It seems as if over the years USC has had a patent on last-second, come-from-behind, frighten-the-bejeezus-out-of-its-fans sorcery. Given that fact, coupled with the proximity of the Trojan campus to Hollywood, the assumption may be made that football game plans are prepared by the school's cinema department, not the coaching staff.
The plot line goes back at least to the Howard Jones era, to 1931, when John Baker kicked a nick-of-time field goal to beat Notre Dame 16-14. But more recently the script has usually called for a handsome leading man of a quarterback to fling a desperation pass to some whippet of a receiver in the end zone just before the director yells, "Cut!" In this manner USC has won numerous national titles, Rose Bowls and almost as much TV exposure as Paul Lynde.
So, predictably, there the Trojans were last Saturday afternoon in the Los Angeles Coliseum trailing Alabama by one point with 35 seconds to go. Perfect. They had just driven to a touchdown and were going to try for a two-point conversion. (A school with such ride-to-the-rescue alumni as John Wayne, Ward Bond and that fellow in the Hertz commercials would go for a tie?) All USC Quarterback Rob Hertel had to do was throw for the two points and race to the sideline to kiss either a pompon girl or the Trojan horse.
Hertel took the snap, rolled to his right for the expected play-action pass but managed only a feeble toss (which was intercepted) as he was being buried under an Alabama sophomore named Wayne Hamilton, who had blasted by two blockers. The Crimson Tide ran out the clock to win 21-20, knock USC off its No. 1 perch in both wire-service polls and snip the Trojans' win streak at 15.
While USC was staging a comeback behind Hertel, who completed 16 of 23 passes for 230 yards in the second half, Hamilton was making a comeback of his own. Recently he had found himself in Coach Bear Bryant's doghouse, which has often operated at capacity in the Bear's 20 seasons at Tuscaloosa. "I just wasn't playing up to the potential he feels I have, I guess," said Hamilton. "I didn't start against Vanderbilt after being the regular defensive end in the opener against Ole Miss and the next week against Nebraska. After he told me I wasn't starting, I just did a little soul-searching and decided I didn't want any of that sitting on the bench and not playing a lot." A star was reborn.
In an 18-10 Alabama victory over Southeastern Conference rival Georgia, Hamilton recovered two fumbles in the third period. On Saturday he was a key man in a dazzlingly quick defensive line that blunted USC's usually sharp running attack. A back probably would have to be part cheetah to get away consistently from the likes of Hamilton, Linebackers Barry Krauss and Rickey Gilliland and Tackle David Hannah.
Unlike the Civil War and Texas-Oklahoma, the Alabama-USC rivalry, which concludes next September in Birmingham, seems to ooze mutual respect, mutual admiration and a mutual attitude of "Let's not get those people annoyed or they'll rise up on their hoary traditions and smite us." Bryant is now 2-1 versus USC. The Tide, going all the way back to the 1938 season opener, is 4-1 against Southern Cal.
"I feel honored having the opportunity to play the No. 1-ranked team in the country, although we're certainly not as healthy as I would like for us to be," drawled Bryant before the game, communicating as usual in a mumble that sounds as though a coffee can full of rocks is being shaken. "USC looks like one of the great teams I've seen. Someone asked me what's their strong point and I said, 'You name it.' I'd rather play the No. 1 team than the 101st, though."
USC's John Robinson, who has been a head coach 31 fewer seasons than Bryant, was not to be outdone in slathering his rival with praise. "It's exciting as heck for us to play Alabama," he said. "It's like our game with Notre Dame—a meeting of two schools with a lot of football tradition. Coach Bryant is one of the great men in football, and I'd like him to come out and talk with our kids."
In the opening scene it appeared that USC would move through Alabama routinely—Hertel hurling the ball, Fullback Mosi Tatupu bursting up the middle and Charles White rolling up the yardage that seems to be the divine right of Trojan tailbacks. But when the drive stalled on the 'Bama 15, USC had to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Frank Jordan and a 3-0 lead.
On 'Bama's second offensive series, USC got hit with a roughing-the-kicker penalty, the first of 10 misdemeanors and felonies that were to cost the Trojans 124 yards. There were face-mask grabbings, delays of game, personal fouls, holding, illegal procedure and probably jaywalking and illegal left turns. If a sin was described in the rule book, USC seemed to have put it in its playbook.
