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TGS PAC-12 RETROSPECTIVE...OJ'S HEISMAN YEAR AT USC

                                     by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

With our revived fascination in OJ Simpson thanks to a couple of glitzy recent TV specials, we thought it might be interesting to go back to the early days of the OJ legacy to remind everyone what all the fuss was about in the first place, long before the white Bronco, Johnnie Cochran, and Lance Ito would become forever linked with the Juice.

And why not? After all, we had an up-front seat to the beginning of the OJ legend, when he leaped into national prominence (perhaps like no other college athlete in our lifetimes) while at nearby USC. Moreover, we were there at the start of the Simpson career at Southern Cal, a Friday night game at the LA Coliseum to kick off the 1967 season vs. Washington State.

Those, by the way, were the days when SC shared the Coliseum as home field with crosstown UCLA, and on the occasional weekends when both would be scheduled at home, one or the other would play on Friday; the Bruins would be hosting Tennessee in a much-ballyhooed intersectional that following Saturday night at the Coliseum, a game which garnered much more national coverage than the Simpson debut, a story that did not resonate much outside of the L.A. basin. UCLA-Tennessee was perhaps the featured intersectional matchup of that memorable ‘67 season, and even prompted special coverage from Sports Illustrated, the ultimate validator of big sports stories in those days. SI would run a feature on Bruins-Vols, which turned into a crackling game, in the following week’s issue.

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As for SC, it would wallop Wazzu, 49-0.  The touted juco transfer Simpson, an intriguing curiosity at that point after already acquitting himself as a sprinter of note on the SC track team while part of a world-record setting 4x100 yard relay team the previous spring, would yield pre-game headlines to returnee RB Steve Grady before ending up as the star of the night following a 3-TD effort. Though his 94 YR vs. WSU would look modest compared to upcoming accomplishments, OJ had already started to cause a serious buzz in LA.

Of course, the Simpson train would pick up steam as ‘67 season proceeded, and OJ would move from a regional to a national phenomenon by mid-October when the Trojans would rise to the top in the polls and “The Juice” spearheaded the first SC win at Notre Dame in 28 years, gaining 150 YR and scoring 3 TDs in a game the Trojan defense would share the headlines when picking off 7 Irish passes as SC triumphed, 24-7. By that point, Simpson had emerged as a serious Heisman Trophy threat to crosstown Gary Beban at UCLA, and the annual late-November showdown vs. the Bruins would become perhaps the most-anticipated college game of the decade.

That “Battle for L.A.” certainly did not disappoint. OJ’s flair for the dramatic was never more apparent than facing UCLA that November 18, as SC would win in thrill-packed fashion, 21-20, with Simpson’s unforgettable 64-yard TD run in the 4th Q proving the difference. Beban would narrowly win the Heisman over Simpson, but OJ led the nation with 1543 YR, and the Trojans would beat Indiana in the Rose Bowl and win the national championship, setting up a defense of the crown the following college ‘68 campaign in which O.J. would be the featured attraction right from the start.

Indeed, we hardly recall a college athlete as high-profile as Simpson was in 1968. After all, the Juice had electrified the nation with his 1967 debut. Moreover, he was the glamour player at a glamour school, USC, that had just won a national title, and Simpson was the toast of Los Angeles. Talk was already circulating about future TV and movie work. Meanwhile, none other than Bob Hope would join the bandwagon and film one of his many NBC-TV specials of the day direct from the LA Sports Arena, home of SC basketball, with Simpson as the main honored guest. (To be fair, Hope also filmed a special at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion the same year.) Though sports coverage was not quite as comprehensive in those days before ESPN or the Internet, OJ dominated the national discussion as much as any athlete, college or pro, in the turbulent year of 1968.

