As a pair of celebrated California All-Americas, USC's O. J. Simpson and UCLA's Gary Beban were feted often, and frequently together, at various formal winter-season football feasts. Naturally, they had some time to chat with each other, and what did they talk about? Ah, well, All-Americas are human after all. As happens so often in modern man's self-conscious search for acceptance, each spoke about what he liked remembering most. "I just talked to him about The Big Game," says Simpson, "and he just talked to me about The Big Trophy." The Big Game was USC's 21-20 win over UCLA last year in which O. J. broke loose on a 64-yard touchdown run that sewed it up for the Trojans. And The Big Trophy was the 1967 Heisman Trophy, which Beban won at the season's end over O. J. himself.
Well, Beban is a high-priced Washington Redskin now and he plays for The Big Dollar. But O. J. Simpson, the most spectacular running back in the college game, is still living in a world of football that offers its immediate rewards in Big Games and Big Trophies. And, as things stand, O. J. could once again have a chief rival in both categories—Keyes of Purdue.
Their Heisman competition is an obvious duel, for if both escape injury and are one-half as effective as they are expected to be, no one in college football will match their performances or their headlines. The Big Game thing is slightly less certain. USC and Purdue are not scheduled to play each other this year, but there is always that postseason affair in Pasadena on New Year's Day. USC has been there three times in the last six years as Pacific Eight champion and, barring a surprise or two, such as losing to rugged Oregon State or still-tough UCLA, O. J. & Co. should be in the Rose Bowl business again. And if Purdue and Leroy aren't there, it only will be because the Boilermakers suffered an unexpected attack of Ohio State, or some such thing.
USC Coach John McKay, who is no mean psychologist, is predicting quite flatly that "Purdue will certainly win the national championship." Since USC was No. 1 in '67, one might think McKay was speaking with utter honesty from profound authority. Or one might think that he does not want to dwell on the prospects of his own team winning consecutive national titles.
It is surprising that this particular USC team has a chance to be No. 1 again, for its personnel losses have been severe. Gone are End Tim Rossovich and Linebacker Adrian Young, both All-Americas, along with five other starters from the defense. Gone from the offense are Tackles Ron Yary, another All-America, and Mike Taylor, along with that splendid split end, Earl McCullouch, and Guard Mike Scarpace. To fully appreciate the extent of the departed talent, one need only be aware that five USC seniors were first-round draft choices by the pros last winter.
Still, McKay is not depressed. As usual, he has some splendid junior-college transfers, a few huge sophomore linemen and a fair number of more than adequate rookie backs and receivers. But mostly McKay has O. J. Simpson once again, and with him lies most of USC's hope.
It is hope well placed. Simpson has defied all efforts to stop him. In 10 games last season he carried the ball 291 times for 1,543 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. Increasingly as the year went on, opponents realized that if they could stop Simpson they could stop USC, but except perhaps for the day in the mud at Oregon State, nobody could stack a defense well enough to hold off the 200-pound 9.3 sprinter who hits like a fullback. "You think you have him contained," said Indiana's John Pont after his team's 14-3 Rose Bowl loss to USC, "and suddenly you realize he's piled up 128 yards and you're standing there losing the game."
USC does have more than O. J. Simpson, quite a bit more, and much of it can be measured in speed. Flanker Jim Lawrence, who has just recovered from a knee operation, is a 9.6 man, and his backup, sophomore Mike Morgan, does the 100 in 9.9. Dan Scott, a 210-pound fullback who rushed for 349 yards last year, can move his bulk at a 4.7-second rate over 40 yards, and sophomore Sam Dickerson, a split end who evokes recollections of McCullouch, is a 9.7 sprinter.
The only backfield problem McKay has is at quarterback, where he must choose between senior Steve Sogge, who was last year's top quarterback, and Mike Holmgren, a 6'4" junior who has suddenly displayed much promise. Sogge is a stocky, unspectacular type. As one Pacific Eight coach put it, "He's too short, too slow and can't run. All he does is beat hell out of you." In his unnoticed way, when he wasn't making his half-millionth handoff to Simpson, Sogge was completing 75 of 151 passes for 1,032 yards and seven touchdowns. But Holmgren could beat Sogge out this year. Although Holmgren, a 220-pounder, has always been able to throw 60-yard strikes, he has been considered too clumsy to handle McKay's roll-out offense. Last spring, however, he began to move like a man with two feet instead of three, and McKay, with visions of 60-yard strikes to complement Simpson's blasts, took note.
The offensive line has size, mobility and reasonable experience. Both tackles are new, but Sid Smith goes 256 pounds and Marv Montgomery is 245. Guard Steve Lehmer, 230, and Center Dick Allmon, 225, were '67 first-stringers. At tight end is Bob Klein, 6'5" and 238 pounds, whom McKay considers one of the best in the West.
The defense looked wobbly in the spring, largely because Tackle Willard Scott and End Jim Gunn were convalescing from knee surgery. However, if they are sound, the front five will be hard to fault, with Scott moved to middle guard, JC transfer Gary McArthur and Tony Terry at the tackles and Bill Hayhoe, 6'8", 258 pounds, at left end. Linebacker Adrian Young cannot be replaced, but McKay feels Jim Snow has All-America potential. There is only one returnee in the secondary, senior Mike Battle, who will play halfback this year along with Tyrone Hudson, a JC transfer. Sandy Durko, a nonstarting letterman in '67, will be the safety except in punting situations when Battle, the country's No. 1 punt returner, will be deep.
With a schedule that includes Minnesota, Miami, Oregon State, UCLA and Notre Dame, a slightly weaker USC and a hopefully stronger O. J. cannot let down. But if preseason form fits real-season performance, when O. J. and Leroy meet on next winter's banquet circuit, they will be talking about The Big Game and The Big Trophy.