The Back-to-Back that was but never was

Speaking at a rally before the 2003 season opener, former USC quarterback Paul McDonald boldly predicted that the Trojans would dominate Auburn, ranked no. 1 in many a preseason poll. USC's untested quarterback, he insisted, would conquer the South just as another USC southpaw had many years previous.

That quarterback was McDonald himself, who led a seemingly overmatched USC team into the Deep South in 1978 to face—and defeat--then no. 1-ranked Alabama.

Comparing a rookie quarterback like Matt Leinart, who at the time had yet to take a snap or stare down a charging defensive end, seemed highly questionable. After all, McDonald is a USC legend who led the Trojans to what should have been back-to-back national championships.

And there's the rub. What follows is the story of that powerhouse team, its undeserved fate and the eerie connections between its classy southpaw quarterback and a certain Heisman Trophy winner.

Say USC vs. Alabama and football historians immediately recall the famous 1970 game, when fullback Sam Cunningham ran over, under, around and through Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's befuddled Crimson Tide in a performance so dominating that it has been credited with integrating Southern football. One by one over the next few years, the segregated college teams of the South finally decided that winning games was more important than preserving old prejudices.

But there was another eventful day when another Trojan team ventured into the Bear's lair. It was the 1978 game, the one McDonald spoke of at the 2003 rally. The site was Legion Field, a stadium far more hostile to visiting teams than Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium and the Trojans were to face a desegregated Alabama team that was not only ranked No. 1 in the polls, but had been proclaimed by the legendary Bryant himself as his best team ever. Led by All American quarterback Jeff Rutledge and running backs Tony Nathan and Major Ogilvie, Alabama, in the midst of a 13-game winning streak, was a prohibitive (11-point) favorite. No one thought USC had a chance, particularly starting a lefty quarterback who had sat on the bench the past two years. But when the final gun sounded, the Crimson Tide had rolled out and the long-held belief that the best college football was played in Dixie was gone with the wind.

USC won 24-14 but it wasn't really that close. It was 24-7 in the fourth quarter and USC had squandered a few opportunities, such as Charles White fumbling at the Tide two on the opening drive. Charles made up for it on USC's next series going 40 yards for the score dash on one of USC's famous "student body right" pitches. USC then ate up 8 ½ minutes of the second quarter with a 23-play drive ending with a Frank Jordan field goal. USC's defense was so swarming to the ball carrier it actually seemed partly responsible for Alabama only score until the final minutes when Ogilive cut back against the flow and ran untouched 41 yards in the 3rd quarter.

Undaunted USC went on another march sparked by White hurdling a tangle of wood-be-tacklers, landing on his feet and fighting his way to the Bama 6. Then Coach John Robinson sent in his special play, one he would use again the next season to accomplish a come from behind win at LSU. He snuck in 5-9 Kevin Williams, USC's best receiver at the tailback spot and had him crunch behind the fullback so as not to be recognized. But to hide him from the defense, Robinson had him line up so close behind fullback Lynn Cain he could have been arrested, especially in Alabama. On the snap, Williams ran wide and cut back across the middle for the TD catch, a play similar to Reggie Bush's gamebreaker last year vs. Notre Dame.

But the play's success also illustrates how football has changed in the past 25 years. Today, with so many coaches and cameras and binoculars parsing each play, there is no way you could hide Reggie Bush behind a fullback. And Sports Illustrated raved about the "whopping 417 yards" rolled up by the Men of Troy, a total today's hypercharged Trojans often reach by halftime.

In a decade that USC would win three national titles and finish second twice, this was, in my opinion, its finest hour. Racking up 199 yards, Charles White burst onto the national scene and won the Heisman the following year. USC's defense picked Rutledge four times, and the defensive line forced two fumbles—which they promptly recovered.

But while White made the next cover of the next Sports Illustrated, which I found recently, the story inside revealed the revealed the full irony of Paul McDonald's 2003 prediction pre-Auburn. It was one he did not even fully yet appreciate when I spoke with him for this piece. The article not only revealed McDonald had been USC's first left-handed quarterback in 25 years, the piece itself almost appeared freshly written if you fast forward and thought not of McDonald but about the next southpaw qb who arrives 25 years later, the one McDonald claimed would lead the way. How close are McDonald and Leinart in style and accomplishments? Eerily close. Eventually, as I read parts of the story to McDonald, he begrudgingly admitted it might even be closer than that.

