All week people had been telling Ara Parseghian how to beat USC. No problem. Every time they snap the ball, just have 11 guys jump on Anthony Davis (see cover). Belt him with The Gipper. Run him down with the Four Horsemen. Drop the Golden Dome on him. Trip him getting off the bus. Get the son-ofaahggaggh! Do something!
Last season Davis shattered the Irish with six touchdown runs—on national television yet. In South Bend he is about as popular as the Rev. Ian Paisley. For days before the game they taped his picture on campus sidewalks. So they could walk on him. They hanged him in effigy. Sign painters denounced him. Fortunately for Davis, none of the students were versed in voodoo.
On the morning before Notre Dame dispatched USC without having to drop the Dome on anyone, Parseghian closeted himself in his office and said he wished that stopping Anthony Davis was all there was to beating the Trojans, something the Irish had not managed to do since 1966.
"There isn't any way we are going to key on Davis," he said. "In the first place, if we did they'd kill us with the passing game. And they have it. USC has a lot of weapons, and Davis is just one of them. Last year"—Parseghian shook his head and paused for a moment—"last year he scored six times but he only gained 99 yards rushing. No team had run back a kickoff for a touchdown against Notre Dame since I've been here. And he did it twice. Twice! That's what killed us."
A short distance away in Elkhart, in the cocktail lounge of a hotel sandwiched between two theaters featuring horror films, John McKay, the USC coach, was saying that he was more worried about the noise volume at Notre Dame Stadium than in trying to guess what Notre Dame would try to do with Davis.
"It's an awesome experience to play there," said Lynn Swann, USC's superb senior flanker and a terror on punt returns. "The fans are almost in your lap. They yell so loud you can't hear. When I'm out as a flanker and the quarterback calls an audible, I try to read his lips. If I can't, I check field position and try to guess. If it's a run and I figure a pass, then I'm in trouble. I just have to take my chances."
"If we can't hear the count," said McKay, "we'll just walk away. We have the right to be heard. We're not going to try and outshout 59,000 people."
McKay's blue Irish eyes twinkled and he grinned. He was thinking of the story circulating in South Bend how, after losing to the Irish 51-0 in 1966, he supposedly vowed he'd never again lose to Notre Dame. "I never did," he said mildly. "I'm stupid, but I'm not that stupid. That would be ridiculous. But talking about noise at that stadium, just think what I'll hear when I walk off the field if we lose Saturday. Still, I love it. It's all part of the game."
When it was over on Saturday, and unbeaten Notre Dame had won 23-14 by matching USC touchdown for touchdown and adding three field goals, McKay got the verbal abuse he had predicted, and he left the field humming the Irish Victory March. "There was nothing else to hum," he said. For the defending national champions it was their first loss in 24 games.
The strategy Parseghian finally designed for Davis was simple but effective. On kickoffs, he was sent chasing long and low squibs to his left or to his right, and by the time he could turn upfield the Irish had effectively shut off all routes of escape. He returned three for 80 yards but none past the USC 35. "I'm glad they put him back there alone without Swann or those squibs would have cost us a lot of field position," said Parseghian.