So captivating was the SC tale with OJ in 1967, and so riveting had been the late-season encounter with Beban and UCLA, that the college football press could not help but speculate upon another possible late-season showdown game, perhaps with Heisman ramifications, for Simpson’s senior year in ‘68. Though not necessarily vs. post-Beban UCLA. Decorated QB Terry Hanratty, however, was still at Notre Dame, and the possibility of an OJ-Hanratty showdown in the regular-season finale at the LA Coliseum had national scribes salivating even before the ‘68 season began, as all of the elements of SC-UCLA from ‘67, with Notre Dame simply slipping into the Bruins’ role, were seemingly in place. If that weren’t enough, the college football media was also projecting a potential national title showdown in the Rose Bowl featuring SC with OJ and Purdue with Leroy Keyes, who entered the ‘68 season as Simpson’s main challenger for the Heisman after finishing third behind Beban and OJ in ‘67. Moreover, the Boilermakers would be eligible again for the Rose Bowl after being barred in ‘67 by the Big Ten’s draconian “no-repeat” rule of the day, with the added angle of a rematch from the Rose Bowl two years previous. Though the Heisman would be awarded before the bowls, national scribes could not help but look ahead all summer about the possibility of the Juice and Leroy in a potential epic Rose Bowl showdown on January 1, 1969.

Simpson’s SC, however, would have a slightly different look than the year before. Unlike HC John McKay’s 1967 national championship team, which welcomed back most of the key players from 1966, and had added Simpson, the 1968 Trojans had to fill several key graduation losses from the Rose Bowl winners over Indiana. McKay, ever the quipster, would publicly downplay his team’s chance to repeat as national champs. "Purdue will certainly win the national championship," said a tongue-in-cheek McKay in the summer of ‘68, though the Irishman would so captivate the sports media of the day that many could not dismiss that McKay was speaking with utter honesty from profound authority...or simply pulling everyone’s chains, as the colorful McKay, who would routinely deadpan while disparaging his team to the press, was wont to do.

Shrewd observers, however, knew that SC’s personnel losses from ‘67 were severe. Gone were stop-unit stalwarts DE Tim Rossovich and LB Adrian Young, both All-Americas, along with five other starters from the defense. Gone from the offense were OTs Ron Yary, another All-America and Outland Trophy winner as well as the first pick in the NFL Draft (by the Vikings), and Mike Taylor, along with big-play WR and Simpson relay partner Earl McCullough, and G Mike Scarpace. To fully appreciate the extent of the departed talent, one needed only be aware that five USC seniors (Yary, Taylor, Rossovich, McCullough, and FB Mike Hull) were first-round choices in the second combined NFL-AFL Draft after the ‘67 season!

So, McKay had more holes to fill than usual, but his teams would never be caught short of top-level talent. And he still had Heisman favorite OJ. The pollsters were not taking McKay’s downplaying seriously and would rank the Trojans at number two in the preseason poll behind Keyes and Purdue, with whom the college football media had another brief infatuation in the late '60s.

The ‘68 Trojans had more than Simpson, and much of it was measured in speed. Flanker Jim Lawrence was a 9.6 man, while thick 210-lb, FB Dan Scott could move his bulk at a 4.7-second rate over 40 yards. Soph WR Sam Dickerson, a 9.7 sprinter, was expected to fill the shoes of big-play McCullough and would indeed end up etching his name in SC annals (more on Dickerson in a bit).

The QB spot, however, was not the featured position at SC in those days. Senior Steve Sogge, a Gardena High product and also a baseball player of some repute for Rod Dedeaux’s Trojan powerhouses on the diamond who had stepped in for an injured Toby Page early in the ‘67 season and proved serviceable enough to win a national title, was expected to be challenged by...Mike Holmgren (yes, that Mike Holmgren), a 6'4" junior who displayed much promise. The workmanlike Sogge, however, kept Holmgren at bay, and McKay would re-load his OL with a couple of future NFL first-round draft choices at the tackle spots, Sid Smith and Marv Montgomery. At tight end was Bob Klein, at 6'5 and 238 pounds, bigger than most interior linemen of the day, and another future NFL first-round pick (by the Rams).

