My biggest problem is I get so excited for every game that I can't stand it," Marcus Allen, the University of Southern California's splendid tailback, was saying one night last week at his Inglewood apartment. "But I can't press, because then there's the danger that I'll try so hard to do well that I'll mess up."
If being too excited and trying incredibly hard are shortcomings, they might be the only ones Allen has. He runs, he catches, he passes, he blocks and he tells his mom he loves her. Already, Allen is being touted as the greatest of all those spectacularly talented USC tailbacks—a roster that includes Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell and Charles White. The thought that M.A. might mess up just doesn't compute.
"I think that Marcus came here assuming he was going to be a great player," USC Coach John Robinson says, "but he just didn't know at what position." Nor did Robinson, if truth be known. Allen was recruited as a defensive back from Lincoln High in San Diego (Oklahoma was his second choice; Sooner Coach Switzer wanted him as his quarterback), but after a week of practice Robinson broached the idea of converting Allen to tailback. "Think about it," Robinson told Allen. "I have," Allen said. "I want to do it." But along the way he had to serve time at fullback, blocking for Heisman winner White in 1979. "I was afraid if I played that position too well, Coach Robinson would make me stay there," Allen says, laughing.
Allen's conversion to tailback was no laughing matter for Switzer last Saturday, as the Trojans, ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press, relied on their running back to keep them in the game and then scored a touchdown with two seconds showing on the L.A. Coliseum clock and 85,651 frenzied fans clutching their hearts to beat No. 2 Oklahoma 28-24. It was a thrilling game full of ebbs and rushes of fortune. Oklahoma continually fought back after its own miscues (10 fumbles, five of them recovered by USC), while the Trojans, who never led until those final two seconds, desperately scratched and clawed no matter how depressing the numbers on the scoreboard. It was a sight for sore, cynical eyes.
Everybody thought it would be. Especially Robinson, who before the opening kickoff sat on a bench at midfield, relaxing as best he could, and said, "Isn't this great? Our team is here and their team is here. Our band is here and their band is here. The blimp is here and I just thank God I'm here. Of course, I'll thank Him more if we win. And I'll tell you this, the team that plays the longest will win."
Oh yes, Robinson's words would prove to be accurate, but it also helped that Robinson had Allen on his side. After the game, Switzer, trying to recover from the emotional hurricane he had just been through, said softly, "Allen is probably the best back in the country. He's better than I thought from looking at films, and he's better when it's toughest. I'd vote for him for the Heisman." The always expansive Robinson said of Allen, "He's absolutely the best tailback I've ever seen. He was a great football player out there over and over and over and..." The obvious exuberance with which Allen plays the game isn't lost on Southern Cal's offensive line coach, Hudson Houck, either. "Marcus doesn't consider life a dress rehearsal," he says.
The Trojans, symbolized by their white horse, Traveler III, who races around the Coliseum's running track when USC scores, always strikes fear in the opposition because, like that steed, they are big and flashy. Big as in an offensive line that averages 262 pounds, flashy as in Allen, who gained 208 yards rushing against the Sooners, the third straight game in which he has gone over 200. Only four other college runners—John Cappelletti of Penn State, Bill Marek of Wisconsin, Jerome Persell of Western Michigan and the Sooners' own Billy Sims—have accomplished that feat.
USC's size obviously was much on the minds of the Sooner coaching staff in the dressing room moments before the game. Switzer had never coached in the Coliseum, and thus lacked firsthand knowledge of Traveler and fellow travelers. But his chief assistant, Merv Johnson, had been in the Coliseum before as a member of the Notre Dame staff. Johnson looked over at Switzer and said helpfully, "Let me caution you that the horse is the one without the headgear."
As it turned out, Traveler fell down during a celebration of a fourth-quarter Trojan score, throwing Richard Saukko, his rider. But they both got up, just like the USC football team. Twice the Trojans had to hike back from 10-point deficits, the last time with only 13:08 left in the game. And while it did seem on paper that USC was bigger, faster, stronger, deeper and more experienced than the Sooners, anybody who understands Oklahoma football knows that doesn't matter a lick come showtime. There are few teams that love a big game more than the team from Norman. And this matchup clearly filled that bill, pitting the arrogance of Southern Cal, which lines up, sends its tailback at you all afternoon and dares you to do anything about it, against the firepower of the Sooners' wishbone, which seems to be a rapid-fire demonstration of the theory of combinations and permutations.
Predictably, Allen ran the ball the first four plays of the game, gaining 26 yards and proving USC's point. But the Trojans were stymied by an illegal-procedure penalty, and ended their first series with a punt into the Sooner end zone. Then the wishbone got cracking as Quarterback Kelly Phelps directed Oklahoma 80 yards in 10 plays, running the last seven yards himself for a touchdown—and thus proving Oklahoma's point.