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The game that decided the Pac 8 race, the Western half of the Rose Bowl pairing and the championship of Los Angeles, was won last Saturday by USC. The Trojans beat UCLA 24-14 because 1) Ricky Bell was back, as intimidating as ever, rushing for more yards (167) on one good ankle than the whole UCLA team with its multiple good ankles and its tremendous rushing record; 2) because during a 20-minute stretch in the second half, when the Trojans ballooned a 7-0 lead to 24-0, the massive, spirit-numbing USC defense held the Bruins to the distance of a good downwind spit (17 yards) in five possessions; and 3) because Vince Evans can too throw a football into the Grand Canyon while standing next to it, as previously doubted here.
And because that ain't all Evans can do.
You may remember Vincent Tobias Evans. When the Trojans fell from grace in 1975 by losing their last four games, Evans was the quarterback who threw seven of every 10 passes into the incompletion column. And it was Evans who got benched in Seattle one sleety November day in favor of a third-stringer who had such a conspicuous lack of talent he eventually wound up playing safety. And it was Evans who came back against UCLA in the final wrenching defeat of '75 to throw 14 straight incomplete passes and finish the season with four times as many interceptions as he had touchdown passes. As a 29% passer and a 100% bust in John McKay's somewhat melancholy final year as USC coach, it was Evans who inspired the popular Southern California bumper sticker: SAVE USC FOOTBALL. SHOOT VINCE EVANS. (Surely, now you must remember.)
Well, a wonderful thing happened to Vince Evans on his way to the boneyard. He got reborn. John Robinson, McKay's successor, hired Paul Hackett, a young coach off the California staff who has a way with quarterbacks ( Joe Roth and Steve Bartkowski). Robinson and Hackett then rushed Vince Evans into intensive care. And the first thing Hackett realized was that a silk purse had been made into a sow's ear. Not by McKay but by circumstances.
Evans had come off the campus of Los Angeles City College, a strong-armed 6'2", 204-pound specimen who was so fine an athlete everybody naturally figured he would fit right in. But in junior college Evans had operated a Veer offense, which requires the quarterback to run and make option pitches and, periodically, to contemplate throwing a forward pass. Before that, in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C., he had been a single-wing tailback. In short, here was a runner trying to quarterback the USC Power-I, which required him not only to relay the ball to Ricky Bell 30 to 40 times a game but to throw enough passes to take some of the heat off, and to think about where those passes might go.
"Plus that, he was following Pat Haden, who not only could do it all but had been doing it since he was in junior high," says Hackett. "Vince was thoroughly discouraged." Evans told Hackett he had "always been unsure" of himself. Furthermore, he said, his uncertainties did not end at the sideline. He told publicist Jim Perry he had the same trouble with girls—"Before I can make my move on one I like, somebody else has her."
Hackett did not coddle his patient. In the weeks and months that followed, he tempered daily doses of expertise and encouragement with the solemn facts of life at the top. "If you screw up, you're out," he told Evans. "Rob Hertel is good enough right now to play. We'll make you a flanker." He did not want to minimize the pressure. Another USC assistant reminded Evans that Vincent means "the conqueror" in Latin.
"Did it work? You're damn right it worked," Hackett beamed in a slightly balmy postgame USC dressing room Saturday. (He noted that his prot�g� was busy describing the game to a group of writers nearby.) "I practically had to kick him out of my office."
Robinson ordered up new blueprints for the Trojan passing game. He gave Evans shorter patterns and better keys for quicker releases to cut down on sacks and avoid some of the indecision that leads to interceptions. "I told him the object was to see if he could throw the ball to somebody instead of through them or over them. He said, 'Oh, now I get it.' "
Since the season-opening 46-25 loss to Missouri—obviously no fault of the offense—the Trojans have won nine straight, and Evans has not had a bad game. When Bell went out with an ankle injury against California, Evans took up the slack, running and passing. When Washington put everybody but the registrar on the line to stop the USC running attack, USC passed for 204 yards. Evans went from a 29% passer to a 52-percenter and threw only three interceptions—and had thrown for more than 1,000 yards going into the UCLA game. Too, he was obviously more assertive. At the end of the final practice on Friday, the USC band came onto the field, honking and thumping, and formed a semicircle around the players. Impromptu dances drew four of them into the revelry. One was Evans. He boldly picked out the cutest girl in the majorette line for his partner.