What it was that fell on Alabama last week in Birmingham was not just all those USC stars, current and soon-to-be. Southern Cal always has its fair share of those, and Alabama had no illusions about that. Nor was it just another lethal dose of White lightning administered by still one more terrific Trojan tailback, although one would have to say that if a 199-yard day rushing against the proud Crimson Tide defense was Mr. Charles White's way of wishing Bear Bryant a belated happy 65th birthday, he sure as hell won't get invited back for the 66th. Nor was it just the swarming, Tide-turning USC defense, the one that gets to the ball quicker than Cinderella's stepsisters and doesn't appear to have a pass defender under 6'6".
No, what it was that USC dumped on Bear and his boys, and put them on their collective carrumpus for the first time in 13 games—and right out of first place in the race for No. 1—was brains. Specifically, brains belonging to still one more inconspicuous USC quarterback.
All USC quarterbacks are not inconspicuous, of course. Only in comparison to USC tailbacks. There have been many talented ones, but USC quarterbacks are often written up, and off, as if they were all lefthanded and unable to run (or pass, depending) across a crowded room. They are said to be on scholarship mainly to provide an orderly transfer of the football to the latest all-star tailback—Mike or O.J. or Anthony or Ricky or, now, Charles—48 times a game. That is more or less what they say about the incumbent, too.
Paul McDonald actually is a lefthanded quarterback, the first in 24 years at USC. He can run across a room, but Coach John Robinson says he doubts he could make it to the bathroom in less than 10 seconds. McDonald is a 6'2", 180-pound junior with the smooth boyish face and deep brown eyes of a Norman Rockwell altar boy. Robinson says that as an athlete McDonald reminds him of himself in his youth. "When Paul falls down," he says, "you're scared to death he'll break his elbow."
October 1, 1978
But McDonald can, too, throw the ball. He is favorably compared in that respect with another really good USC passer, Pat Haden, who happened to go to the same high school in Covina, Calif. And when it comes to generating brain waves, Robinson and his percipient passing coach, Paul Hackett, consider McDonald a Phi Beta Kappa (which he may well be; he is averaging 3.7 out of 4.0 in accounting).
When Robinson and Hackett added a boggling variety of blocking schemes and shifts and men-in-motion plays reminiscent of the Dallas Cowboys to the USC repertoire this season, they ended up with an attack requiring a defense-reading, audibilizing demon at quarterback (one Bryant estimated would ordinarily take four years to develop). McDonald was their man. Although in two years at USC he had thrown only 34 passes, and those in games no longer in doubt, he had soaked up a lot of exciting football on the bench. "He's right on schedule," said Hackett.
And last week there McDonald was, sure enough, in all the hackle-raising pressure of Legion Field, before a record and riled-up Alabama crowd of 77,313, regarding a Bryant-coached defense (the scariest kind) as if it were just another row of candles to light while the organist played the doxology. McDonald never fumbled. He threw only one inconsequential interception. He threw two consequential touchdown passes, and, on a wing and a flair, picked the Alabama defense apart with Hackett's diverse and devious play selection. Denouement: a whopping 417 yards total offense, and USC 24, Alabama 14.
But was it so surprising? Not if you believe in Hollywood the way USC does.
The night before the game Robinson sat in the lounge of the team's Birmingham hotel to weigh the prospect of facing Alabama one more time. A budding insomniac, he was loose and expansive. His team was an 11-point underdog, he said, though ranked seventh and unbeaten in two games...and was starting 14 players (including those on the special teams) who had never been in a big game before...in what was predicted to be a high-humidity sweatbox of an arena...with a wheeling-dealing offense "that could self-destruct at any minute if we start making mistakes"...against what he considered the best college team he had seen since he was an assistant on USC's 1972 USC national champions.
Robinson had omens and hardware with which to console himself: the fact that every time the Trojans had been big underdogs in recent seasons, including three times against Notre Dame, USC had pulled off upsets. And that he was prepared to match Alabama BTU for BTU in sideline air conditioning. He had brought eight units, having seen Alabama deploy them in the Nebraska game when Legion Field steamed at near 100°. And that, at the very least, the Trojans would thrill the fans with their gussied-up offense. "We'll go out there like it was the Rose Bowl," he said. "We're not here to try to stay close."
And he consoled himself with McDonald. "You won't believe this kid," he said. "I've never seen a young man so into a game. He's fascinated by it. I worry sometimes that we're trying to give him too much to do, that we'll blow up with our own weapons. But I don't worry about him handling himself. Even against this club. And, hey, they ain't exactly rubes, you know. Nobody plays a more sophisticated defense than Alabama. It's going to be something to see."
