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Reliving the 1974 Notre Dame comeback

I’m going to tell what really happened that on that magical day in November 1974 that Sports Illustrated called “17 minutes that shook LA.” I will give you a clearer insight into the mindset of the Trojan championship football teams. A mindset that has been consistent down thru the decades.

As for me, I was blessed to have played on two National Championship teams – 1972 and 1974 so I have an informed perspective. I was there that day in Los Angeles and was  one of two starting inside linebackers,  the other being the first 3-time Consensus Football All American in USC’s history, Richard “Batman” Wood.

What I am going to share with you is what should be our attitude anytime we run onto the field with the distinct privilege of wearing the famous Cardinal and Gold representing the only and best hope for West coast college football dominance and National Championships…period.

So now we must back up in time to 1974 and the month is November. Please note that November was really our month and we left no doubts. The place is the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and an historic, once-in-a lifetime event was going to take place that nobody saw coming, predicted or believed was even possible…. except for one person who I’ll get to later on  It may surprise you, but he has a name.

Many of you know of “The Game” (now known as That Game) which took place in the Coliseum that year between the good guys (we had more Christians than ND which by definition  had to be true!). It turned out to be an end to an Ara…Ara Parseghian’s last regular season game was about to be played to record fans and TV audience. But it did not start out that way. No, it started off as another one of Ara’s beat down of a Trojan football team in LA. He beat down a Trojan team before, going 51-0 leaving virtually all the first-teamers in that entire game so he could prove a point.

He did, and Coach McKay and others never ever forgot. Coach changed his recruiting and went after tough linemen (both defense and offense) and linebackers and fullbacks all with speed and mean. He went out of state as well to get the best. But on this November late afternoon start, Ara was quite content to continue his coaching career at ND especially as the game started and the first half progressed.

Most of you know that we got behind throughout the first half with the score 24-0 very late into the second quarter. Very little was going right for us and much was going wrong. On defense our game plan included pulling up the two inside backers (Richard Wood and me) to within 1.5 to 2.0 yards of the offensive guards with an outside shade in both B gaps. Our purpose was to keep the guards from pulling and creating C & D gap running lanes and reduce ND’s mis-direction and power blocking options. Turned out to be a lousy plan and created havoc on the inside for us as we were getting cut off a lot in the traffic.

Notre Dame’s line calls were perfectly aligned to defeat our strategies. The option series combined with ND’s power mis-direction plays were killing us. Our safeties had to roll-up especially Charlie Phillips which created open pass patterns crossing the middle and post routes by their slotbacks and wide receivers, who were oftentimes in motion. Cornerbacks (Danny Reece and Ronnie Bush were playing a man-back zone coverage.

Frankly, in retrospect it was a perfect storm of intense preparation that was seriously misguided. Our mis-alignment cost us dearly. And Notre Dame brought their A-game and credit should be given here as Heisman candidate Clements had a great first, as did Wayne Bullock their fullback. Bullock had to leave the game late in the first half after I talked him and he reinjured his tender ankle. Hard tackling still counts and we used to be known for it.

The entire game was the typical uber-physical and nasty play on the field. Lots of punching, poking, grabbing and chippy yacking after most plays. It was only the vague deep-down stirring of playing disciplined football just in case we could claw our way back into this game that prevented a full our bar fight on the field. Fat chance many fans were thinking. I’ll bet that there were very few press bets getting exchanged in the stands of Las Vegas…pity that. LA fans were quiet and Notre Dame fans were certainly not. Even I noticed it and usually tuned out the activities in the stands routinely.

Well, as it turned out, we scored a short while later in the first half on a swing pass to Anthony Davis (easily the #1 ND killer of all time). We finished the first half trailing 24-6 as we were unable to convert the two-point conversion attempt. Coach McKay just loved two-point conversions when he needed to make things happen. He saw no great benefit in a tie game anytime or anywhere.

So, what happened at half time (a twenty minute half time btw due to national TV), a reasonable person might ask? So let me tell what my experience and recollection is.

  • We ate chilled quartered oranges (60-90 seconds)
  • Most used the facilities (180-240 seconds for starters and key #2s)
  • Reviewed film of the first quarter, about 180-300 seconds)
  • Discussed adjustments
    • I asked Coaches Levy and Lindsay to back up to 3.5 yards for my starting position so as to free from entanglements too far up inside the box and LOS. They said only 2.5 to 3.0 yards to prevent separation from Richard. I took it after arguing for a minute. I knew Richard Wood would be able to manage the clutter on his weakside as there would be nobody and only a wingback to worry about. I was getting clobbered by TE, OT, OG and center. All were eventually All-Americans, I think.
  • Danny Reece was told by Coach Fontes to play tighter on the WR on his side in almost a man cover (120 seconds)
  • We would put a concerted effort to “chuck” every receiver coming off the LOS to slow down their route and disrupt their timing and just bruise ‘em up…one of my specialties if WR crosses into my zone. My pleasure and game film confirms I had an affinity for busting up WRs and slotbacks. (90 seconds)
  • Charlie Philips was to play back a bit deeper but allowed to crash the LOS fast when he saw run.
  • Pulled back dividing curtain from offense and meet as a total team
  • Coach McKay addressed the team
    • “Gentlemen, you know that we can play better than that. Right now the millions of people watching this game think you’re pretty bad. They are wrong. There is no law preventing you from blocking, tackling and running hard. We start the second half with the ball. We are going to score. We will win this game. Let’s pray.” (approximate quote)

