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With contempt for caution

The bowls on New Year's weekend served as an example of how exciting the game can be when the offense is wide open and mistakes be damned

George Blanda, the wise old quarterback, said after watching the Alabama-Notre Dame Sugar Bowl game on television that that was the way football ought to be played, "a great game, wide open," and that by comparison the pro game, his game, is "stereotyped" and "getting dull." Blanda implied that to bring the pros to parity in decibels of excitement will require a greater infusion of forward passes, and in the wire-service dispatch that featured his views it was pointed out that even Ohio State's Woody Hayes, celebrated advocate of the flat football, ordered more passes than Miami threw in its AFC championship victory over Blanda's Oakand Raiders.

George can be forgiven for he probably has not seen much college football lately, being busy on fall weekends exercising his 46-year-old right leg. But the fact is that college football is more exciting—most especially as played by teams like Notre Dame and Alabama—not because more passes are thrown but because its offenses are better conceived by more imaginative men. Men who dare to be different, who are not so wrapped up in precision and technical efficiency that they forget the name of the game is to make yards and points, not to keep from making mistakes.

If anything, the college game is more run-oriented than the pros. In the Sugar Bowl, where the ball seemed to be flying around all night, only 27 passes were thrown, fewer than in any of the six NFL playoff games over the two-weekend period. The reason the Sugar Bowl principals seemed so wild and woolly is that their offenses do not depend on flight alone to save them from tedium, and the wonders they performed in this showdown for the national championship made for drama and suspense no Super Bowl has come close to matching. Forty-seven points were scored (24 by Notre Dame), 43 first downs achieved and, most significant, 738 total yards accumulated against defenses that were the burly, beastly equal of any in college football. None of the pro playoff totals were close to that last figure. The average for the six playoff games was 557 yards, all teams basically doing the same thing, out of the so-called pro-set offense.

The most obvious difference in concept is that both Alabama, with its Wishbone attack, and Notre Dame, with its multiplicity of sets and men-in-motion wing-T strategems, are four-back offenses. The halfbacks and the fullbacks run and catch and sometimes throw. Even the quarterbacks run...and run and run. And sometimes catch. The pros are two-back offenses, with a passer. Period. And even when it came down to that nittiest of all the gritty moments over the bowl weekend, Notre Dame with its Irish up at its own goal in the 11th hour, there was one more surprise to be generated.

Bear Bryant said much later that Tom Clements' clinching third-and-eight pass from the end zone was not just a brilliant call but came off a well-executed misdirection play in the backfield that further camouflaged Ara Parseghian's intentions. Two scoops for the price of one; surprise on top of surprise. "A great play," said Bryant.

The Ohio State-USC Rose Bowl game, meanwhile, produced not only a 42-21 score but 855 total yards, or a whopping 300 more than the pro average. It is well to point out that unlike most of the brethren, USC threw the ball around a lot in that game. The Trojans relied more on Pat Haden's passing this year (college coaches adapt to what they have) when John McKay realized he had lost the blocking fullback (Sam Cunningham, now a Patriot) and the blocking tight end (Charlie Young, now an Eagle) that made his running game so successful last year, and because he thinks Haden is "the best passer I ever saw." McKay let Haden throw 39 times on Ohio State, and Anthony Davis once, but interestingly enough when it was all over the "passer" they talked about was Cornelius Greene of Ohio State, who had thown only 38 all year, and then completed six of the eight he tried against USC. It must have been a traumatic experience for Woody Hayes, allowing Greene all those passes. He said afterward that they had "worked, worked, worked on our passing" for the Rose Bowl.

The reason Greene was so effective, of course, is that he also fed, fed, fed the ball to his sophomore Tailback Archie Griffin (149 yards) and freshman Fullback Pete Johnson (94 yards and three touchdowns) and ran, ran, ran himself for 45 yards. For sheer beauty, however, there was no play to match the 47-yard touchdown run by Griffin that put USC away for good in the fourth quarter. The long broken-field run is, after more than a century, still the most exciting play in football.