The defense was again expected to be ornery after DT Willard “Bubba” Scott and DE Jimmy Gunn convalesced from offseason knee surgery. The front five was menacing, as OJ’s buddy from San Francisco City College, DE Al Cowlings, would arrive to join with Scott, Gunn, DT Tony Terry and massive DE Bill Hayhoe, the latter two having recorded key blocks of FG attempts by UCLA PK Zenon Andrusyshyn in the epic 1967 showdown vs. the Bruins. Now minus graduated star LB Young (who would eventually be featured on the NFL Eagles with aforementioned Trojan teammate Rossovich), McKay felt sr. Jim Snow had All-America potential. There was only one returnee in the secondary, senior Mike Battle, but he was an All-America and also the nation’s top returning punt return man.

The ‘68 Trojans would thus embark on one of the wildest, thrill-packed rides we at TGS have ever witnessed. Unlike some previous and many subsequent powerhouse national contenders that would routinely destroy foes (as did later SC teams under McKay, John Robinson, and especially Pete Carroll), the ‘68 Trojans were a gridiron version of The Perils of Pauline, routinely snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in a succession of nailbiters that would make their supporters limp as Simpson would almost single-handedly produce the heroics on a weekly basis, further burnishing his star credentials.

(Indeed, the subsequent ‘69 Trojans would take the thrill thing to another level, earning the nickname “Cardiac Kids” and featured in another past TGS Pac-12 Retrospective from 2013.)

Among other things, the ‘68 Trojans would play a demanding schedule that would commence with defending Big Ten co-champ Minnesota, which was plotting an ambush in Minneapolis. Vet HC Murray Warmath was not about to give SC and Simpson any advantage; the grass was up to the ankles and the rain was blowing down from the tops of the smoke stacks and grain elevators and into old Memorial Stadium where the Golden Gophers in decades past had thwarted the likes of Red Grange and Tom Harmon. Perhaps a bit unnerved by the hostile surroundings and conditions, Simpson fumbled on his first carry, setting up a Gopher touchdown, and big, tough Minnesota took a 10-0 lead into the second quarter. McKay knew he would find out early if this particular Trojan edition would be made of stern stuff. "Here's where we see how the heart beats," said the coach to anyone who would listen as Warmath’s team took control in the early going.

To McKay’s delight, the SC heart would beat just fine, as the Trojans rallied back to a 13-13 tie in the second half, and eventually a 16-13 lead early in the 4th Q on a Ron Ayala field goal. But the ticker would skip a few beats after Ayala’s field goal, when the Gophers dredged up an old sandlot trick on the ensuing kickoff—an across-the-field lateral from a hemmed-in George Kemp to lonesome HB John Wintermute, who dashed 83 yards untouched to a score and a 20-16 Minnesota lead! Which held until deeper in the 4th Q, when a Battle punt return set up SC at the Gopher 45, from where Simpson carried the ball six straight times, the last of those for seven yards and a TD, to put the Trojans back in front; A last-minute TD sealed the 29-20 heart-stopper, and OJ began his Heisman assault in breathtaking form–39 carries for 236 yards and 4 TDS, surpassing his best days of 1967! Simpson had indeed surged to a huge early lead in the Heisman race, and the Trojans had set the template for a white-knuckler of a season.

The ‘68 Trojans would only have a couple of truly easy games as they slalomed their way like Jean-Claude Killy through a treacherous regular season. We wouldn’t quite put the next game in that easy category, as SC’s Big Ten tour to open the season continued in Evanston the next week vs. an Alex Agase Northwestern side that would win only one game that season, though the Wildcats would hang around into the second half before bowing to the Trojans, 24-7. We would, however, classify Game Three as easy, surprisingly so, a high-profile home encounter at the Coliseum against the 13th-ranked Miami Hurricanes in which SC rolled, 28-3. The advertised showdown between Simpson and Miami’s A-A DE Ted ”Mad Stork” Hendricks never materialized as the Stork was neutralized and the Juice gained 163 yards on 38 carries. The Trojans would solidify their number two spot in the polls behind Purdue, which had routed Notre Dame 37-22 the previous week at South Bend.

SC’s path to the top of the polls, however, was about to open up...though in truth, the circumstances would eventually prove ominous for the Trojans and the rest of college football in 1968.

