The day of the Poll Bowl was sunny and pleasant, as Knute or Grantland would have ordered it, and into the tunnel of love, which is sometimes called Notre Dame Stadium, came this huge Fighting Irish football team in the blue shirts and gold hats—a team that had been picked by everyone from the sausage stringers of Padua to the cleaning ladies of Bunkie, La. as the best in the whole world. Notre Dame was No. I in the spring and in the summer and in the early fall, and even though it had lost a squeezer to Purdue it was still No. 1 in the frozen hearts of the oddsmakers, who made it a 12-point favorite in this game against an old, familiar enemy, Southern California, which was really No. I. The logic was that Notre Dame wins at home, even if it has to use nuns in the secondary. When Notre Dame is decent, and in its own habitat, amid all of that love, it wins. USC might have the speed and the cunning, but Notre Dame has spirit and ghosts and mystery and, above all, athletes. Especially athletes. Doesn't it?
Apparently not. Last week in the biggest game of the season, on this gorgeous Saturday, before a full house of 59,000 worshipers, with banners commanding the Fighting Irish to GET A TROJAN FOR THE GIPPER, and all such as that, Notre Dame came up without a runner, without a kicker and without a passer, three things that a football team sort of needs.
The result, of course, was the loudest plunk at South Bend in ages. The slick Trojans took advantage of the most mistakes a supposedly good Notre Dame team is ever likely to make in a single day—or year—as they scored three touchdowns and a field goal in one burst of about 13 minutes and left town with a 24-7 victory.
USC will certainly place this Saturday right up there among its more cherished memories—along with the 20-12 victory in 1939, which was the last time it won in South Bend, and the 16-14 victory in 1931, which also came among the Indiana sycamores—because the Notre Dame-USC game has been the most important rivalry in modern college football. Going into last week's 39th meeting since 1926, when two coaching titans named Knute Rockne and Howard Jones decided to test each other, the winner of the game has ended up as the national champion in somebody's poll 14 times. If this indeed was the Poll Bowl, as the Irish-Michigan State game was in 1966, then still another national champion will come out of the glorious series this season. About all the Trojans have to do now, after defeating Texas, Michigan State and Notre Dame, is handle tenacious Washington this week in Seattle, and then poised UCLA later on. Very puny schedule those Trojans are playing.
Without meaning to deflate the Trojans or spoil these hours of delirium in the lives of USC Coach John McKay and Orange Juice Simpson and Earl the Pearl McCullouch, there were things about the Poll Bowl which did not suggest that this was a crashing together of two giants settling the national championship. It was, from beginning to end, a game with a weird, exotic quality, a jerky momentum, almost a comic overtone.
For one thing, it featured a total of 10 intercepted passes and eight fumbles, which may be just a couple shy of a prison offense. The scoreboard clocks failed to function properly, which resulted in strange consultations at the sidelines and the feeling that somewhere down there a man with an egg timer was controlling sporting destinies. And the game was repeatedly slowed down by the officials, who kept having little meetings among themselves, as if they were experimenting with a new set of rules.
Just as curious was the fact that with all of the offensive weapons out there on the field—O. J. and Earl the Pearl, the USC sprinters, and Notre Dame's Terry Hanratty and Jim Seymour, who were called the Baby Bombers a year ago but now are Mr. Fling and Mr. Cling according to the publicity department—the game quickly settled into a raging and ragged battle of defenses.
With a fraction over four minutes left in the third quarter, the score was tied at 7-7, and each touchdown had been a marvelous gift of destiny. Notre Dame had driven three yards for its score in the second quarter after an interception. USC had gone 18 yards for its tying touchdown at the start of the third period after a fumble recovery. So far the heroes were not Orange Juice or Mr. Fling at all but two tough, busy linebackers who were everywhere, making it seem as if possession of the ball was the surest way to lose the game and also to get yourself bruised.
One of these linebackers was Adrian Young, a USC senior born in Dublin, Ireland, which is only an incidental jolt to the Fighting Irish. As the game progressed he became Terry Hanratty's favorite passing target. He wound up with three of the five interceptions Hanratty threw, and he came up with a total of four in the game.
Hanratty, who is 10 pounds heavier and had been appearing more mature and confident than last season when he was a true sensation, could not believe what was happening to him. He would stand back there with good protection and then whip the ball to Adrian Young, No. 50, white jersey, Trojan. He would then clasp both hands to his gold helmet in disbelief, go to the sideline and throw up his arms before Ara Parseghian, his bewildered coach.