After the Los Angeles Rams had finished their Saturday afternoon workout at Baltimore's Mt. St. Joseph High School, Head Coach George Allen picked up a penny. "I always tell my players they make so much money they wouldn't stoop to pick up a cent," he said. "But this may be a lucky penny. I'll keep it."
The next afternoon, before the 38th straight full house (56,864) in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, the lucky penny worked its magic. The Rams, a team composed in large part of walking wounded, defeated the Baltimore Colts 27-20 in an early-season showdown between the two favorites in the NFL's Coastal Division.
The Rams did it against a hale John Unitas, who went all the way for Baltimore but who produced only fitfully the wizardry he performed for so many years. Allen's penny—combined with a thundering rush from a reconstituted Ram front four—made enough breaks to stop a very good Baltimore club.
It was a vastly satisfying victory for Los Angeles, a team that spent 1968 playing a futile game of catch-up with Baltimore. Last year, when the Colts jumped in front and stayed there, it created a bad case of nerves in Los Angeles. "It was the time difference that made it so bad," Offensive Tackle Charlie Cowan said. "The Colts would play in the East and win, and the score would be up by the time we took the field in Los Angeles. It created a lot of pressure and tension and led to little mistakes."
There were tension and pressure and mistakes aplenty in last Sunday's game, but finally it was Baltimore that snapped. Three very big mistakes did irreparable damage to a Colt offense that stuttered much of the afternoon and only occasionally shone with the luster Unitas usually gives to his team.
The first error came in the third quarter, with the score tied 17-17, after Roman Gabriel, an exceptionally effective passer and play-caller all afternoon, had moved his club 81 yards in seven plays for a touchdown. The key play in the drive had been a lovely, slashing run by Larry Smith, the Rams' No. 1 draft choice from Florida. Smith stands 6'3" and he weighs 220 pounds, but he is so fast that in a 40-yard race against Olympic 200-meter champion Tommie Smith in the Rams' training camp he lost by only a hair. On this play he slid wide outside the right side of the Colt line, cut on his afterburners and fled 31 yards to Baltimore's 12 before a safety angling across knocked him out of bounds. Then Gabriel, who changed his huddle call 15 times in the course of the game, called an audible that freed Running Back Willie Ellison for a pass. Ellison put a nifty move on Linebacker Dennis Gaubatz and went in for the touchdown.
The lucky penny worked its magic two plays later, with Unitas throwing from his 26. He called a pass to Willie Richardson, the very fast, very sure-handed Colt wide receiver, and drifted back quickly, the big Ram pass rush coming hard. "I saw Willie plant his foot and start his cut, and he had the cornerback beaten," Unitas said later. "I threw the ball and I didn't even see Eddie Meador. He came out of nowhere." Meador intercepted the ball on the Baltimore 35, returned it to the Colt 11, and four plays later Bruce Gossett kicked a 15-yard field goal to put the Rams ahead to stay.
Meador is the Ram free safety, and on this pass pattern he would normally be occupied covering Running Back Tom Matte, who had lined up in a slot position to occupy Meador's attention. But Matte was knocked down by a linebacker as he crossed the line of scrimmage, freeing Meador to help out on Richardson.
The Colts rallied and stopped the Rams cold early in the fourth period, but the penny got in another lick almost immediately. Pat Studstill, whose deep, towering punts played a major role in the game, kicked one that seemed to hang endlessly. Preston Pearson, on the Colt 16-yard line, unwisely chose to field the ball, although several Rams were bearing down on him. He fumbled and disappeared under half a ton of tacklers. Bob Klein, a large Ram rookie from USC, recovered.
Two plays later, Gabriel completed a 16-yard pass to Wendell Tucker for the touchdown that put Los Angeles ahead 27-17. Gabriel had Tucker isolated on Charlie Stukes, the cornerback who has replaced retired All-Pro Bobby Boyd this season. In defense of Stukes, he made a noble—and illegal—effort to stop Tucker. The Ram receiver went straight downfield, cut to the inside, and Stukes thumped him solidly as Tucker made the cut. The collision knocked Stukes backward, off-balance and shunted Tucker quickly into the second half of his pattern, in which he broke back toward the sideline. Before Stukes could recover, Gabriel had tossed an easy pass to Tucker, now completely alone and waiting for the ball. An official detected Stukes' infraction and dropped a yellow flag, but the Rams, of course, declined the penalty.