The following week, Purdue not only lost its grip on the number one ranking but also the inside track to the Rose Bowl. A quietly emerging Ohio State, featuring a gaggle of touted sophomores, served notice that it meant business by shutting out Keyes, QB Mike Phipps, and the rest of the Boilermakers by a 13-0 count in Columbus. The Woody Hayes defense stuffed Keyes, allowing him just 19 YR, while holding Phipps to just 106 YP and intercepting him twice, one of those a 35-yard pick-six by DB Ted Provost that broke a scoreless deadlock in the third quarter.

As SC was hearing news of the upset, however, it was having its hands full with a rejuvenated Stanford at Palo Alto and the then-called Indians’ hotshot soph QB, Jim Plunkett, who would pass for 246 yards in his breakout game. While Simpson was hammering at the Stanford defense, Plunkett would engineer a 10-10 stalemate at the half and then twice put the Indians ahead in the second half, 17-10 & 24-17, the latter on his own 10-yard TD sweep. Their backs to the wall, the Trojans would rally, with OJ scoring three times en route to 220 YR. It was his 15-yard option pass to FB Dan Scott in the 4th Q, however, that would set up Ron Ayala’s game-winning FG before the SC defense would repel a last-minute Plunkett threat. The 27-24 escape would put the Trojans back on top of the polls, and SC had OJ to thank after his workhorse display that included a staggering 47 carries. “The ball is not heavy,” HC McKay would joke after the game.

The Stanford thriller would set a pattern, mostly unwelcome by Trojans supporters, for the remainder of the season. Week after week, SC would find itself in trouble, often against foes much less than Minnesota or Stanford, before Simpson would inevitably provide a last-minute rescue. Now top–ranked, the Trojans would be seriously challenged again in their next game that would also be homecoming at the Coliseum vs. a Washington side not to be confused with some of HC Jim Owens’ powerhouses from earlier in his career at Seattle. The Huskies were going nowhere in ‘68 and entered the Coliseum as 2-TD underdog after being blanked the previous week by Oregon.

Nonetheless, U-Dub showed up at the Coliseum and decided to give SC a battle. For a while it looked like the weekly Trojan game plan of "Give the ball to OJ" was not going to work against aroused Washington. Simpson carried the ball his usual truckload of times but also seemed to drop the ball as much in front of 60,000-plus fans who were not expecting a nervous afternoon. One of Simpson’s two bobbles gave the Huskies, who had tied the score at 7-7 in the third quarter, a chance to go ahead in the last period. But U-Dub eschewed a go-ahead FG attempt with only a few inches to go for a TD and SC would stop QB Tom Manke on the one-yard line, and then it was time for OJ, slashing off tackle, racing wide and carrying six times for 48 yards. In just 10 plays USC had gone 90 yards to the Washington nine. On the next play O. J. swept left, cut inside and sprinted over for the touchdown that won for the Trojans 14-7. Simpson ran 33 times for 172 yards and upped his season totals to 980 yards and 14 touchdowns in five games.

Reminded that USC was idle the next Saturday, OJ said, "A week off. Oh, that's beautiful." John McKay undoubtedly agreed, as by this time it was apparent that nothing would come easy for the Trojans in 1968.

The week off, however, did not foretell an easier game upon the return to action at Eugene vs. Jerry Frei’s spirited underdog Oregon side that had won three in a row. In the year before they installed an artificial surface at then 1-year-old Autzen Stadium, the familiar rains had turned the field into mud, which seemed as if it should suit the aptly-named Webfoots just fine. Though into the 3rd Q, the scoreboard didn’t reflect as much for the hosts; despite doing a good job containing Simpson, Oregon was looking at a 13-0 deficit.

The Ducks, however, had been advancing the ball, and when presented with an opportunity in the 3rd Q, made their move. Sogge was picked off by DB Jack Gleason, and Oregon would capitalize thanks in part to a 4th-down pass completion by QB Eric Olson which preceded a 3-yard TD smash by RB Stan Hearn. SC would then lose a fumble on the ensuring kickoff, and a quick-hitter by Hearn almost reached the endzone before he would lose a fumble...only to see alert QB Olson fall on the ball for a TD that tied the score 13-13! Once again, it was nervous time for the top-ranked Trojans.

