First voice: "Tight right, Ray. Iso weak. It's going to be second, no, third-and-seven at the hashmark. Charles [White] is back in the game. We need a spread set. It's a ripper...that's right. Nickel thunder. Left formation. They're making a shift to spread.... Draw. He got 'em."
Second voice: "The Tiger is going inside the tackle."
Third voice: "They're giving us a total new look. We need help."
Should that make little sense to you, welcome to Mission Control of this year's Rose Bowl, the press-box booth of the Ohio State assistant coaches. For it was exactly this kind of technical jargon pouring forth from that perch high above the playing field—where formations, blocking assignments and defensive adjustments can be seen, as opposed to down on the sideline, where the principal view is of randomly colliding bodies—that was in turn translated by the players into one of the most exciting college football games in memory.
January 14, 1980
Ultimately, Southern California, a.k.a. The University of Charles White, prevailed 17-16 over the AP's No. 1-ranked Ohio State, a.k.a. Arthur Schlichter U. It was a score that would not earn the Trojans the national championship, or even a piece of it, but it was indicative of the closeness and quality of play in the season's best bowl matchup. What shone through so clearly on a gorgeous 74° New Year's Day in Pasadena was a bunch of college guys having a helluva time playing a game that was always supposed to be fun. The Arizona State and New Mexico troubles make us think of sleaze; this football game made everyone who witnessed it think of the joy of college days, that exuberant way station between youth and adulthood. The day before the game the Trojan band marched onto the football practice field playing Fight On, coeds danced with the players, old grad O. J. Simpson dropped by for a few words of inspiration. Everyone went nuts. Everyone had fun.
And when the game had ended, winning Coach John Robinson struck the perfect note, saying, "It seems to me that before anybody starts to overanalyze what happened, we all ought to sit down and say that was one of the great football games. Sure, there were mistakes, the coaches made mistakes, but, dammit, it was a great football game."
Indeed, seldom do two coaches get to employ their favorite words so often during one game. Robinson's is "wow"; Ohio State's Earle Bruce leans toward "golly." And rarely do the nation's two best football teams get so much time to study each other and lay their plans. It had been six weeks since the undefeated Buckeyes beat Michigan 18-15 in their regular-season finale, five weeks since USC defeated UCLA 49-14 in its season ender. Now it was time to put all the game films and printouts away and play ball.
Second quarter, Ohio State Defensive Backfield Coach Pete Carroll on the horn to the held: "Iso! [White following the fullback who's trying to isolate and block a linebacker].... In Tiger they're doubling the noseguard. The ball cuts behind the double team: that's all it is. It's simple.... The tackle can't make the play, that's all."
OSU Outside Linebacker Coach Bob Tucker on another line: "Why should we be in tighter with two tight [USC's two-tight-end formation]. We gotta be in State [an OSU defense]. With two tights, why should we be in Tiger [a defensive adjustment] if your tackle can't get White?"
Carroll: "Let's go to State next time, O.K.? The Tiger's not helping us though because...."
Tucker: "They're running it inside too much."
At USC the coaches were engulfed before the game in hundreds of pages of computer printouts that detailed everything the Buckeyes had done in nine 1979 games. The computer knew that Ohio State's favorite play was 28 Pitch—the same play, called just plain 20, on which USC feels it has the copyright, its having been the Trojans' mainstay since long before O.J. began running for daylight in airport terminals. The Buckeyes had run it 29 times. More revealing, the computer discovered, on 13 occasions it was called with four yards or more to go, and that on those occasions it made a first down 44.8% of the time.
OSU Guard and Center Coach Glen Mason (shouting): "Why don't they stay on the phones when we're talking to 'em?"
Inside Linebacker Coach John Marshall of USC had pondered these facts: on third-down-and-three plays, Ohio State made a first down 55% of the time; on third-and-four, 38%. But on third-and-five, the Buckeyes succeeded 88% of the time. Said Marshall, "So I ask myself, 'What does it mean?' "
Good question, coach. What does it mean?
"I don't know."
