What it was that fell on Alabama last week in Birmingham was not just all those USC stars, current and soon-to-be. Southern Cal always has its fair share of those, and Alabama had no illusions about that. Nor was it just another lethal dose of White lightning administered by still one more terrific Trojan tailback, although one would have to say that if a 199-yard day rushing against the proud Crimson Tide defense was Mr. Charles White's way of wishing Bear Bryant a belated happy 65th birthday, he sure as hell won't get invited back for the 66th. Nor was it just the swarming, Tide-turning USC defense, the one that gets to the ball quicker than Cinderella's stepsisters and doesn't appear to have a pass defender under 6'6".
No, what it was that USC dumped on Bear and his boys, and put them on their collective carrumpus for the first time in 13 games—and right out of first place in the race for No. 1—was brains. Specifically, brains belonging to still one more inconspicuous USC quarterback.
All USC quarterbacks are not inconspicuous, of course. Only in comparison to USC tailbacks. There have been many talented ones, but USC quarterbacks are often written up, and off, as if they were all lefthanded and unable to run (or pass, depending) across a crowded room. They are said to be on scholarship mainly to provide an orderly transfer of the football to the latest all-star tailback—Mike or O.J. or Anthony or Ricky or, now, Charles—48 times a game. That is more or less what they say about the incumbent, too.
Paul McDonald actually is a lefthanded quarterback, the first in 24 years at USC. He can run across a room, but Coach John Robinson says he doubts he could make it to the bathroom in less than 10 seconds. McDonald is a 6'2", 180-pound junior with the smooth boyish face and deep brown eyes of a Norman Rockwell altar boy. Robinson says that as an athlete McDonald reminds him of himself in his youth. "When Paul falls down," he says, "you're scared to death he'll break his elbow."
But McDonald can, too, throw the ball. He is favorably compared in that respect with another really good USC passer, Pat Haden, who happened to go to the same high school in Covina, Calif. And when it comes to generating brain waves, Robinson and his percipient passing coach, Paul Hackett, consider McDonald a Phi Beta Kappa (which he may well be; he is averaging 3.7 out of 4.0 in accounting).
When Robinson and Hackett added a boggling variety of blocking schemes and shifts and men-in-motion plays reminiscent of the Dallas Cowboys to the USC repertoire this season, they ended up with an attack requiring a defense-reading, audibilizing demon at quarterback (one Bryant estimated would ordinarily take four years to develop). McDonald was their man. Although in two years at USC he had thrown only 34 passes, and those in games no longer in doubt, he had soaked up a lot of exciting football on the bench. "He's right on schedule," said Hackett.
And last week there McDonald was, sure enough, in all the hackle-raising pressure of Legion Field, before a record and riled-up Alabama crowd of 77,313, regarding a Bryant-coached defense (the scariest kind) as if it were just another row of candles to light while the organist played the doxology. McDonald never fumbled. He threw only one inconsequential interception. He threw two consequential touchdown passes, and, on a wing and a flair, picked the Alabama defense apart with Hackett's diverse and devious play selection. Denouement: a whopping 417 yards total offense, and USC 24, Alabama 14.
But was it so surprising? Not if you believe in Hollywood the way USC does.
The night before the game Robinson sat in the lounge of the team's Birmingham hotel to weigh the prospect of facing Alabama one more time. A budding insomniac, he was loose and expansive. His team was an 11-point underdog, he said, though ranked seventh and unbeaten in two games...and was starting 14 players (including those on the special teams) who had never been in a big game before...in what was predicted to be a high-humidity sweatbox of an arena...with a wheeling-dealing offense "that could self-destruct at any minute if we start making mistakes"...against what he considered the best college team he had seen since he was an assistant on USC's 1972 USC national champions.
Robinson had omens and hardware with which to console himself: the fact that every time the Trojans had been big underdogs in recent seasons, including three times against Notre Dame, USC had pulled off upsets. And that he was prepared to match Alabama BTU for BTU in sideline air conditioning. He had brought eight units, having seen Alabama deploy them in the Nebraska game when Legion Field steamed at near 100°. And that, at the very least, the Trojans would thrill the fans with their gussied-up offense. "We'll go out there like it was the Rose Bowl," he said. "We're not here to try to stay close."