The 4th Q turned especially wild, as the Ducks threatened a major upset that would have knocked the Trojans from atop the polls. Autzen briefly turned into a madhouse when Olson would complete a 61-yard pass deep into Trojan territory that at the end would unfortunately be fumbled away by WR Greg Lindsey to turn the ball over to SC. Aided by a pass-interference penalty, Sogge, without much help from Simpson, held to a then career-low 67 YR, would hit TE Klein for a TD pass with 1:13 to play to put SC ahead 20-13, but not before Olson engineered one last goalward flight for the determined Ducks, who reached the Trojan 8 and were throwing into the endzone in the final seconds. The upset, however, was not to be, and SC had survived another heartstopper, 20-13!

With unbeaten Ohio State and Kansas now creeping up behind them in the polls, the Trojans needed a big effort to solidify their claim to number one, and OJ was in need of another stellar game to re-establish command of the Heisman race after the surprising struggle in Eugene. A significant challenge appeared on the horizon in the form of a revived Cal side that had moved up to the No. 11 spot in the polls after a series of impressive wins that included Michigan (the Wolverines’ only loss to date), UCLA, and Syracuse (the latter a 43-0 loser in Berkeley) and its “Bear Minimum D” that led the nation in scoring defense at just 5.6 ppg. As usual, McKay would feint fear (“We’re not nervous, we’re scared,” said the Irishman of the Golden Bears), but a much-needed shot of adrenaline was about to come SC’s way in a game that we attended.

The outcome was never in doubt, as Cal was overwhelmed, unable to corral Simpson, who rolled for 164 yards on 31 carries before sitting out the 4th Q after SC had zoomed its lead to 35-3. Included were TD runs of 39 and 7 yards. The final 35-17 scoreline was deceiving as McKay emptied his bench (even allowing QB Holmgren some action) after the Trojans scored all of their points in the middle quarters. After the romp, OJ was once again in full control of the Heisman race and the Trojans temporarily extended their lead over Ohio State in the rankings, while Pepper Rodgers’ Kansas fell from the ranks of the unbeaten with a loss to Oklahoma, allowing Joe Paterno’s unbeaten Penn State to move up to number three.

Having survived seven weeks without a loss, the season was now in its stretch drive, and OJ mania was dominating Los Angeles and the college football world. With the Juice on a record-setting rushing pace and the Trojans poised for a second straight national title, the season would come down to three showdowns...a Rose Bowl decider vs. Oregon State, the crosstown rivalry vs. UCLA, and old enemy Notre Dame. Better yet, SC did not have to travel outside of its Coliseum for the games, and if it could defeat the Beavers and qualify for the Rose Bowl, even that game would be played just up the freeway in Pasadena.

Oregon State, however, was a rough customer, and HC Dee Andros’ Beavers shunned the SC revenge talk from the previous year’s epic 3-0 Beaver upset in muddy Corvallis. The physical Beavers believed they could stop OJ and the Trojans again, and proceeded to play SC to a nil-nil standoff in the first half. Then, after halftime, the Beavers’ “Power T” bulled downfield behind FB Bill “Earthquake” Enyart, whose short scoring smash put OSU up 7-0 in the 3rd Q.

Sensing he needed to make changes, and quickly, McKay adjusted his offensive formation, moving Flanker Bob Chandler inside the split end to strengthen the blocking, allowing Simpson, who had been running mostly inside the tackles, to begin going outside. Carrying on almost every play, OJ got the ball to the OSU 22, from where QB Sogge threw a neat pass to WR Terry DeKraai to tie the score early in the 4th Q. Not long after PK Ayala's 27-yard field goal put the Trojans ahead 10-7, Simpson turned the corner and ran 40 yards for a touchdown to push the lead to 17-7 with just 1:20 to play. But in this nerve-wracking season for McKay, there was no such thing as breathing easily, and OSU immediately answered back with a 74-yard TD pass from QB Steve Preece to HB Billy Main, cutting the lead to 17-13. A two-point conversion barely missed, as did the inevitable onside kick, and SC would nervously hold on for a 17-13 win. The workhorse Juice had carried 47 times for 238 yards, and USC stayed number one as it made the Rose Bowl for the third straight year. "We like to go there," said McKay after the win. "It's kinda like our bowl."

