John Robinson and John Madden, head coaches respectively of the USC Trojans and Oakland Raiders, have been buddies since the fifth grade at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Daly City, near San Francisco. Robinson was best man at Madden's wedding and was a Raiders assistant in 1975 before landing the USC job. Last winter the two old pals fantasized about leading their teams to victories in Pasadena's giant, 55-year-old stadium—USC in the Rose Bowl game Jan. 1, Oakland in the Super Bowl eight days later.
Madden gets his chance this Sunday against Minnesota, but we can already chalk one up for fantasies and Our Lady's alumni association. Robinson's Trojans defeated Michigan 14-6, thus finishing the season with an 11-1 record and, no doubt, the No. 2 ranking behind Pittsburgh in every poll. Except one. The Trojans took an informal and, naturally, impartial count of their own in the locker room and unanimously voted themselves the national title.
Michigan did not argue, because USC's win was indeed impressive, not the least because it came without All-America Tailback Ricky Bell, who was stunned on his fourth carry of the game and woozily left the field, never to return. He was replaced by Charles White. who rushed for 122 yards, only 33 less than the entire Michigan backfield. It was impressive, too, because Fullback Mosi Tatupu and the offensive line blocked well, because Quarterback Vince Evans threw 27- and 30-yard strikes in clutch situations and because the defense held Michigan to 217 yards and 33 points below its average.
The Wolverines arrived in Pasadena leading the nation in total offense, rushing offense and scoring. But they left exposed as just another tough, solid, upstanding Big Ten football team without a passing attack. "A one-dimension offense," said USC alumnus O. J. Simpson. "They came in with the No. 1 offense in the nation and scored six points."
January 10, 1977
Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler had patiently and politely argued that his team could too pass. He had pointed out that Wingback Jim Smith was one of the most dangerous receivers around, that Quarterback Rick Leach was a fine athlete, that, yes, Michigan averaged only nine passes a game but those precious few aerials often went for scores or big gains. All true. The trouble was that those big gainers—and indeed most of the offensive glitter—usually came when the Wolverines had comfy leads against the likes of Navy, Wake Forest and Northwestern and sophomore Leach was under little pressure. Smith had caught 24 passes during the season, but Split End Curt Stephenson had caught only one.
One day last week USC Defensive Backfield Coach Bob Toledo came out of the film room excitedly claiming he had "spotted their tendency. Now we know when they're going to pass."
"How?" asked a gullible cohort.
"Every time they are going to pass," said Toledo, "Smith does a cartwheel when they break the huddle."
There might not have been much passing or cartwheeling by either side if it had rained as it did the two preceding days, but the rain stopped and the Rose Bowl, nestled down in the Arroyo Seco, was its usual beautiful self for 106,182 in-person spectators and a national TV audience. Even though Pitt had clinched No. 1 earlier in the day, taking an edge off the USC-Michigan game, it still figured to be an entertaining battle between two schools steeped in football tradition and sporting two of the rousingest college fight songs. Fight On! (USC) and The Victors (Michigan).
Nobody appreciated all the hoopla more than Robinson, who, when asked why he had returned to USC (where he had been an assistant under John McKay), said, "I really missed the Trojan horse. The horse, the band and all those song girls...."
One of the nifty aspects of the game was to be the running duel between Bell and Michigan's All-America tailback, Rob Lytle. That evaporated in a hurry. Lytle, fast and difficult to stop, did well in the first half, but Bell was out of action before some fans were settled in their seats. The stars turned out to be Michigan Defensive End Dom Tedesco and Linebacker Calvin O'Neal, and Trojans White and Evans. Evans was named player of the game, the 17th Trojan so honored since 1923 and the ninth Trojan quarterback to win the award.
O. J. Simpson didn't dispute the selection of Evans, but he couldn't help gushing about White's future. "Me, Anthony Davis, Ricky—I think he may erase all our names, especially with Tatupu blocking for him next year, and you know USC's going to be bringing in some more big, strong linemen. He has great explosion, he sees everything. He's a darter, he's not a power runner or anything, but he has that explosion into the hole and that's what you've got to have."
On Michigan's first series. Leach fumbled on the USC 42. USC marched to the Michigan six but couldn't cross the goal. Glen Walker's 23-yard field-goal attempt was no good. Michigan scored first, in the second quarter, on a typical Wolverine drive: a pitchout to Lytle, a scramble by Leach, a line plunge, a pitchout, a Lytle dive from the one. USC Tackle Walt Underwood leaped high to block the extra-point kick and Michigan led 6-0.
USC came right back with an impressive march of its own, featuring White's running and a 30-yard pass play from Evans to Shelton Diggs. It came down to fourth and goal to go from the one and Robinson decided to try for the touchdown rather than a field goal. Evans, a good runner, faked to White, who vaulted high over a cluster of Michigan defenders. Then he raced untouched around left end for the score. Walker's kick was good and the Trojans led 7-6, a lead they took into the locker room at the half.
USC got its second touchdown in the fourth quarter, a 58-yard drive culminated by White's tough seven-yard run. Fullback Tatupu carried twice for 30 yards, and Evans, dodging pursuers, hit Randy Simmrin for a 27-yard pass completion. Walker's kick made it 14-6, USC.
Michigan mounted a desperate attack after the ensuing kickoff, but it died with a couple of questionable play calls by the coaching staff that will have fans second-guessing Schembechler for months. Two successful Leach passes moved the Wolverines from their own 33 to the USC 23. Two plays later it was third down, four yards to go on the Trojan 17, with 2:13 left, plenty of time. Michigan could have gone to its three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust plays, its pitchouts, its quarterback keepers—but it didn't. On third down Leach threw a hurried pass, out of bounds, over Stephenson's head. On fourth down he overthrew a well-covered Lytle. USC then ran out the clock to assure its 15th Rose Bowl triumph. And so for the seventh time in eight seasons the Big Ten had lost to the Pac-8 because it has yet to acknowledge and/or perfect the forward pass. At times USC had gone with five linebackers and only three deep backs, daring Michigan to pass, but Leach had tried only 12, completed just four.
"Relatively speaking, we took the run away from them," said USC Linebacker Coach Don Lindsey. "So now he's forced to pass. In the previous games he has thrown the football in relaxed situations. No discredit to Rick Leach at all. Gosh amighty, he is a great football player. He's a great leader, he's a great ball handler. Not a discredit to him—they don't throw the ball."
"I thought it was one of the great football games I've ever been involved in," said Robinson, who had just finished his 17th year as a coach. "Both sides, the men in the game, played absolutely great football....I think there were more collisions and more really physical play than any time since I've been in coaching."
"I think they deserved to win the game," said Schembechler, his air of confidence and command not shaken by his fourth bowl loss in four tries. "I think they're the best football team I've seen this year. I have no vote for the national championship or anything like that, but if I did I certainly would vote for USC."
Tell you a little secret, Bo. Playing Pitt would have been even worse.