For its part, Alabama showed a strong fullback, Johnny Davis, known as "The Bull" to his teammates; Punt Returner Ozzie Newsome, who also is a fine split end; and a tough offensive line. The Tide played USC even for the rest of the half and likely would have tied the score in the second quarter, but Roger Chapman's 34-yard field-goal attempt was blocked by Defensive Back Larry Braziel.
In the third quarter, USC almost got itself buried by falling hankies. A personal foul helped mess up the Trojans' first possession, a face-mask penalty aided a 'Bama drive of 51 yards in seven plays, which culminated with Davis going two yards for a TD. Chapman kicked the extra point, and the Trojans trailed for the first time this season 7-3.
USC then marched 79 yards to the Alabama one. Third down and inches to go for a touchdown. Reserve Tailback Dwight Ford took a pitchout left and was nailed for a five-yard loss. USC again settled for a Jordan field goal and still trailed, 7-6. Another 'Bama drive, helped by another USC personal foul, ended with Halfback Tony Nathan charging in from the one; Chapman's kick made it 14-6. Fifty-eight seconds later Nathan scored again, the TD set up when Nose Guard Curtis McGriff tipped a Hertel pass and Hamilton intercepted it at the USC eight. The PAT made it Alabama 21-6.
At that moment, Bryant admitted later, he thought USC was "completely beaten."
Hertel, who waited through four seasons to be the starting Trojan quarterback, thought differently. So did Split End Randy Simmrin, who, Robinson says, "can grab the ball over the middle, come back for it, dive like hell to get it, go up in the air for it and, more than that, he can catch it and run with it like a back."
On a drive starting on the USC nine, Hertel picked the 'Bama secondary to pieces: 12 yards to Lynn Cain, 12 yards to Simmrin, 12 yards to Howard Studdard. He completed six of eight passes, the last a 10-yard TD play to Flanker Calvin Sweeney.
USC went for the two points. Hertel was tackled and falling, but he threw side-arm to Tatupu, who ducked under a tackier and went in for the score. Alabama 21, USC 14.
The Trojan defense stopped Alabama's wishbone on the next series and Hertel, starting from his 21, completed five of eight passes until, with 44 seconds left in the game, USC had a third down on the Alabama nine. Hertel threw to Simmrin in the end zone, but the ball was tipped away. Then USC got a break from the officials. Don McNeal was called for interfering with Simmrin even though he appeared to have pushed him after the ball was tipped. USC had first-and-goal on the one and Cain scored, cutting 'Bama's margin to one point and setting up Hamilton's sack of Hertel on the crucial conversion try.
"I'm very proud of 'em," Bryant mumbled about his young team that has lost only to Nebraska, 31-24, this season. "I think it was a great thing for our conference and our section. I think everyone played as hard as he could and, uh, the whole thing was a team victory. But I want to tell you also, we got a little help from upstairs there at the last.
"It was actually three different games. One, a kind of cheek-to-cheek, jaw-to-jaw game. And then there was a game that we came back in and dominated. Finally, there was a game that they came back in and dominated and almost won. We are real lucky to get out of it, under the circumstances.
"I have never seen a team that I thought was completely beaten, then in the fourth quarter come back so strong. I have to compliment Coach Robinson and his staff and his players.... They got some kind of quarterback."
"It seemed to me we were out of rhythm most of the day," said Robinson. "Maybe our biorhythms were out of synch. The passes in the first half were just off the receivers' fingertips and just missed...."
As for playing it safe at the end—perish the thought.
"I couldn't come in here and look my team in the face after going for a tie," Robinson said. "There's just no way—it's impossible. You play to win the game. That's the only way. The kids play too hard out there and they don't play to tie.
"I was very impressed with their defense and their team. It's a privilege to play Alabama. They have a great history, a great team and a great university, and, my God, that was a great show out there today."
That it was. But for USC fans, it was a little like watching John Wayne gun down all the assistant baddies, step out on Main Street to dispatch the archvillain and then have his six-gun stick in its holster. It wasn't the happy ending they expected.
Tony Nathan's two fourth-quarter touchdowns helped 'Bama put the game out of reach—just barely.