With the Pasadena bid tucked away in the back pocket, SC now only had to deal with old, nasty rivals UCLA and Notre Dame to maintain its top national ranking, while the last two games had the air of a Heisman coronation for Simpson, on the verge of setting a national rushing record (if he could surpass West Texas State’s Mercury Morris, who set the record the previous week). The Rose Bowl would come on January 1 against the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan game, taking place earlier that November 23 before the Trojans and Bruins would kick off at a new TV time for ABC’s national telecast, 3 PM Pacific.

This battle for Los Angeles, however, would not be like the epic 1967 clash. Post-Beban UCLA had been decimated by injuries in 1968, and Tommy Prothro’s only losing Bruin team would limp into the Coliseum with a 3-6 record. Though UCLA would be the designated home team for the game and occupy the east side of the field reserved for host teams at the Coliseum.

And would SC possibly be flat for UCLA after that titanic revenge battle for the Rose Bowl vs. Oregon State? When asked, McKay adroitly fielded that one on the first hop. "We'd like to be national champions," he said softly, "and you can't do that without being city champions."

There was something surreal about the Coliseum that afternoon, as an early-arriving fog combined with a bad case of LA smog would create a hazy glow at kickoff that deepened as the game moved into early evening. Indeed, the arriving fog helped to create an eerie San Francisco-like feel to the proceedings. Typical of the ‘68 Trojans, however, they would again find themselves backed up against a wall,  even vs. a reeling, 13 1/2-point underdog UCLA, which jumped to an early 3-0 lead on a field goal by the goat of the ‘67 game, PK Zenon Andrusyshyn. Through the rest of the first half, SC could not shake a dogged Bruin team that had been blasted by Cal, Tennessee, and Oregon State, allowing a whopping 42 ppg in those three losses. This day, however, Prothro was masterfully coaxing a kamikaze effort out of his depleted troops. Early in the 2nd Q, UCLA soph HB Mickey Cureton electrified the Coliseum with a weaving 75-yard punt return deep into SC territory that preceded his 1-yard TD blast on 4th down to put UCLA up, 10-7. An OJ-fueled drive put SC up 14-10 at the half, but this was not turning into the picnic afternoon/evening that most SC fans envisioned.

Indeed, Trojan fans were getting the same nervous feeling they had experienced much of the season. Here we go...again.

Though SC moved to 21-10 edge in the 3rd Q on a short run by FB Dan Scott, the first non-OJ rushing TD of the season for the Trojans, the lead never felt safe, especially when the gutty Bruins cut the deficit to 21-16 early in the 4th Q on a TD drive engineered by soph QB Jim Nader, who had replaced starter Bill Bolden (as was often the case with UCLA that season). After forcing SC to punt, and the Coliseum crowd becoming louder and louder with each successive down, Nader was at it again, firing up another drive that inexorably moved deep into Trojan territory and threatened to derail the SC unbeaten streak and national title hopes.

As evening descended upon the Coliseum, the huge saucer rocking with deafening noise accompanying the unfolding drama, and the lights fighting to illuminate the field through the fog, Nader appeared ready to score the go-ahead TD on a 3rd-down sweep before slipping at the one-yard line as he angled for the endzone flag. With one more chance to grab the lead and shake college football ‘68 to its foundation, and No. 1 holding on for dear life, Nader rolled left and lofted a short pass...just beyond the fingers of wingback Gwen Cooper, and the Trojans, temporarily at least, had dodged another bullet!

