKay would elect to go for the 18-17 win rather than the 17-17 tie, even though USC had lost the 1967 Rose Bowl game to Purdue when a two-point try failed. Haden requested that the ball be moved to the left hashmark, giving him more room to roll out right. Split End McKay went wide, Flanker Diggs was in the slot and ended up wide open. Haden fired the ball low and Diggs dived and caught it.
Buckeye Quarterback Cornelius Greene scrambled and passed desperately and ran off 10 plays in the last two minutes before Tom Skladany's 62-yard field-goal attempt fell just short at the gun.
McKay's fourth wire-service championship puts him in a tie for the alltime lead with old buddy Bryant and Notre Dame's Frank Leahy. Bryant leads every coach alive in total victories. ("McKay and Hayes won't catch me," he kids. "They won't live long enough.") Bowl games, however, are the Bear's bane: Alabama had lost seven of its last eight, tying the other. At a whimsical celebrity luncheon two days before the Orange Bowl, the emcee suggested to Bryant that "if Notre Dame is going to win one for Ara, maybe Alabama ought to win one for a change." Bryant grinned, but privately he was not sure he could do much to correct it this time. He confessed doubts about his offense. There had been many injuries, "the worst I ever saw. We could be great, and never know it. We haven't been together enough."
He fretted over Notre Dame's monolithic defense. "They're so big," he said, "I don't think we can move them. At least not consistently."
The plan he then programmed into the Alabama Wishbone called for a deeper dip into its passing attack. To his dismay on game night he discovered the Tide had no passing attack, at least not one that was lubricated enough to prevail in a war of attrition, which is what Notre Dame waged. Gary Rutledge, the first-string quarterback, had missed nine games after a shoulder separation and threw one pass all year. Richard Todd, his alternate, had averaged only six passes a game. Nobody had made Alabama pass.
So, moving and guessing right along, and apparently to Alabama's benefit, Parseghian set up a defense that dared Alabama to throw. Most of the time the Irish massed seven men on the line and snugged the secondary up close. More often than not, two of the four backs blitzed, disrupting the flow of Alabama's triple option, leaving only two Notre Dame players to defend against passes. Virtually a nine-man rush. When the rush included a meat locker full of colossi like 266-pound Steve Niehaus and 265-pound Ken Nosbusch and 253-pound Mike Fanning, hunched over hindquarter to hindquarter, not even a Wishbone with the sharp edges of Alabama's could cut through.
Still, it was a risky business, perhaps riskier than Ara realized, but he had done his homework. Alabama's was a reluctant passing game. Forced to do more of what it had planned to do anyway, Alabama passed 29 times, 24 by Todd, about one-third as many as he had thrown all year. He completed 13, but he had two intercepted at critical times.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, did not do much better. Alabama's defense was just as tenacious, making classy open-field tackles, and early on it was easy to tell that the offenses would be marked by ineffectiveness rather than fine play. The difference was that Notre Dame did not have to win as long as Alabama kept itself so busy losing.
A fumbled punt at the Tide 16 set up a first-quarter Irish touchdown, and an offside penalty on a field-goal attempt after a Notre Dame drive had been stopped set up the second. With a 13-0 lead. Notre Dame's defense kept guessing right, and holding up. It was not until Alabama went more to wider splits to both sides, spreading the Irish thinner to minimize the rush, that the possibility of a comeback took hold.
With the score 13-3 in the fourth quarter, Todd got four first downs in four plays to the Notre Dame 12, where he drilled a perfect pass to Notre Dame's John Dubenetzky. In Alabama's next possession Todd came right back with a 48-yard touchdown pass to Russ Schamun on a fourth-and-five play, and a two-point conversion pass, making it 13-11. And then, with 1:39 to play, Todd was given one more chance.
Two completions moved Alabama from its 38 to the Notre Dame 38. Then Todd sent Ozzie Newsome, his best receiver, on an out pattern, and Randy Billingsley ran a circle underneath the coverage on the same side. Notre Dame could not cover both men and Newsome broke clean. In his eagerness, Todd threw a line drive to Notre Dame's Reggie Barnett five yards in front of Newsome. So much for thrilling comebacks. Ara could leave with a smile and a tear. The proud name of Notre Dame had been restored and, ironically, USC was the major beneficiary.