The game that decided the Pac 8 race, the Western half of the Rose Bowl pairing and the championship of Los Angeles, was won last Saturday by USC. The Trojans beat UCLA 24-14 because 1) Ricky Bell was back, as intimidating as ever, rushing for more yards (167) on one good ankle than the whole UCLA team with its multiple good ankles and its tremendous rushing record; 2) because during a 20-minute stretch in the second half, when the Trojans ballooned a 7-0 lead to 24-0, the massive, spirit-numbing USC defense held the Bruins to the distance of a good downwind spit (17 yards) in five possessions; and 3) because Vince Evans can too throw a football into the Grand Canyon while standing next to it, as previously doubted here.
And because that ain't all Evans can do.
You may remember Vincent Tobias Evans. When the Trojans fell from grace in 1975 by losing their last four games, Evans was the quarterback who threw seven of every 10 passes into the incompletion column. And it was Evans who got benched in Seattle one sleety November day in favor of a third-stringer who had such a conspicuous lack of talent he eventually wound up playing safety. And it was Evans who came back against UCLA in the final wrenching defeat of '75 to throw 14 straight incomplete passes and finish the season with four times as many interceptions as he had touchdown passes. As a 29% passer and a 100% bust in John McKay's somewhat melancholy final year as USC coach, it was Evans who inspired the popular Southern California bumper sticker: SAVE USC FOOTBALL. SHOOT VINCE EVANS. (Surely, now you must remember.)
Well, a wonderful thing happened to Vince Evans on his way to the boneyard. He got reborn. John Robinson, McKay's successor, hired Paul Hackett, a young coach off the California staff who has a way with quarterbacks (Joe Roth and Steve Bartkowski). Robinson and Hackett then rushed Vince Evans into intensive care. And the first thing Hackett realized was that a silk purse had been made into a sow's ear. Not by McKay but by circumstances.
November 29, 1976
Evans had come off the campus of Los Angeles City College, a strong-armed 6'2", 204-pound specimen who was so fine an athlete everybody naturally figured he would fit right in. But in junior college Evans had operated a Veer offense, which requires the quarterback to run and make option pitches and, periodically, to contemplate throwing a forward pass. Before that, in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C., he had been a single-wing tailback. In short, here was a runner trying to quarterback the USC Power-I, which required him not only to relay the ball to Ricky Bell 30 to 40 times a game but to throw enough passes to take some of the heat off, and to think about where those passes might go.
"Plus that, he was following Pat Haden, who not only could do it all but had been doing it since he was in junior high," says Hackett. "Vince was thoroughly discouraged." Evans told Hackett he had "always been unsure" of himself. Furthermore, he said, his uncertainties did not end at the sideline. He told publicist Jim Perry he had the same trouble with girls—"Before I can make my move on one I like, somebody else has her."
Hackett did not coddle his patient. In the weeks and months that followed, he tempered daily doses of expertise and encouragement with the solemn facts of life at the top. "If you screw up, you're out," he told Evans. "Rob Hertel is good enough right now to play. We'll make you a flanker." He did not want to minimize the pressure. Another USC assistant reminded Evans that Vincent means "the conqueror" in Latin.
"Did it work? You're damn right it worked," Hackett beamed in a slightly balmy postgame USC dressing room Saturday. (He noted that his protégé was busy describing the game to a group of writers nearby.) "I practically had to kick him out of my office."
Robinson ordered up new blueprints for the Trojan passing game. He gave Evans shorter patterns and better keys for quicker releases to cut down on sacks and avoid some of the indecision that leads to interceptions. "I told him the object was to see if he could throw the ball to somebody instead of through them or over them. He said, 'Oh, now I get it.' "
Since the season-opening 46-25 loss to Missouri—obviously no fault of the offense—the Trojans have won nine straight, and Evans has not had a bad game. When Bell went out with an ankle injury against California, Evans took up the slack, running and passing. When Washington put everybody but the registrar on the line to stop the USC running attack, USC passed for 204 yards. Evans went from a 29% passer to a 52-percenter and threw only three interceptions—and had thrown for more than 1,000 yards going into the UCLA game. Too, he was obviously more assertive. At the end of the final practice on Friday, the USC band came onto the field, honking and thumping, and formed a semicircle around the players. Impromptu dances drew four of them into the revelry. One was Evans. He boldly picked out the cutest girl in the majorette line for his partner.
What you would expect to read at this point is how Vince Evans' heroics the next day led to what Ricky Bell called "our payback" of UCLA, an account of Evans' showering the Bruins with canyon-filling passes. Well, not entirely. Evans threw only 13 passes, completing seven for a modest 79 yards. He did not throw a touchdown pass; he did throw an interception. He also fumbled the ball away once, though the officials missed the call and gave the ball back to USC. He did run 36 yards to the last USC touchdown.
But Evans' impact on UCLA was greater than these statistics show, because he made it in advance. Terry Donahue, the UCLA coach who, like Robinson, has had an alumni-spoiling first year as a head coach—the Bruins were 9-0-1 and ranked second beforehand—as good as said it two nights earlier. Nursing a Coors at the Beverly Hilton after taping his weekly television show, Donahue was mulling over the game's probables. He said when two teams like this are matched, "it is usually a conservative game, and I can be as conservative as Woody Hayes if I have to be." Then when he was done with the obvious—USC girth against UCLA guile, the blade of the UCLA Veer against the ax handle of the USC Power-I—he made one last tell-tale remark. "Evans scares me," he said.