SC was not out of danger yet and was soon forced to punt the ball back to UCLA, but the defense would save the day as Nader tried one more drive to pull the upset. Only this time, near midfield, he was intercepted by SC LB Jim Snow. After heroically limiting Simpson, the smaller, tired Bruin defense was now out of gas. The Trojans gulped the 47 yards to the Bruin endzone on three OJ runs, the last for 4 yards and a TD, to finally seal the 28-16 win. OJ would carry 40 times for 205 yards.

“Only 40 carries?,” McKay said of Simpson after the escape. “OJ can dance tonight.”

Pollsters, however, had taken note of the SC struggle vs. another subpar foe. After Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes had trounced Michigan, 50-14, to win the Big Ten earlier that day, Ohio State would (barely) supplant SC atop the polls the following week.

The Trojans had one more chance to make their case for the top spot in the polls if they could beat Notre Dame the next week. Unbelievably, after all of the thrills that had already marked the ‘68 season, one more classic remained, as pulsating as any game in the history of the storied rivalry.

Ara Parseghian's Fighting Irish were out of the national title mix due to losses vs. Purdue and Michigan State, and were also minus QB Hanratty, injured earlier in November, forcing a soph named...Joe Thiesmann... to make his second-ever start after leading a 34-6 win over Georgia Tech. The game turned out to be nothing like the 82,659 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or the hordes on national TV had anticipated. They had expected to see quite a contest, of course, with Simpson getting his usual 183.7 yards and scoring his usual two or three touchdowns and with the Trojans maybe winning by a point and becoming No. 1 again. What they saw instead was a splendidly prepared Notre Dame team that ate up Simpson on defense and kept the ball for what seemed hours on offense.

With Theismann passing, running, faking and, most important, leading the Irish with unshakable confidence, Notre Dame smoked the Trojans into a 21-7 stupor by half, at which time one could mull startling stats: OJ had carried only nine times for a mere 23 yards; the Irish had gained 324 yards to the Trojans' 71; Parseghian's troops had run off 51 plays to just 24 for USC.

While everyone wondered where OJ had gone, little Joe Theismann, all 165 pounds of him, commanded Irish touchdown drives of 86, 77 and 45 yards.

The first thing Theismann did during the afternoon, however, was to aim a pass at WR Jim Seymour but deliver it instead to USC's Sandy Durko for an interception and a Trojan touchdown on the game's second play from scrimmage. "I learned long ago not to tear into anyone for a mistake," said HC Parseghian later. "There was plenty of time to go and, for all his moxie, Theismann didn't need to lose any confidence."

Theismann, displaying the sort of pluck that became his trademark in a decorated career, came right back and cranked up the 86-yard drive for the tying touchdown, largely on his own manipulations and the slashing runs of Ron Dushney and Bob Gladieux. Calling plays himself, Theismann repeatedly came up with the right numbers when they were needed most. By game's end he had finagled the key yardage on third-and-if and fourth-and-how situations a total of 14 times.

The second Notre Dame touchdown was easy. On the fourth play of the series Gladieux banged over left tackle on a simple pitchback. He caught USC in a disorganized defense and could have run all of the way through the Coliseum peristyle on a 57-yard TD. That, however, was only the appetizer for the main dish Theismann delivered a little later. Late in the half he moved the Irish into a threatening position, but faced a third-and-goal at the SC 13. Theismann pitched the ball back to Coley O'Brien, the ex-QB and hero of the 51-0 win over SC in ‘66 who had spent his career shadowing Hanratty and combating diabetes, and O'Brien ran to the right. A sweep...but no! Suddenly O'Brien stopped and hurled a pass back across the field to—yep—Theismann, who had drifted out in the flat and was frighteningly alone, and able to jog unmolested into the end zone for another TD! After that disastrous pick-six on his first pass, Theismann had outshined OJ and all else the rest of the half.