Yet the sheets were loaded with hints and clues. "Great teams tend to have great tendencies," says Marshall, "which is why they tend to be successful." Example: on second-and-seven-to-nine situations, Ohio State had passed 20 times, but only once to the split end. Consequently, in practice USC didn't double-cover the split end. Example: the Buckeyes ran only two reverses in the nine games, one for five yards, one for two. Ergo, USC didn't waste time on defensing the reverse, although Marshall admitted, "They may snooker us good." They didn't. Example: when the ball was on the left hashmark, the Bucks ran to the short side of the field 69 times, to the wide field 66. They passed to the near sideline 11 times and went to the far part of the field 16 times. "That means," says Marshall, "that they have power and are not afraid to go to the short side and stick it down your throat."
What haunted the USC coaches was trying to figure what Ohio State would do different. USC's pages of data told the Buckeye story up to the final chapter. The fear was that the authors might spring a surprise ending. Still, as one Trojan coach said, "If they do just what they have been, we'll win."
What happened was that Ohio State generally did what it had been doing, just a lot better. The Buckeyes' intensity was startling. Good thing, too, because USC probably was superior at 20 of the 22 starting positions, with only Guard Ken Fritz and Outside Linebacker Jimmy Laughlin having a clear edge over their Trojan counterparts. Ohio State had spent the season proving itself. USC, on the other hand, was a team of veteran stars, including an offensive line (Guards Roy Foster and Brad Budde, Tackle Keith Van Home, Center Chris Foote and—back from a knee injury that had kept him out of all but one game this season—6'7", 280-pound Tackle Anthony Munoz) of such splendid caliber that its equal will not soon be assembled anywhere. And, as their coach, Hudson Houck, said, "Our temperament is a little nastier than most."
The game was further hyped by the imponderables. Was Heisman winner White really sick with the flu? (Yes, very, which, of course, makes his 247 yards on 39 carries, both Rose Bowl records, all the more impressive.) Would Robinson leave the Trojans for a pro coaching job? (No, he signed a five-year contract the day before the game and said he was glad for the steady work.) Did the Buckeyes have the moral fiber to withstand the distractions of Tinseltown? (Yes, for sure.)
While Ohio State's strategy would involve probing the USC team for real or imagined weaknesses, the Trojans were almost complacent. Explained Houck, "Our game plan is to run right at them." Actually, the much-revered "game plan" is often not all that big a deal. For example, USC's was contained on a single page and simply listed the normal game situations and the plays the Trojan brain trust would like to see run. There were similar lists for bombs, short passes, two-minute offense, 25 yards in, 10 yards in and so forth. In comparison with the pages of computer printouts, it was a singularly unimposing document. But Trojan Quarterback Coach Paul Hackett said the only thing that had generally changed much in USC's game plan over the season was the deployment on long pass plays.
Not so on New Year's Day. Ohio State was effective in pushing USC out of its game plan and forced the Trojans to pass earlier in the game than they had anticipated. Watching Schlichter in action, Robinson thought to himself, "Now, he's going to get 21 points on us. We can't afford not to wheel and deal because we're not going to control him."
In the press box were four OSU coaches, hooked in to the other four coaches and an occasional player on the field by five phone lines; USC had a similar setup. It's the role of the people upstairs to get the down and distance correct, to spot openings, to note defensive adjustments, to make suggestions, to detect changes in the opponent's usual way of doing things, to scream, bang fists, cheerlead, knock over coffee and curse. Theirs is a fragmented and anguished three hours, for they see things coming before the players do but too late to do anything about them. The final decisions on plays and defenses are made down on the field. But despite the emotion up above, Trojan Offensive Backs Coach John Jackson says, "We strive to be businesslike."
First quarter, Tucker: "You watch the tight ends and tackles. Try to concentrate on what they're doing and...."
Carroll: "What was the Arkansas score?"
