A Baseball Fan's Perspective of The Big Game
The Big Game? I must be thinking in terms of the Yankees-Red Sox. Or the Dodgers-Giants. Or the Cardinals-Cubs. Right? Wrong. I'm talkin' football here. The college variety. And don't give me Army-Navy or Harvard-Yale, or even Michigan-Ohio State, Texas-Oklahoma, or Alabama-Auburn. I don't want to hear about Cal-Stanford either. Any rivalry whose best game involves a band running onto the field during the final play while the other team is lateraling the ball five times like a rugby scrum doesn't qualify.
Although the University of Southern California and the University of Notre Dame football game is the greatest intersectional rivalry in any sport, the USC-UCLA annual matchup is the Big Game. The best one I ever witnessed was my first: 1967. The Bruins were ranked number one and the Trojans three. They were playing for the conference championship, the national championship, and the Rose Bowl. The teams also featured the top two players in the country -- Gary Beban, who won the Heisman Trophy, and O.J. Simpson, who finished second his junior year before winning the award the following season with the most total points ever.
USC beat UCLA, 21-20, on that sunny Saturday afternoon in November. Simpson ran for two touchdowns -- a 13-yarder that some coaches have dubbed the best run ever and a 64-yard gallop on third-and-eight in the fourth quarter that won the game -- and 6-foot-8 Bill Hayhoe blocked one field goal attempt by Zenon Andrusyshun and tipped a missed extra point, which turned out to be the margin of victory.
I liked Beban, and UCLA's powder-blue jerseys and metallic-gold helmets won me over in those days. I changed my allegiance prior to attending USC, but I have been hooked on the Big Game now for almost 40 years. I've been to most of these battles over the past four decades. Lots of great players, teams, and games. When Reggie Bush accepts the Heisman Trophy in New York on Monday, December 12, 2005, he will become the seventh Trojan to win the most prestigious award in sports since 1965 and the third in the past four years.
I had the good fortune yesterday of once again attending this crosstown titanic. It was held at the Los Angeles Coliseum, across the street from USC's campus. UCLA used to call the Coliseum home before moving to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Trojans like to say that we still own the Rose Bowl; we just rent it out to the Bruins from September-December each year.
This year's game may not have had the build-up of the 1967 classic, but it pitted #1-ranked USC and #11-ranked UCLA. The oddsmakers made the undefeated Trojans 21-point favorites with 74 as the over/under line. From this combination, one could deduce that SC was favored to win 48-27 or thereabouts. That score looked about right to me, as I figured it would be a shootout. It was a shootout all right, but the Bruins forgot to bring their weapons. The Trojans scored first and often in running up a 66-19 victory over the hapless Bruins.
Running up the score seems to be the operative phrase where Bruin fans are concerned. I was taken aback when I heard some chatter on a radio station as well as a message board or two. In response to Jon Weisman's Los Angeles Bruins of Pasadena at Los Angeles Trojans post Saturday morning, I left the first comment before making my way to the Coliseum. Upon returning home last night, I read the rest of the comments on Dodger Thoughts, including those that transpired during the game.
More than anything, I was bemused by the number of Bruin supporters who were complaining about Pete Carroll. You gotta love it when the fans of the losing team whine about the other team's tactics. Precious.
Going down the list here. . .Let's see, USC going for it on 4th-and-10 at the UCLA 32 with 9:24 to go in the third quarter was called into question by a reader. Don't mind that the Trojans have been doing this all year. C'mon, what are they supposed to do? Punt the ball into the endzone like UCLA did from the USC 35 in the first quarter and move the ball a net 12 yards? Go for a 49-yard field goal when kicker Mario Danelo hasn't made anything beyond 39 yards all year? Or maybe they should take a knee and turn the ball over to the poor Bruins, who were trailing 31-6 at that time?
This notion that you can't go for it on fourth down is one of the silliest pieces of so-called strategy ever concocted in football. The sport needs a Bill James (OK, Football Outsiders is trying) to show what you should and shouldn't do in game situations. Without ever performing such a study, I'm telling you right here that more teams should think in terms of going for it on fourth down in certain circumstances.
Moving on. . .A commenter noted that Carroll allowed Matt Leinart and John David Booty to throw the ball 24 times in the second half. Oh my gosh, what bad sportsmanship! Get real. Using a baseball analogy, I guess batters shouldn't try to get base hits by swinging in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings of a romp. Instead, they should just keep the bats on their shoulders and take all the pitches. Or maybe they should play pepper with the other team's pitcher. But they should never swing away and try to score more runs. No, because that would be considered "pouring it on."
Another commenter was upset that USC called a timeout in the fourth quarter. Boy, that's really Bush league, so to speak, huh? I mean, calling a timeout so Leinart -- the team's fifth-year senior QB, co-captain, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, a three-time All-American, and the leader of a team that has a chance to become the first to win three national championships in the history of college football -- could enjoy a standing ovation from the Trojan faithful and well wishes from his teammates in his final home appearance is a classless thing to do. Baseball analogy: letting a star player, who is about to retire, run out to field his position late in the game, then sending in a sub before the inning starts so the home crowd could give him one last cheer. I think both are pretty classy things myself.
For the record, Leinart and Bush left the game with 12:21 left to play. In other words, SC's starting QB and RB played 47 minutes and 39 seconds or 79.4% of the game. Again, in baseball terms, that is equal to playing the first seven innings and sitting out the final two. LenDale White, who set a school record for the most touchdowns in a season this year despite being the backup to the Heisman Trophy winner, stayed in the game for three more plays. His TD and the subsequent extra point put the Trojans up 59-6, which, for all intents and purposes, was the final score of the game in my mind.
Karl Dorrell, the head coach of UCLA, on the other hand, stuck with starting QB Drew Olson the entire game. Olson, in fact, led the Bruins to two touchdowns in the closing minutes, including one with just 11 seconds remaining. What's up with that? If one team is supposed to call off the dogs, then why shouldn't the other?
But I don't want to come across as whining. I'll leave that to the losers.
While on the subject of Dodger Thoughts, be sure to check out Jon Weisman's new book, a 325-page collection of his best work since the summer of 2002.
Heisman Trophy trivia: Purdue has never had a player who has won the award, yet had one third-place and three second-place finishers from 1966-1969. Without going to heisman.com, name the players and the years.