It was a glorious defensive job that Parseghian's chief assistant and future Kentucky HC, John Ray, coaxed out of his unit and built into a box that could hold an OJ. This was far from the same defensive team that Purdue frolicked against earlier in the season. Seven names in the unit were different, and all 11 were in a pure fit to get at Simpson. What the Notre Dame defense did was form a cup—a "triangle," Parseghian called it—designed not for penetration but for enclosure. Notre Dame felt that Simpson's best gains had occurred on improvised runs, sliding off, darting outside, stuttering toward the line, then changing holes. The idea was to wait for him more than to go after him and it posed a problem for Sogge, the crafty SC QB whose main weapon was neutralized.

Yet Sogge would be the one to pick up the Trojans and get them going after the break. Taking the second-half kickoff, he directed SC 65 yards for the touchdown that narrowed it to 21-14. O.J. made his longest run of the day on this drive, seven yards. And he scored his only touchdown on a bounce-away, go-wide streak around left end from one yard out. The touchdown was his 22nd of the season.

That TD drive that made it evident USC no longer felt it could win in its usual fashion—by running Simpson. The two-touchdown deficit had forced USC into the air, and OJ, who was always a slow starter, never really carried the ball enough to get warmed up. Notre Dame kept him on ice in the first half, and events kept him cold after that as he made only 55 yards—a career low—in 21 attempts.

Early in the fourth quarter Sogge's underrated arm retrieved some of USC's dignity, sustained the Trojans' undefeated string and sent them into the Rose Bowl against Ohio State at 9-0-1 with a chance to wind up as the national champion after all. The USC offense seemed unimaginative, and it was still sputtering when Sogge wound up on the Notre Dame 40-yard line and tried his umpteenth mortar shot of the day. Soph WR Sam Dickerson was racing at top speed just ahead of DBs Chuck Zloch and Brian Lewallen into the Irish endzone (“Sam’s endzone” in SC lore) when the ball arrived, and he caught it about one yard in play, almost catching one of the goalposts at the same time.

With the score tied, there was plenty of time left for somebody to win, and Notre Dame had its chances. Theismann moved the Irish to USC's 11-yard line on one occasion, whereupon he lost 20 yards in two successive plays, which was just far enough back for a Scott Hempel field-goal try to float harmlessly wide. Sogge almost hooked up deep with Dickerson again. Then Theismann got the Irish down to USC's 17-yard line with 30 seconds left. There was time for one play, followed by a field goal, of course. What Joe didn't do was run the right next-to-last play. Instead of keeping the ball in the middle of the field to make it easier for his kicker, he sent O'Brien off tackle, which made the angle more difficult for placement man Hempel, whose 33-yard try was just a bit wide. The scoreline would end level at 21-21.

But nobody wanted to fault Theismann, really, for that last-minute bit of sophomoric behavior. In a season of “winning ties” (as Harvard had done vs. Yale in their epic 29-29 tie the week before), and a departure from the 10-10 in ‘66 vs. Michigan State that still dogged Parseghian, Notre Dame had a draw it could frame beneath Touchdown Jesus if it wished.

The final regular season polls kept SC at number two, but by now Ohio State was almost a unanimous number one choice. Another subsequent vote, however, went the Trojans' way, as in an election with less drama than LBJ’s rout of Barry Goldwater for the White House four years earlier, OJ, who set a college single-season record with 1880 YR, ran away with the Heisman, almost tripling the vote margin on runner-up Keyes. The Rose Bowl was still to come and would provide one last college showcase for OJ and a chance for the Trojans to repeat as national champs.

Highlights of the Rose Bowl have always featured OJ’s 80-yard TD run, which was a thing of beauty, that put SC ahead 10-0 in the 2nd Q. The rest of the day, however, belonged to the Buckeyes, who dominated thereafter, scoring the next 27 points of the game before perhaps the absolute worst call in gridiron history awarded SC’s Dickerson a last-minute TD catch to cut the final margin to 27-16. Despite his 171 YR, Simpson’s college career thus ended on a downer, as his two fumbles in the second half proved costly while setting up the clinching Buckeye scores.

An omen, perhaps, for things to come much later in OJ’s life, but those are stories for another day. The memories of OJ’s football brilliance and the wild ride of SC 1968, however, will remain forever etched in the minds of those who were there to watch. Including us at TGS.


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