Tailback Charles White of USC has done some amazing things this season. Only a junior, he became the leading ground-gainer in Pac-10 history with 4,096 yards. He led the nation in all-purpose running, with a 174.6-per-game average. He carried the ball 342 times and proved to be as durable as a tank. And in the Rose Bowl he performed a trick worthy of Houdini, apparently scoring a touchdown without the football.
White's controversial dive over the middle gave USC the winning margin in its 17-10 victory over Michigan and the once dominant Big Ten suffered its ninth Rose Bowl defeat in the last 10 years. Ironically, it was a Big Ten official, Line Judge Gilbert Marchman, who made the disputed call. In the second quarter, USC had moved from the Wolverine 49 to second and goal on the three. Quarterback Paul McDonald, as he so often has, called a play for White, who dived in and lost the ball—or lost the ball and dived in. In any event, Marchman signaled a TD, putting the Trojans ahead 14-3.
"The line judge saw the ball break the plane [of the goal line]," said Referee Paul Kamanski. "The line judge was emphatic and in perfect position."
That was the only opinion that counted. Postgame locker-room opinions depended on whether the play had been seen through glasses tinted maize and blue or crimson and gold. White: "I thought it was a touchdown. I just released the ball and let it go. It doesn't matter if there's a controversy; it's over now, it's history." Michigan Linebacker Jerry Meter: "The ball hit the ground on the one-yard line and just stayed there. It never got in." Most people who saw the TV instant replay, including NBC color man—and ex-Trojan—O. J. Simpson, were rather certain that White dropped the ball before he scored.
January 8, 1979
USC broke on top early and led throughout. On Michigan's second play of the game—second and nine at its own 29—Rick Leach's pass up the middle was intercepted by USC's Ronnie Lott, who carried it to the Wolverine 16. Three plays later, the supposedly gimpy McDonald (he sprained an ankle in late November in the Notre Dame game) sprinted left and threw a nine-yard pass to Tight End Hoby Brenner in the end zone. Frank Jordan's PAT made it USC 7-0.
But Michigan's defense, led by Linebacker Ron Simpkins, was quick and stubborn all day and kept the Wolverines in the game. Just before the end of the first quarter, Linebacker Tom Seabron hit McDonald and forced a fumble. Tailback Harlan Huckleby dropped a pass that might have led to a tying touchdown, and Michigan settled for a 36-yard Gregg Willner field goal.
White's controversial touchdown dive made it 14-3, and just before the half ended Dennis Smith intercepted a Leach pass, setting up a 35-yard field goal by Jordan.
Leach gave the Trojans some nervous moments in the second half. In the third quarter he rolled out left and fired a perfect pass up the middle to Tailback Roosevelt Smith, who waltzed a few more yards into the end zone.
But USC's defense proved as tough as Michigan's and Leach couldn't work up another threat. Late in the game Michigan moved from its 11 to the USC 48, fourth and seven. With 2:50 left, Coach Bo Schembechler elected to punt rather than gamble. USC, starting from its 15, ate up the remaining 2:44.
Since taking over at USC from John McKay, John Robinson has been three for three in bowl games. Next year, with White, McDonald and 14 other starters returning, USC figures to be even better, but Robinson wanted the national title this week.
"I don't know if anyone knows who is No. 1," he said. "There are four or five good teams. I'm prejudiced and I'm going to vote for USC."