In between all of this, from Monday through Friday, McKay, his staff and his players had done a lot more than dance on the newsprint likeness of John Huarte, make fun of The Gipper and joke about the seemingly impossible task of trying to beat the nation's No. 1 team. USC, as a matter of fact, had mastered a plan that could just possibly succeed.
While McKay had told the press repeatedly that USC could not run inside on Notre Dame, he believed all along the Trojans could, and behind the locked gates of the practice field—even favored newsmen were barred—they worked on it. McKay, the strategist now and not the happy sacrificial lamb, explained his plan to the team: "They play a split 6 defense with those big tackles slanting in. Everybody has tried to double-team their tackles, and their linebackers have taken advantage of the hole that creates to slip in and do a good job. We'll block down on the tackles with just one man and pull our guard behind him to take the linebacker. Then our ballcarrier can follow another back into the hole. We ought to be able to gouge our men through. And if we can make our inside running go, we can make the passing go."
On defense USC's problem was equally severe. While the Trojans would be seeing more or less the very offense, a power I, that McKay invented for his 1962 champions, even the originator had to admit that Notre Dame's was more diversified. USC Scout Mel Hein's report on the Irish was the thickest—two inches—McKay had ever seen. Digesting it to useful size, McKay figured that nobody could stop Notre Dame, but USC could slow down the strong side running, the screen pass and the deep pass. "We'll use a confusion rush," the coach said. "We'll loop our tackles outside, use crisscross stunts and play a three-deep secondary—very deep."
The day of the game began bizarrely for the Trojans. At a 10 a.m. brunch Linebacker Ernie Pye accidentally walked straight through the plate-glass window of a motel private dining room. The shattering of glass could have been heard for blocks, and the crash was followed by the slow, building noises of blended laughter and alarm. After making sure that Pye was not sliced in half (he cut his heel and missed the game), McKay walked to a blackboard that had been set up for last-minute skull sessions, and in his usual good humor said, "O.K., fellows. Ernie's given us the idea for today. We've got to crash their glass."
Throughout the first half, the only thing that almost crashed was USC's scoreboard. Notre Dame built a 17-0 lead as John Huarte hit 11 of 15 passes for 176 yards and one touchdown—to Jack Snow, beyond McKay's very deep secondary. Parseghian's team looked as unstoppable as ever. USC, meanwhile, had hammered away on the ground, refusing to open up in McKay's customary style, moving the ball fairly well, but blowing its best drive by losing an errant pitchout.
For the more astute observer, however, one thing was as apparent as the 17-point deficit that USC faced. The Trojans were running inside on Notre Dame, luring its linebackers steadily toward the middle, making Parseghian's defense run-conscious. Remarkably calm at half time, McKay told his team, "Our game plan is working. Keep doing your stuff and we'll get some points." And to a friend, McKay said, "If we can get on the scoreboard quick, we can put some pressure on 'em. They've won nine games without any duress. If we can make this thing close, they might not know how to react."
In the second half USC's inside runs continued to work neatly. Mike Garrett, the Trojans' brilliant halfback, and Ron Heller time after time squeezed through the gaps created by the power blocks at the tackles. When Notre Dame adjusted its defense to USC's strong side, Craig Fertig hit Rod Sherman (seven times for 109 yards in all) over the middle and in the opposite flat. And just as McKay had hoped they would, the Trojans had taken the second-half kickoff and drove to a quick touchdown that made it 17-7.
But it was not USC's sudden ability to score that shifted the momentum of the game, though it certainly helped. A Notre Dame fumble when the Irish had reached the USC nine later in the third quarter helped more. And a holding penalty nullifying another Notre Dame touchdown when Bill Wolski drove over from the one helped even more. The Trojans entered the last period 10 points behind but buoyed by the fact that somehow they and the fates had managed to stop Notre Dame from scoring down close. Fertig thereupon struck for five completions, the last to End Fred Hill for a touchdown. The bristling 82-yard drive had left the Irish with only a 17-13 lead and their nerves quaking.
"I knew we had 'em then," said McKay later. "The momentum was all ours. In a situation like that the No. 1 rating is a fairly suffocating thing."
USC kicked off and for the second time that afternoon Huarte could not move his team for what would have been precious, time-consuming yardage. Notre Dame was forced to punt, and USC's Garrett returned the ball 18 yards to the Irish 35. Now the giant clock below the Olympic torch on the Coliseum signaled that there were only two minutes and 10 seconds to go.