The Buckeyes got an early break when the Trojans couldn't punch it over with 10:53 to play in the first quarter. At fourth-and-one on the Ohio State five, Robinson called for Pass 22 Gut—a Quarterback Paul McDonald pass to Tight End Vic Rakhshani—an old reliable that had worked 12 out of 12 times over the past two years. It failed. Later in the first quarter, with USC ahead 3-0 on a 41-yard field goal by Eric Hipp, Schlichter served notice of his impending extraordinary performance (289 yards passing) on a third-and-five at his own 45-yard line.
Tucker: "Looks like Art is audibling."
Carroll: "Yeah, hey, Williams is deep. All right!"
Which it was, the ball settling into the soft hands of Split End Gary Williams at the 19, who then ran it to the Trojan two.
OSU's Mason: "Let's get it in there. Way to go, Bucks."
Carroll: "Get it in there."
Mason: "Ram it in there."
In the USC observer post, the reaction to the Schlichter throw was decidedly different.
Marshall: "My God, he's open! We missed a tackle."
Outside Linebackers Coach Artie Gigantino: "We missed a tackle."
But upstairs there never is time to dwell on the past. Gigantino immediately called down to the field, recommending a defense keyed to stop a fullback fake on a quarterback keeper. That's what the Buckeyes ran—just as the computer had said they would in this situation—with Schlichter keeping and getting the ball to the one. On second-and-goal at the one, the Trojans employed their 62 Shoot defense, the linebackers coming hard. It was the perfect call to crumple Buckeye Tailback Cal Murray for no gain. On third-and-one, Marshall was hollering into his phone, "They won't throw!" They didn't, and Fullback Paul Campbell was stuffed for no gain. And on the Bucks' fourth try, everyone upstairs for USC was yelling to watch for a Schlichter option. That it was, and he was bent backwards.
Mason: "It's the guards who have got to jump. Not Campbell. He should have plowed through. Get it! Get it!"
Carroll (quietly): "He didn't get it."
Meanwhile, USC's Marshall leapt to his feet in exultation, but he caught his thighs under the table and crashed back into his chair. "Damn, I've done that before."
This goal-line stand was the heart of the game, for it crushed the heart of the Bucks. The morning after, over breakfast, Robinson relived the moment and confessed that "90 times out of 100, they would have scored on us." In fact, he said, had the Buckeyes either thrown or pitched, they would have scored. Although Earle Bruce was second-guessing himself for not going for a field goal ("You hate to go to the well and come away dry"), Robinson supported his counterpart's decision, saying, "There's not a coach in the country who doesn't think he can make two yards in four tries." Certainly not a coach of a No. 1 team seeking to hold onto that spot.
With 9:20 to go in the second quarter, McDonald dropped back to throw from his own 47, and the Ohio State coaches upstairs, who had called a blitz for the second time in a row, smelled a sack in the making.
Tucker: "Close it up! Close it up."
Carroll: "Hammer again.... Come on, T [Todd] Bell, come on, T Bell. Aw, Todd didn't show up."
Mason: "God dawg it! God dawg it! God dawg it!"
The pass was complete for 53 yards and a touchdown to the uncanny Trojan flanker, Kevin Williams. It was his eighth touchdown catch this season on just 25 receptions. The Buckeyes blitzed only five times all afternoon. Because of this one, which put Ohio State into man-to-man coverage, USC led 10-0. Later in the second quarter White made his first big run, dashing up the middle for 45 yards. But Todd Bell hammered the ball out of White's grasp from behind, and Jim Laughlin recovered for OSU on the Ohio State 20.
Carroll: "We got it. Holy mackerel! Great job. Who did that? Bell? He made the best play, just knocked the ball out."
Mason: "Leo Dash 37, 25.... Yeah, if we do it right now and overload that nickel defense.... Right, overload their tackle inside of the one angling in."
Carroll: "We're on our 33. Tell him to run out the clock."
But Schlichter was having none of that. On a third-and-one with just 38 seconds to play in the half, he found USC lined up as it had been the two previous plays, in an ill-advised short-yardage defense. Schlichter passed for 67 yards to Gary Williams and—bingo!—the score was 10-10. The Trojans were stunned, and Marshall grumped, "I forgot to tell them down there how little time was left. Of course they would pass. Damn!"