The rest is history as Anthony Davis took the second half opening kickoff back 102 yards behind some great wedge block by Dave Farmer, Mosi Tatupu, Ricky Bell, Clay Matthews and Mario Celotto. On our ensuing kick off David Lewis totally blew up the ND returner. How he didn’t fumble is still a mystery to me. Five turnovers later, including two fumble recoveries (me) and three interceptions (Charlie Phillips)–one of which was a pick six. When the 17 minutes were done, we’d hung 55 straight points, which is still a record, and 35 points in the 3rd quarter, which is still a Notre Dame record.

As mentioned above, we finished the game winning 55-24 shutting out Notre Dame for the balance of the game and scoring 55 straight points and 35 in the 3rd quarter alone which is a record which stands to this day as the most points ever scored against ND in a single quarter…especially sweet as it was on national TV for millions to see. We fixed that problem too.

One irony here is that on that day we couldn’t run the ball worth a crap between the 20’s but in the red zone we were deadly. Pat Haden threw spot-on throws into windows that would make anyone proud. Special teams were, well, special. And on defense we finally got our act together. We made an adjustment that I begged from Coach Levy and Coach Lindsay to back up the inside linebackers to our more normal 3 to 4 yards deep. They said no but 2.0 to 3.0 was ok as a deeper set than that would force us to change the defensive tackle assignments too. If you watch the film you’ll see me deeper in the second half.

Also, at halftime after watching some film of some of the first quarter, we vowed not to let the ND receivers get off the line of scrimmage cheaply. We took shots at them every play and then some. We had to slow them down, physically beat them up and give the secondary a chance. We had to shut down the inside run game and let Charlie get back to his usual single deep position. The results were five Notre Dame turnovers in the second half; three picks by Charlie including a pick six (I got on the shoulder pad of the crossing TE forcing a wider throw and Charlie just ate it up. Charlie was something else) and two fumble recoveries by some knucklehead Mike linebacker (me) with the first fumble caused by Danny Reece, who just pole axed the ND receiver (Danny may have been the most underrated CB in our history, by the way).

However, I recall vividly that after a scoring drive by ND back in the first half  and just after the ensuing kickoff, I’m on the bench with the defense trying to get our heads out of our behinds and get something going. And here comes a highly respected former player and Heisman trophy winner stomping down the sideline yelling to each player he could find, in our faces and in particular the defensive starters that, “we are going to win this game! Get your heads up and play like Trojans. We don’t quit; not ever and especially not against these guys. We are going to beat these guys…get your heads up and play Trojan football!!!” He really meant it and believed it. He kept that up even when it was 24-0 ND.

But who was this delusional soul? How could he be so arrogant, misguided, over-confident, awash in Hubris and intransient to believe, really believe that “we are going to beat these guys!!!”? This man has the heart of a Trojan, the heart of an All-American, the heart of a team captain, the heart of a Heisman winner, the heart of an NFL All-Pro, the heart of an Athletic Director at the best university in the country. His name….you should have guessed by now, is Mike Garrett. So, put aside what think about Mike and just remember this; he believed when no-one else really did that we were going beat Notre Dame that day even when it was 24-0.

His attitude and mindset changed my life that day as I saw what happens when you believe in the impossible, give everything you have, and I mean everything, and don’t focus on the past mistakes but learn. And never ever get physically beaten on the field. Not in practice or in a game. Never. This was a timeless real-life example of what Trojan football should be all about always. So, there you have some of my recollections…but not all.

There is an interesting story to tell about the after-game party my girlfriend threw (who is now my bride of 44 years, btw) with her girlfriend from Notre Dame. We had an exciting time but more importantly, me and other USC players drank beer and talked long into the night with certain Notre Dame players about that day and the bowl games to be played later that season by both teams. Ours was the Rose Bowl and they were going to the Orange Bowl.

The deal was struck. We will beat tOSU and they would beat Alabama. We would win the National Championship and then play again next season in South Bend. They beat Alabama, we beat Ohio State and we won the National Championship that season. And Ara Parseghian announced his retirement on Monday which signaled an end of an Ara. Oh, did I mention we went to South Bend the next year and beat a Joe Montana lead ND 24-17? Yes, championship football players won championships. Fight on!

Kevin Bruce

Kevin earned his MBA and BS in Business Administration/Finance & Econometrics from the University of Southern California, where he also played four years of varsity football, serving as co-captain and playing in three Rose Bowls. Kevin’s college honors included All-American (AP-Honorable Mention), All Pac-8 Conference - Linebacker (1st) and Academic All-American, two NCAA National Championships (football), NCAA Post Graduate Scholarship recipient and Trojan Diamond Award-outstanding graduating senior. He is a member of Football Writers Association of America and is a contributor to WeAreSC.com.

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