It was a glorious defensive job that Parseghian's chief assistant, John Ray, coaxed out of his unit and built into a box that could hold an O.J. This was far from the same defensive team that Purdue frolicked against several weeks ago. 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 Steve Sogge, the crafty USC quarterback who has always done everything better than he is credited for.
It was Sogge who finally picked up the Trojans and got them the face-saving tie with his passing. Taking the second-half kickoff, he directed USC 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. It seemed like 30. 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, and it is indicative of the USC offense that only once has a player other than Simpson scored a Trojan touchdown from scrimmage.
It was this drive that made it evident USC no longer felt it could win in its usual fashion—by running O.J. The two-touchdown deficit had forced USC into the air, and Simpson, who is 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 spluttering when Sogge wound up on the Notre Dame 40-yard line and tried his umpteenth mortar shot of the day. Sam Dickerson was racing at top speed just ahead of Chuck Zloch and Brian Lewallen into the Irish end zone 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 field-goal try to be hopeless. And then he 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 he 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 Scott Hempel, whose 33-yard try was just a bit wide.
But nobody wanted to fault Theismann, really, for that last-minute bit of sophomore logic. Hempel might have missed from the middle, and O'Brien might have scored. Joe Theismann had done quite enough in stealing the day's glory from a Heisman Trophy winner. And, after all, he had given Ara Parseghian a tie that Notre Dame for once could be proud of.