At the half, Robinson told his team, "Men, we've had our ups and downs in the first half, and the second half will be the same thing. Just keep playing. And don't blink."
In the Ohio State dressing room inspirational messages took a back seat to the squeaking of chalk as revisions were diagramed. Through the first half the Buckeye offensive line had confronted an unusual defensive front, with both USC tackles lining up on one side of the center and the outside tackle angling in on the Ohio State tight end. The result was that the Ohio State offensive line was somewhat uncertain about its blocking assignments. Provisional adjustments had been made as the first half progressed; now the Bucks wanted to be dead certain they had the alignment diagnosed correctly. "It was a different look," said Coach Fred Zechman later, "but really it was the same alignment with different people. Upstairs we didn't recognize it as quickly as we should have."
Said Coach Mason, "In the dressing room we talked about it for a full 15 minutes, more than I'd ever spent on that kind of thing. We went over every play, every block, and I thought we made a very good adjustment."
The defensive scheme, meanwhile, was also altered somewhat, away from a pronounced concentration on defending against the run to a more balanced approach. The Buckeyes had clearly been sobered by the speed of Kevin Williams and thus would go to more pure zone pass coverage instead of relying so much on man-to-man against the speedburner. The Buckeyes were further sobered by the loss of Middle Guard Tim Sawicki, who injured his left knee in the second quarter and would not return.
But the halftime restructuring seemed to work. Field goals by Vlade Janakievski of 37 yards in the third quarter and 24 in the fourth (to go with his second-quarter 35-yarder) gave the Bucks a 16-10 lead, while USC was being denied a seemingly certain touchdown on an offensive pass-interference call.
Third quarter, Carroll on the phone to cornerback and backup rover Brian Schwartz: "Hey, Brian, now listen. If you get in there, I want you to play smart football. They are going to come and get you, you understand that? Number 8 [Kevin Williams] is going to really take off on you. I want you to play deep. Mike [Guess] is in right now, but the next series you may go in. If you 're playing inside man, I want you inside. If you're playing outside man, play outside. Don't mess around with anything else. Just play the coverage."
Then, with 5:21 to go, White trotted onto the field with the rest of the Trojan offense. The ball was on the USC 17. Upstairs, USC Offensive Back Coach John Jackson said, "Let's see if we can't run it at 'em." That was the signal for White to take charge. Absolute charge. He burst 32 yards on a play called 22 Blast as Ohio State twice missed tackles.
USC Coach Paul Hackett on the field: "Let's repeat it."
Jackson: "No, let's change it."
As it was through most of this last drive, McDonald had his choice, and he elected 25 Power. White got outside for 28 yards and then was removed to rest.
Jackson: "Do I have him the next play?"
Hackett to White on the sideline: "Charlie?"
White (gasping): "Give me just one more out."
And then he was back, flu aches and all, for three yards, five yards, two yards and finally a 22 Jump to send himself vaulting and tumbling over the backs of Fullback Marcus Allen and Guard Roy Foster for the game-winning touchdown.
OSU's Carroll: "O.K., we're in State. Two tight, right.... C'mon, give us a pitch...Iso! [White runs at right guard].... This is it, Ray should be there.... C'mon, where is he?
"That's the way Earle said it was going to be, White."
Said Robinson, "It just didn't make any sense to give it to anybody else." Indeed, White carried for 71 of the drive's 83 yards, and when Ohio State got the ball again, with 1:32 left, it could do nothing. As the Buckeye buses left the stadium, many of the players stared out at the Rose Bowl and vowed, "We'll be back next year." It's not a bad bet.
Later that evening Earle Bruce and his coaches stopped off at a Hollywood deli for a sandwich. Everyone bought pastrami and corned beef sandwiches and spread them on the hood of the car in a parking lot on Sunset Boulevard. "This is what happens when you lose," said Bruce. "If we had won, I'd have been someplace with tablecloths."