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USC vs. INDIANA
There is always a built-in credibility gap to fairy tales, but not even a full-fledged, right-thinking fairy godmother—or John Pont, the coach at Cinderella U. in Bloomington, Ind.—would nave predicted this particular ending: that after 22 grimy years of being a kind of wallflower on a doormat, the last of the Big Ten sisters would be invited to the Big Ball in Pasadena. Hans Christian Andersen would have been drummed out of Denmark.
It began after two horrible seasons, seasons so bad that one of the men who originated the Old Oaken Bucket rivalry with Purdue 42 years ago suggested, quite seriously, that Indiana drop intercollegiate football because it obviously could not play it. "I got very mad at myself," Pont says. "I couldn't believe that I couldn't get the job done here." So last summer Pont ordered his players to lose weight, and they did—a total of 577 pounds. Encouraged, in part, by the refreshing ability of his team to move, Pont opened up his offense to let Quarterback Harry Gonso do more outside running and passing, switched 14 players to different positions, prayed that his sophomores would be supermen, began carrying two lucky pennies in his billfold and started the season dreaming an impossible dream—that his Hoosiers might somehow improve from miserable to mediocre. "A 5-5 season would not have been a disappointment," he observed.
Indiana showed the pattern of its year in its first game, an unresounding 12-10 win over Kentucky. In that one Harry Gonso flubbed a hand-off, then turned the mangled play into a touchdown pass. The pattern was to be no pattern or, as Pont puts it, "I encourage improvisation; it is basic to our offense." The Hoosiers improvised their way past Kansas and Illinois, and suddenly, against Iowa, something electric happened. Recalls Pont: "We were flat, and Iowa was ahead late in the fourth quarter. Normally I don't hear the stands; I'm turned off. But just before we got the ball the whole stadium rose and cheered. Last year they would have said, 'Oh, hell, so we lose again.' Now you could sense they felt we'd win, and the players felt it, too. From then on, things snowballed." Eventually they snowballed to the point that John Isenbarger, the halfback who sometimes punts and sometimes doesn't, was found standing in front of a mirror practicing the look he would use when he was introduced on national television. "That was when I knew we would make the Rose Bowl," says Pont.
Minnesota almost turned the Indiana snowball into a puddle of despair with a 33-7 victory, but then came a stunning 19-14 upset of Purdue. The key defensive play of that game, needless to say, was unplanned, too—a Purdue fumble on the Indiana one-yard line.
Although USC is far from the ashes-to-roses darling that Indiana is, the Trojans did not reach their No. 1 zenith without both surprises and adversities. Surprises? However obvious their abilities may seem now, both O. J. Simpson and Earl McCullouch were untried at the season's start. Adversities? Coach John McKay lost his No. 1 fullback, a starting halfback, a starting defensive tackle and a starting defensive end to knee surgery. Adversities and surprises? Top Quarterback Toby Page was hurt for two games, but Steve Sogge—"too short, too slow, too inexperienced," to quote one USC rival—filled in. Superbly. And when Simpson sprained his foot against Oregon an unheralded senior named Steve Grady took over. Superbly.
To McKay the essential win of the season came against Notre Dame because it "made us strong, unified us and bolstered our confidence." The year's key play was, naturally, a Simpson run, this one for 64 yards and a touchdown against UCLA. But that had its ironic oddity, too, for the block that broke Simpson free was contributed by Split End Ron Drake, a spindly, 170-pound receiver who had been benched much of the day to make room for burlier ends who could hit. McKay ordered a pass and sent Drake in to catch it, but when Quarterback Page saw UCLA's defense he called an audible for O.J.'s off-tackle blast. Instead of Ron Drake catching a pass, he threw the block that put USC in its 15th Rose Bowl game.
Can Indiana's improvisers fool No. 1 for a whole afternoon? It isn't likely, though the Hoosiers did stop All-America Leroy Keyes, and they might give O.J. some trouble. For a while. But there isn't a fairy-tale teller around who would match Cinderella against Helen of Troy and pick the country girl in the glass slippers to win.
When Tennessee Coach Doug Dickey was asked about his Orange Bowl game against Oklahoma, Dickey's reply did not flash around the world or force pressmen to replate page one. "It should be a good game," he said. Right, Doug Dickey, it should. And what it lacks in gee-whiz romantics, it should more than make up in unadorned, no-nonsense football.