A couple of hours earlier McDonald was with the USC team watching Hooper, a Burt Reynolds movie that featured a spectacular bar fight in which Pittsburgh Steeler Quarterback Terry Bradshaw played a hard-nosed heavy. McDonald said he identified with Bradshaw, being a quarterback and all, but found Bradshaw especially inspirational during the fight scene because when he got whacked in the mush by 1) Reynolds, and 2) a chair, he hardly blinked. "He just spat out a few teeth and kept coming," McDonald said. "Then Reynolds said, 'Uh, oh, I think we're in trouble.' It was great. I thought to myself, 'Well, that's what you have to do against Alabama. Spit 'em out and keep coming.' "
None of his teeth had to be sacrificed, but McDonald rose to such an occasion in the fourth quarter the next day, just when it seemed Alabama might be able to get in the final lick and turn a deserved defeat into victory. McDonald had been cool and workmanlike in the first half as the Trojans established a superiority at the line of scrimmage. Relying most of the time on the brilliant running of White, he drove his team to the threshold of the Alabama goal in the first period, only to fail when White fumbled at the two. But moments later White himself atoned for the error with a marvelous, hurdling 40-yard run to score on the old USC student-body-right power sweep. A painstaking 23-play, 8½-minute drive culminated in a 40-yard second-quarter field goal by Frank Jordan to push the advantage to 10-0 at halftime.
Then came Alabama, storming back. The Trojans were caught reaching on a counter play, and Halfback Major Ogilvie cut back free and into a corridor up the middle and ran 41 yards to a touchdown.
There followed a hairy exchange of interceptions as the two giants slugged into the fourth quarter at 10-7 with the tension mounting. Then a short Alabama punt, one of many that day, gave USC possession at the Alabama 39.
Defensively, Alabama had been giving McDonald much to look at but little to see, disguising the whereabouts and intentions of its free safety and roverback so that no one could be sure whether the Tide was setting up to stop the run or the pass. McDonald countered by coming to the line of scrimmage with two plays called—a pass and a run—and then audibilizing his final selection. Now, from the 39, White ran for six off the right side, where Tight End James Hunter had blocked prodigiously all day. McDonald got eight more on a scramble ("I'm faster than they think," he said later) and a first down at the 25. Fullback Lynn Cain got three, and a pass interference gave USC a first down at the 22. White ran for three and Cain for six. Then White, who proclaimed himself a Heisman candidate as a freshman but now in his junior year says he is running "more intelligently and aggressively" thanks to Robinson, hurdled an immense tangle of blockers and defenders, miraculously came down on his feet and got seven more to the Alabama six.
Robinson himself sent in the next play. Hackett and McDonald joked later that it was the kind you call and then slap your forehead in disbelief. But it was nevertheless typical of USC's attack. The Trojans not only used a bewildering assortment of splits and sets, but did so with interchangeable components so that what appeared to be a passing formation would be manned by blockers geared to the run. Robinson's brainstorm had Flanker Kevin Williams, a 155-pound sophomore, lining up at tailback (Hackett told him to "scrunch over so they don't get a good look at you") and then, on the snap, sprinting outside before angling back across and under the Alabama coverage on the right side. He was all alone at the four when McDonald hit him with the pass that proved to be the decisive touchdown and sweet retribution for last year when the Tide snapped then No. 1 USC's winning streak at 15.
"Brilliant, brilliant!" Robinson said to McDonald coming off the field with the score 17-7, bear-hugging his quarterback. "You were phenomenal today."
On September 11 Bryant had been honored with a surprise 65th birthday party in Birmingham, where he was eulogized by a starry cast of former players (Joe Namath, et al.) and opposing coaches (Frank Broyles, Darrell Royal). He grinned through it and said, "This is what I thought my funeral would be like." That being the case, it could be speculated that what he saw on Legion Field would sure as heck bring it on, the Bear being the perfectionist that he is.
Alabama fumbled the ball away twice, missed tackling and blocking assignments glaringly, tipped balls into the hands of USC receivers and ran into themselves in the backfield. Quarterback Jeff Rutledge was intercepted four times. Alabama had a puny 30-yard punting average and was smothered on kick returns by the insatiable USC defense.
The McDonald-to-Williams battery connected again for a 40-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to put USC ahead 24-7. But, as remarkable as it would seem, even with USC piling up so many yards and White rushing for more than any single back has ever gained against Alabama, the Tide was not completely out of the game. They scored on a 41-yard pass from Rutledge to Barry Krauss to make it 24-14, and it took two fumbles by star Running Back Tony Nathan in the final 3½ minutes to begin emptying out Legion Field.
But that is not to say justice would have been served by an Alabama win. Bryant had no illusions. At practice on Thursday he had said, "We've been at it six weeks and we ain't improved this much." He indicated the distance between his thumb and forefinger. "You don't win championships if you don't improve. If you stand still you go backward." On the other hand, he marveled at USC and the personnel it had displayed. "I'd take their culls," he said.
In the private frenzy of the USC dressing room, to chants of "One! One! One!" John Robinson hopped up onto a chair and put the status of his own team in remarkably candid perspective. "Remember what I told y ou Thursday," he said, his voice just below a shout. "We're not No. 1, and I'm not voting us No. 1. I'm voting us No. 6. But you're the greatest bunch of human beings I've ever been around, and you're going to be a great team. I sense it. I feel it. You're not No. 1 now, but in January...."