John McKay says he would love to spend his retirement years coaching defense in the NFL, since "you never have to face an option play there," and the option as a viable, expandable weapon has become the most difficult thing to defense in college football. All the major bowl teams used it, in varying doses. Even David Humm, the closest thing to a pure passing quarterback performing over the New Year's weekend—pure passers being passé in college football—ran six times and was the second leading rusher for Nebraska in its 19-3 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas. The Cotton was the most one-sided bowl, although Texas led briefly and had a tie at halftime.

LSU Quarterback Mike Miley came within nine yards of equaling Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti's 50-yard net in the Orange Bowl, and did so in half the number of carries. LSU strung out the Penn State line almost every time Cappelletti touched the ball, jammed the holes with snapping pursuit and shut him down. Penn State still won 16-9, but the only people who would argue that the unbeaten Nittany Lions are in a class with Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma or Alabama live in Pennsylvania.

The Alabama option is the "triple" out of the Wishbone, and though the Wishbone is still an innovative offense the dimensions it has already displayed seem endless. Parseghian said beforehand that Bryant's infusion of exotic pass patterns made him "uncomfortable" in preparation for Alabama. "I wish they were more conservative," he said.

The Sugar Bowl chess game was terrific, especially if you had an inkling beforehand what the teams were trying to do. Notre Dame, for example, uses so many different defensive alignments it took Alabama a full period to get sorted out. When it did the Tide took such complete command that it seemed Notre Dame would not only fall but be trampled to death. But in a game like this, with the stakes so high, the errors that decide it (errors decide every game whether the stakes are high or not) are often errors of omission. The first of two that beat Alabama came during that long period of dominance during the second and third periods. After pulling ahead 7-6, Alabama let Al Hunter return the kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown. "Let" is a word advisedly used and not meant to detract from Hunter's feat (it was a feat, the only kick returned for a touchdown against Alabama all year), but Hunter seemed to be the only one in the park who knew what he was doing on the play. No great blocks were thrown. No wild, clawing pursuit made. Both sides seemed to be watching for just the right moment to spring into action. And since no one sprang, Hunter did.

But the most obvious Alabama gaffe was the 30-yard pass to Tight End Dave Casper that put Notre Dame in position for its final winning field goal. Casper was not only covered, he was boxed in at the Alabama 15, and Tom Clements' pass was a Roman candle. Either of Casper's two Alabama escorts—Ricky Davis or David McMakin—might well have made the interception. "Somebody should have been all over his neck," growled Bryant. But Davis, behind Casper to the Alabama side of the field, said he "knew David was in position to make the play," and held off. And McMakin got fooled by the chill wind buffeting the ball and "completely lost sight of it." All Casper did was step right up and have himself a reception.

At the finish Notre Dame, a team of immense poise, had regained the edge it held earlier and was in control. If it was a game either team deserved to win, then certainly Notre Dame deserved it, and now makes a handsome national champion. Because Oklahoma was on probation, and thus kept from showing its stuff in a bowl, and because Ohio State so dominated USC in the Rose, it will be bandied that a reasonable doubt was left. USC players and coaches opted for Ohio State and Oklahoma in post-bowl comments, but theirs is an objectivity worth questioning. An abiding animosity exists between USC and Notre Dame.

The Irish appear a better team than Ohio State if only because they are more well-rounded. Oklahoma comes closer to Notre Dame's completeness. Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Alabama were, in 1973, as lovely to look at as any teams who ever played the game, and the pleasure is just beginning, for all three are loaded with young stars. Indeed, the whole of college football is in glowing health, its fans alive and not kicking. The colleges drew record crowds for the 20th straight year, and in terms of producing the kind of drama that could even lure people—including George Blanda—from their New Year's Eve parties, they were an entertainment of consistently high order.