Evans clearly had. To the general surprise—if not necessarily the dismay—of the USC coaches, UCLA virtually played the Trojans to pass. Which is to say, instead of the thinly disguised eight-and nine-man fronts Bell has come to expect as his reward for being the hardest-running college back in the country, UCLA played it straight—basically a five-man front, but switching to four—and sent its corners deep on passing downs and its linebackers flying to support. In effect, the Bruins dared USC to do what it does best: wear you down with its running game.
It is possible that Donahue thought Bell's left ankle was still tender. Certainly, Bell had been ineffective against Washington the week before, gaining only 21 yards in 12 carries. On Monday he complained of soreness. Trying to run, he was unable to drive forward or make cuts off his left foot. But by Wednesday the pain was gone. Robinson said it was now a matter of regaining the strength in his leg. One way to do that, he said, was to use it.
At the last team meeting on Friday, Robinson outlined for his players how this relentless, sinus-clogging pressure would cause UCLA to lose faith and then just plain lose. "Boom, boom, boom," he said, thrusting his fist forward in a facsimile of a piston rod, presumably Ricky Bell. Imaginary heads popped back at each thrust. (Robinson once said of Bell that he not only hurts your body, he hurts your thinking. "How'd you like to be a 180-pound defensive back catching that first blow? It'd be like the first punch in a fight. Woof. You say to yourself, 'Boy, I've got 14 more rounds of this?' ") "You go after 'em, and you keep it up," he told the players, "and keep it up, boom, boom, boom! And even though they may stop you for a while, they see through the ups and downs that you're still coming at 'em, boom, boom, boom! Still doing it. In the end, they'll crack. They'll crack."
However, Bell seemed a rather tentative runner in the scoreless first quarter, and UCLA was not outplayed. But on USC's first possession in the second, Bell ran a power sweep right and gained 13 yards, ripping through tacklers and taking a clawing knot of them into a massive heap upfield. From that moment on, he was a gathering cloud rapidly filling UCLA's horizon. "I could see it in his eyes," Robinson said.
There was, however, a new problem. USC's two fine fullbacks, Dave Farmer and Mosi Tatupu, had leg cramps, and, though they continued to spell one another, Robinson feared they would both go down. He discussed the possibility of moving Bell to fullback and playing his sensational freshman tailback, Charles White. He held back, however, and through the first half kept Bell more or less under wraps, Ricky carrying only 11 times for 47 yards.
There was little to separate the two teams in the first 30 minutes; neither mounted a serious threat, and it would have been fitting if neither had scored by halftime. This was not to be, however, because of an exquisite fluke. Slicing through a hole on the left side early in the second quarter, UCLA Halfback Theotis Brown suddenly came detached from the ball—he might have hit it with his knee coming up, a grotesque piece of body English, or perhaps it was knocked loose by Linebacker Rod Martin—and while still in the air the ball was met by the oncoming Dennis Thurman, USC's safety. Hello, goodby. A cut to the outside and Thurman had run 47 yards to the UCLA end zone.
It was Thurman, an excellent defensive back who entered the game tied for second in the nation in intercepting passes, who was principally responsible for blunting the explosive—well, previously explosive—UCLA Veer. Thurman was one of those Donahue had mulled over two nights before while wrapped around his second beer, which he left untouched, one of "the 15 USC has who they say are good enough to get drafted by the pros. I say to myself, boy, if they're that good, what am I doing here?"
On UCLA's first possession of the second half—an immensely promising one because it came after a pass interception at the USC 44—Donahue laid his cards face up. In potential four-down territory, Quarterback Jeff Dankworth was ordered to throw three straight passes—all incomplete. UCLA had to punt. It was, Robinson said later, an apparent admission that the Bruins had lost faith in their running game. From then until the game was out of reach, UCLA did not make another first down and did not get out of its own territory.
With Bell now running the pitches and sweeps and occasional counters and palpably gaining confidence ("When he's healthy like that, he's the best in the country," said Donahue), and with Evans picking his spots to dump off little delay passes or to give quick feeds to his rejuvenated fullbacks, the Trojans drove 57 yards to a field goal—which they had to settle for after a holding penalty—and then never took a backward stride in an all-rush, no-pass, 61-yard touchdown drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters and as good as settled matters at 17-0. Evans' 36-yard touchdown run followed. He made a half roll to the right, making UCLA think pass, took advantage of Tackle Marvin Powell's block, cut back inside and outran Cornerback Levi Armstrong to the UCLA goal.
Both UCLA touchdowns came in the final four minutes, Brown climaxing a 60-yard drive with a nine-yard run, and Dankworth sneaking over after a frantic 47-yard drive that followed an onside kick. Although the final score was thus fairly respectable, the Bruins gained 216 yards less than their per-game total offense average. They rushed for only 140 yards, 221 below average.
Too, the rich consolation prize they had hoped for—an Orange Bowl bid—did not materialize. Faced with the possibility of having to match Colorado (providing Nebraska does not beat Oklahoma) with a Far Western team, the Orange Bowl opted for the drawing power of Ohio State, which was shut out by Michigan. Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler now gets to watch USC play Notre Dame before his team meets the Trojans in the Rose Bowl New Year's Day. He gets to curl up in front of his television set and see Ricky Bell, Vince Evans and all the others, and to wonder what he's doing there.