USC's victory over the Crimson Tide in 78, said SI, was due to the "brains" of a young quarterback, playing only his third game after spending two-years primarily on the bench. While hardly a gifted runner, the article notes that he often surprised the Tide with well-timed scrambles. And he deftly orchestrated the complex (for its time) offense concocted by Coach John Robinson and offensive coordinator Paul Hackett (yes, the same one). The offense featured Dallas Cowboys-like blocking schemes with lots of shifts, and motion. Bryant said he couldn't use such an offense, because it would take his quarterback four years to master it. McDonald, SI wrote, had altar-boy good looks, amazing poise in front of 77,000 screaming Tide fans and ran that complex offense as if it "were another row of candles to light while the organist played the doxology."

The young signal caller, it was written, was cool and "never blinked" as he orchestrated a bewildering assortment of splits and sets and calmly threw another TD pass to Williams in the fourth quarter—this one for forty yards-- that instantly ended any faint Tide hopes. At that point, Bama fans fled faster than a Sooner at an Orange Bowl.

Later that year, after Joe Montana and Notre Dame had stormed back from a 17-point deficit to take a one-point lead, McDonald took the field with around 55 seconds left and guided the Trojans to one last drive, leading to a Frank Jordan field goal and USC's last national championship—until 2003.

Of course this all sounds familiar. Reading that SI article on McDonald, you conclude either McDonald was a cockeyed optimist who got lucky or there was some weird mind meld between southpaws? Whatever, eerie does best describe it.

Unfortunately for McDonald, he was deprived of the honors bestowed on Leinart for leading his team to back-to-back titles. Later that year, USC lost 20-7 at Arizona State, after injuries to the team's top two centers led to several fumbled snaps that opened the door for a good Sun Devil team directed by future NFL Steeler quarterback Mark Malone.

When USC and Alabama both ended their seasons with one loss, the UPI coaches poll swiftly declared the Trojans national champs. But the AP poll of sportswriters voted Alabama no. 1, despite USC's dominant, head-to-head win.. In the South, Bear Bryant was God, could no wrong and worked miracles. And now he was telling all the good old boys that Alabama was the best at the season end. Legend has it as a teenager Bryant played Davey Crockett and wrestled a B'ar in a cage at some fair. So people didn't argue much with Bryant. But surely to pull this off had to be a greater challenge then wrestling something hairy with big teeth.

So USC had to share the title with a team it had whipped soundly. It was sad, but not as sad as the following year. Heading for another undefeated season, the Trojans built a commanding, 21-0 halftime lead against Stanford and a freshman quarterback named Elway, who was unceremoniously replaced in the second half by a senior benchwarmer. The defense rose up to stop White, the sub caught fire and Stanford salvaged an unlikely tie, 21-21 tie. On Stanford's last drive it had a fourth and one and a pinned for a loss back escaped to make the first by an inch or two, the distance that prevented back-to-back in an era that had no overtimes and some coaches played for a tie.

And the tie did cost the Trojans another national title, despite its come-from-behind Rose Bowl win over Woody Hayes' Ohio State Buckeyes. Trailing 16-10 in that game, and with time for only one drive, USC marched from its own 17 yard line down behind two long Charles White runs behind an offensive line led by future all-pros Brad Budde and Anthony Munoz. After a short breather, and Marcus Allen moving the chains, White came back on the field, waving his finger in the air a la Joe Namath . First an incredible twisting and charging run of about 7 yards to the one. From there he leaped the final yard for the winning score.

In two years, the McDonald-led Trojans had suffered just one loss and only a tie, the latter being all that separated it from USC's last two year record, but had only a half of a national title to show for it. Who inherited the 1979 crown? Why Mr. Bryant and his undefeated Crimson Tide, whose schedule that year included several patsies and no USC, and who could now claim back-to-back titles.

In spite of the tie, you would have thought that in one year, the Sports Illustrated pages that told of USC's thumping of Alabama would not have faded so much that people couldn't recall the Trojans' "whopping" 417 yards and ‘Bama's sickly six turnovers. But that's how the polls have always operated. If the programs are top ones, an undefeated will always rank ahead of a tied one. You have to wonder if somehow, the current BCS system was created in part because of the injustice heaped upon that long-ago USC juggernaut.

For McDonald, he can now bask in the reflected glow of another accomplished lefty Trojan quarterback, one who resembles him in so many ways. And he—along with every other Trojan who remembers those years—can rest easy in the certain knowledge that there was no doubt who was the number one college football program in the country as the seventies passed into the eighties.

Thanks for the memories. It was truly a back-to-back championship run--even if the blind mice pollsters couldn't see it.

But sometime fate does have a way of correcting past errors, even if not quite all the way. McDonald was right on his prediction and as a result last season, Michael McDonald, also a quarterback, received the family's second ring.

It had been long overdue.


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