Goodby, Nebraska, hello, USC. Last Saturday night in Little Rock, much to the dismay of 54,461 Arkansas fans who thought their team might be this year's national champion, the Trojans crushed the Razorbacks 31-10, thus making it an absolutely delightful weekend for Los Angeles football fans.
Poor Arkansas. Nowhere in the country are people more wrapped up in the fortunes of the state football team. Its symbol is a razorback hog with scary tusks and curly tail, and it shows up on just about everything sold or given away in the state—sugar packets, ashtrays, purses, lamps. So anxious are people to listen to games that there are 93 stations on the Arkansas Radio Network that carry them. Interest had been especially high this summer because the Hogs had all but five starters back from last year's squad that was 8-2-1, including Quarterback Joe Ferguson. If Arkansas could get by USC, only Texas seemed a threat to an undefeated season.
Of course, everyone knew getting by USC would not be easy. Reports filtered into Little Rock that the Trojans had 20 pro prospects to only four for Arkansas. The team was huge. One scout said, "When we line up against USC, every one of our men is going to face the best player he's ever seen."
And yet that is what people have thought about USC for the past two seasons, a team loaded with talent but beset by problems, a team good enough to twice rise up and knock down an undefeated Notre Dame and yet finish the season 6-4-1, out of the Rose Bowl, out of contention for top honors. Perhaps the 1972 team would be another of these.
For the first half this seemed to be the case. USC started miserably, fumbling and losing the opening kickoff to set up an Arkansas field goal, then fumbling the ensuing kickoff but managing to keep the ball. The Razorbacks put on a hard-nosed goal-line stand in the second quarter, holding USC four downs inside the two. On the next series USC settled for a field goal and the score was tied at halftime 3-3.
But whatever the Trojans had been missing, they found it in the second half. Tormenting the Hogs with strong running and passing attacks and fresh troops when needed, Quarterback Mike Rae marched USC to three touchdowns, two of them by Rod McNeill. Sophomore Quarterback Pat Haden led the last drive, which ended with Sam (Bam) Cunningham dashing 17 yards up the middle. Overall, Rae completed 18 of 24 passes, getting marvelous protection, while McNeill and Cunningham showed no ill effects from the injuries that sidelined them last year.
Best of all for Coach John McKay, who is after his third national title in 13 seasons, his supposedly inexperienced defense stood up very well against the Arkansas attack. In fact, sophomore Linebacker Richard Wood was the star of the game, jarring Hog runners with his tackles, harassing Ferguson with his rush and intercepting a pass in the third quarter.
"They kept us off balance all night, run or pass," said Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles. "Their offense was as strong physically as any we've faced."
Ferguson, who ended up with a bloody and perhaps broken nose, did not seem crushed by the loss. "If it was a big conference game, I might worry," he said. "I'm down about losing, of course, but tonight's game doesn't mean that we're not going to win."
McKay had warm praise for Ferguson, who has been boomed as a Heisman Trophy candidate, but he was even warmer about Rae: "If he keeps this up he's going to be a No. 1 draft pick."