It seems as if over the years USC has had a patent on last-second, come-from-behind, frighten-the-bejeezus-out-of-its-fans sorcery. Given that fact, coupled with the proximity of the Trojan campus to Hollywood, the assumption may be made that football game plans are prepared by the school's cinema department, not the coaching staff.
The plot line goes back at least to the Howard Jones era, to 1931, when John Baker kicked a nick-of-time field goal to beat Notre Dame 16-14. But more recently the script has usually called for a handsome leading man of a quarterback to fling a desperation pass to some whippet of a receiver in the end zone just before the director yells, "Cut!" In this manner USC has won numerous national titles, Rose Bowls and almost as much TV exposure as Paul Lynde.
So, predictably, there the Trojans were last Saturday afternoon in the Los Angeles Coliseum trailing Alabama by one point with 35 seconds to go. Perfect. They had just driven to a touchdown and were going to try for a two-point conversion. (A school with such ride-to-the-rescue alumni as John Wayne, Ward Bond and that fellow in the Hertz commercials would go for a tie?) All USC Quarterback Rob Hertel had to do was throw for the two points and race to the sideline to kiss either a pompon girl or the Trojan horse.
Hertel took the snap, rolled to his right for the expected play-action pass but managed only a feeble toss (which was intercepted) as he was being buried under an Alabama sophomore named Wayne Hamilton, who had blasted by two blockers. The Crimson Tide ran out the clock to win 21-20, knock USC off its No. 1 perch in both wire-service polls and snip the Trojans' win streak at 15.
While USC was staging a comeback behind Hertel, who completed 16 of 23 passes for 230 yards in the second half, Hamilton was making a comeback of his own. Recently he had found himself in Coach Bear Bryant's doghouse, which has often operated at capacity in the Bear's 20 seasons at Tuscaloosa. "I just wasn't playing up to the potential he feels I have, I guess," said Hamilton. "I didn't start against Vanderbilt after being the regular defensive end in the opener against Ole Miss and the next week against Nebraska. After he told me I wasn't starting, I just did a little soul-searching and decided I didn't want any of that sitting on the bench and not playing a lot." A star was reborn.
In an 18-10 Alabama victory over Southeastern Conference rival Georgia, Hamilton recovered two fumbles in the third period. On Saturday he was a key man in a dazzlingly quick defensive line that blunted USC's usually sharp running attack. A back probably would have to be part cheetah to get away consistently from the likes of Hamilton, Linebackers Barry Krauss and Rickey Gilliland and Tackle David Hannah.
Unlike the Civil War and Texas-Oklahoma, the Alabama-USC rivalry, which concludes next September in Birmingham, seems to ooze mutual respect, mutual admiration and a mutual attitude of "Let's not get those people annoyed or they'll rise up on their hoary traditions and smite us." Bryant is now 2-1 versus USC. The Tide, going all the way back to the 1938 season opener, is 4-1 against Southern Cal.
"I feel honored having the opportunity to play the No. 1-ranked team in the country, although we're certainly not as healthy as I would like for us to be," drawled Bryant before the game, communicating as usual in a mumble that sounds as though a coffee can full of rocks is being shaken. "USC looks like one of the great teams I've seen. Someone asked me what's their strong point and I said, 'You name it.' I'd rather play the No. 1 team than the 101st, though."
USC's John Robinson, who has been a head coach 31 fewer seasons than Bryant, was not to be outdone in slathering his rival with praise. "It's exciting as heck for us to play Alabama," he said. "It's like our game with Notre Dame—a meeting of two schools with a lot of football tradition. Coach Bryant is one of the great men in football, and I'd like him to come out and talk with our kids."
In the opening scene it appeared that USC would move through Alabama routinely—Hertel hurling the ball, Fullback Mosi Tatupu bursting up the middle and Charles White rolling up the yardage that seems to be the divine right of Trojan tailbacks. But when the drive stalled on the 'Bama 15, USC had to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Frank Jordan and a 3-0 lead.