"It's going to be one whale of a football game," Michigan coach Bo Schembchler said the other day. And when Southern California and Michigan take the field in the Rose Bowl Saturday, it might also just be a national championship game.
"We deserve the right, if we beat Michigan, to claim we're No. 1," said USC's first-year coach, John Robinson. "We'll vote ourselves No. 1 in the locker room - unanimously."
"There's no question about it," said Schembechler. "I believe, and my players believe, these are the two best teams in the country."
And so, regardless of what happens to top-ranked Pittsburgh against Georgia in the Sugar Bowl earlier in the day, the Rose Bowl (4:45) p.m., WRTV-4) should provide one of the more intriguing college football matchups in recent years.
Both teams have won 10 of their first 11 games this year. Michigan, the Big 10 champion that is ranked second in both wire-service polls, is rated a six-point favorite over Pacific-Eight titlist USC, No. 3 and riding a 10-game winning streak.
But the Trojans have history on their side. They have won more bowl games than any team in America, with 15 victories in 21 postseason appearances, and the Pacific-Eight representative has won six of the last seven Rose Bowls, seven of the last 10.
But the men of Michigan say they are on a crusade, and have been ever since that dreary day four years ago when the Big 10 athletic directors voted to send Ohio State to this game, even though the Wolverines had the better ranking and, they thought, the better team.
"All our players want this game very badly," said Michigan's all-America running back Rob Lytle. "It's for the Big 10, but mostly it's for Bo and the guys who didn't get here when they should have. I was a freshman on that team. We all remember. I feel like I'm playing it for all those guys who never got this chance."
Saturday's affair will match two potent, although varied, offenses, cach featuring a spectacular running back - Lyle of Michigan and Heisman Torphy runner-up Ricky Bell, another in a long line of gifted Trojan tailbacks.
Michigan, an option teah, will try to keep the ball on the groundFour of its ball carriers, including sophomore quarterback Rick Leach, gained 500 yard or better this season.
Because of injuries to other players, