Big Eight fans who believed that the game as played in the Western Athletic Conference was touch football are looking for a new faith these days. By upsetting Nebraska 17-14 in the Fiesta Bowl Arizona State proved it belongs up there among the best college teams in the nation—yes, with Ohio State, Oklahoma or anybody else you want to name.
The Fiesta was a genuine thriller, and although the outcome shocked some people—about a million Nebraskans, for sure—the way ASU pulled it off should have come as no surprise. Coach Frank Kush publicly announced the battle plan three days before the game, and the Sun Devils did exactly what he promised they would, which was blitz and stunt and razz and dazz and swing for the fence and run at those Nebraska giants every way but straight. They distracted the Huskers and confused them and did not hold still long enough for Nebraska to sit on them, which the Big Red has been known to do to its opponents—10 times this season, in fact. In short, they were as unpredictable and uncooperative as they could be, Devils that they are.
It was enough to make the Cornhuskers sorry they had changed their minds about going to Tempe. Nebraska had said thanks-but-no-thanks to the first Fiesta invitation, but reconsidered after losing to Oklahoma and discovering it was either go to Tempe or spend Christmas in Lincoln. The visitors came to town humble and said things like, "Gee, Fiesta Bowl, it wasn't anything personal, no lack of respect intended, we really think State has a real fine football team and will be a worthy opponent, it's just that you caught us in a bad mood, right before the Oklahoma game and all." The Fiesta folks graciously forgave the Huskers and rolled out the red carpet—Nebraska red, of course. Nebraska, shooting for an NCAA record of seven straight bowl victories, said it had never been treated with such consideration. The Fiesta committee was bent on proving that Tempe is as pleasant at Christmastime as Pasadena or Miami or New Orleans or Dallas, and, at roughly 65° during the week, it convinced a lot of people.
This was Arizona State's fourth trip to the Fiesta Bowl in five years, if you can call playing in your own stadium a trip. But 4 for 5 is fair enough, since the bowl was invented in 1971 to accommodate Arizona State anyhow. Technically it was created for the WAC champion to be host, but Arizona State is regularly the winner of that league.
January 5, 1976
This year's game meant something special to both the team and the conference. ASU had completed an undefeated regular season but still had to listen to snickers about its soft schedule, and the WAC wanted to prove its teams were not all pushovers. If Nebraska had murdered State, as many thought it would, the WAC would have had to hide among the cacti for another 10 years or so. Now it can rightfully say, "We told you so." Or something more thorny.
The game was one of those David and Goliath numbers. Nebraska dwarfed ASU not only in reputation but physically as well. "Even their coaches are big," said the 5'9" Kush, who looks up pretty far when he talks to 6'3" Tom Osborne of Nebraska. But Kush's record in 18 seasons at ASU is anything but diminutive; his winning percentage—.795—is second only to Joe Paterno's at Penn State. Like Paterno, Kush has turned down fine offers to coach pro teams.
Two plays after State kicked off, ASU Linebacker Larry Gordon came out of the air with a poorly aimed Nebraska pass, and three minutes later Dan Kush, the coach's son, kicked a 27-yard field goal.
With the score 3-0, Nebraska Quarterback Vince Ferragamo was, surprisingly, banished to the bench like a sour singer in an amateur show, and replaced by Terry Luck. "Vince is a fine quarterback," said Osborne later, "but Luck is more experienced at calling audibles." The way Arizona State was blitzing there was going to be a lot of signal-switching.
The change seemed to work. Early in the second quarter Monte Anthony, a sophomore I-back, rambled for 34 yards to the State seven. He scored on a fourth-down dive and the Cornhuskers were ahead 7-3. But one exchange of downs later Nebraska lost the ball on a fumble by Fullback Tony Davis, who set an all-time school rushing record of 2,445 yards during the game. After another exchange Arizona State gained possession at mid-field with 1:27 remaining in the half. Kush instructed his quarterback, Dennis Sproul, to pull out all the stops. Sproul had lost confidence early in the season, largely because of home-crowd boos, but this time there were only cheers among the 51,396 spectators—a stadium record—and Sproul was ready. He fired nine consecutive passes, four of them complete, and with only one second left young Kush converted a 33-yard field goal to make the score 7-6.
Nebraska resurrected its grind-it-out game in the third quarter, and Anthony scored again on a four-yard burst, capping a drive of 91 yards. But Sproul came back, mixing his calls and his passes beautifully, despite two frustrating illegal procedure penalties—the price ASU paid for its attempts to keep Nebraska's crack defense off balance.
The turning point came when State had a fourth and one on the Nebraska 13 early in the final quarter. Kush sent in his son for yet another field-goal attempt, but Sproul waved Kush Jr. back and then talked Kush Sr. into going for the first down. "I could tell by Dennis' eyes he wanted it so bad that he couldn't miss," said the coach later. Sproul got the first down with a keeper off guard, but he pinched a nerve in his left elbow on the play. Fred Mortensen, who had started at quarterback while Sproul was having his confidence problems, came off the bench and hit John Jefferson in the chest with a 10-yard touchdown pass. He followed that completion with a perfect lob into the corner of the end zone to the other wide receiver, Larry Mucker, and the two-point conversion tied the game at 14-14.
By now the crowd was booming out its pleasure. Luck repeatedly had to interrupt his signal calling to ask for quiet, and any friendly-rivalry feelings between the teams had worn away. A fight broke out between Linebacker Larry Gordon and Rik Bonness, Nebraska's All-America center, and both were ejected, which did not prevent the sportswriters from voting Gordon the outstanding defensive player, apparently reasoning that "outstanding" means hard-hitting.
Sproul went back into the game when State got the ball, and completed a 17-yard pass to Jefferson, the outstanding offensive player. After three short rushes by Fast Freddy Williams, who gained 111 yards, Dan Kush was sent on the field again. This time he stayed, and with 4:50 left, kicked a 29-yard field goal. "It was a typical Polish Christmas present to me," said his father. It came a day late."
Still, Nebraska almost pulled it out. With 1:18 remaining, Luck hit Fullback Davis at the ASU 21, but a solid tackle by Safety John Harris caused Davis' second costly fumble of the day, and State recovered. The field was covered by Arizona fans before the clock reached zero.
State linebackers had read Nebraska's plays well all afternoon, and the secondary, whose pass defense was no better than 107th in the nation, had outdone itself. "Their linebackers and secondary are as good as Oklahoma's," said Osborne. "In fact, Arizona State has as much talent man-for-man as any team Nebraska has faced, with the probable exception of Oklahoma."
"This game will give the nation an opportunity to compare us," said Kush. "And I hope people see we're big time." As Nebraskans must grudgingly admit.
Nebraska's defeat in Tempe was the Big Eight's third bowl failure, as Kansas, and Colorado went down in the Sun and Astro-Bluebonnet games. The Buffaloes lost the hard way when Texas turned a 21-7 halftime deficit into a 38-21 victory.
The Longhorns' stampede was played to the tune of The Campbells Are Coming. Sophomore Earl Campbell was the game's top offensive player with 95 yards rushing and a two-point conversion catch. Freshman brother Tim, an end, was the best defender, blocking a Colorado punt and recovering the ball for a touchdown, and sacking the quarterback twice.
Texas also got an emotional boost from Quarterback Marty Akins, who was due to be operated on four days later. His injured right knee eliminated Akins as a running threat, but his leadership, timely passes (four for five and a touchdown) and quick pitches, including a new outside play to Campbell, were decisive.
The Longhorns were outplayed in the first half but devastating in the second, scoring 24 points in 7:41 of the third period. The explosion reminded television analyst Ara Parseghian (and a few million viewers) of USC's recovery against his Notre Dame team last year.
Colorado mistakes played an important part in the reversal of fortunes. A fumble at the Buffalo 34 set up Jimmy Walker's three-yard scoring run for Texas and another led to Russell Erxleben's bowl-record 55-yard field goal. There were also Campbell's blocked-punt touchdown and a Colorado quick-kick attempt that went only 30 yards to the Buffalo 36. Johnny Jones capped Texas' march by bounding in from the four.
"I thought we would be playing the second half for pride," said Coach Darrell Royal, "but it turned out we were playing to win. I don't know if we have ever had a better 30-minute effort."
During the last four games of Pittsburgh's 7-4 regular season, his own hip injury and the play of Matt Cavanaugh kept Quarterback Robert Haygood on the bench. But it was Haygood who sparked the Panthers' impressive 33-19 Sun Bowl victory over Kansas, the school's first postseason win since the 1937 Rose Bowl. Haygood celebrated his return to the starting job by rushing for 101 yards and completing eight of 11 passes, including a seven-yard touchdown throw to Gordon Jones. The quality that made him the game's Most Valuable Player, however, was his ability to read the Kansas defense and expertly pitch the ball to Tony Dorsett and Elliott Walker. Those two burst through huge holes and around flagging defenders for two touchdowns apiece and respective rushing totals of 142 and 123 yards.
The afternoon was much less pleasant for Jayhawk Quarterback Nolan Cromwell, who failed on all six of his pass attempts and was on the losing end of two critical decisions by the officials early in the game. The first occurred when Cromwell's apparent lateral to Bill Campfield was ruled an illegal forward pass, eliminating a 73-yard touchdown play. The second came a few minutes later when Cromwell's fourth-and-inches plunge was spotted short of the first-down marker at the Pitt 16.
Four plays later Walker dashed 60 yards and the Panthers were headed for a 19-0 halftime lead. Kansas tried to retaliate in the third quarter when Laverne Smith sprinted 55 yards for a score, but a second drive fell short at the 35. Haygood then marched Pittsburgh 67 yards to the clinching touchdown.
The Panthers' victory once more illustrated the limitations of wishbone offenses and the uselessness of curfews. Kansas had both, allowing Pittsburgh most of the fun before the game and all of the fun during it. With 18 Panther starters back next year, the fun may be just beginning.
Now we know why USC lost its last four regular-season games. The Trojans did not want to resume their Rose Bowl waltz with Ohio State. "We were sick and tired of playing Woody Hayes," Coach John McKay deadpanned before the Liberty Bowl. "It was always the same old team and we always won."
Well, almost always. And when presented a different challenge in Texas A&M, Southern Cal won again, 20-0.
An offensive surge in the second quarter produced 17 points and all of the game's excitement (unless you count a no-decision fistfight toward the end). Quarterback Vince Evans, a so-so passer, played the lead role by setting up the first touchdown with a 65-yard completion to Randy Simmrin that took the Trojans to the one-yard line. Fullback Mosi Tatupu carried the ball in from there. The second touchdown came when Ricky Bell turned a screen pass into a brilliant 76-yard scoring pass play, the longest in Liberty Bowl history. The dash made up for a quite mediocre rushing game in which Bell gained only 82 yards in 28 carries. Even so, he passed O.J. Simpson as USC's single-season rushing leader with 1,957 yards.
The remainder of the game was something of a bore, and a chilly one at that for the record turnout of 52,129 at Memphis. The Aggies might have warmed up the evening with a little offense of their own, but they could generate only 247 yards. "Everybody forgot there were two good defensive teams out there," McKay said.
The Aggies probably suffered from a tactical error by Coach Emory Bellard. Although it was primarily the wishbone that had taken A&M to the three-yard line in the first quarter, Bellard frequently ordered a switch to the I formation in the hope of getting Bubba Bean more rushing opportunities. Bean got 80 yards but the Aggies were shut out for the first time in 51 games.
With this second straight defeat, A&M lost much of the prestige it had gained while winning its first 10 games. But USC restored some luster to its record. And this was McKay's last college game. It would hardly have done for him to leave as a loser.
In 1864 and '65 General William T. Sherman marched the Union army through the South. In the last three Tangerine Bowls, Quarterback Sherman Smith has marched Miami of Ohio through much of the South, too—Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The most recent excursion was the most decisive, a 20-7 victory over the Gamecocks that gave the senior-dominated Redskins a 32-1-1 record over the last three years. Their only loss over this period was a missed extra-point 14-13 defeat at Michigan State in the second game of this season.
Miami's defense was as unyielding as the Tangerine Bowl ticket-taker who refused to admit the Governor of South Carolina without proper credentials. Middle Guard Jeff Kelly led a charge that held the usually strong Gamecock running game to 56 yards in 30 carries and constantly harassed Quarterback Jeff Grantz. "The key to the game," South Carolina Coach Jim Carlen said, "was our inability to keep their defensive line off Grantz. We had receivers open behind everybody but we didn't have enough time to get the ball to them."
The Gamecocks did drive to the nine-yard line after the opening kickoff, but they missed a field goal and Miami controlled the rest of the action. Smith's 10 completions in 13 attempts set up both touchdowns, which came on short runs by Rob Carpenter in the first and second quarters. Carpenter's scores and his 120 yards rushing made him the game's best back for the second year in a row.
South Carolina trailed 17-0 before Grantz finally led the Gamecocks to a touchdown late in the third quarter. Fred Johnson's second field goal concluded the scoring.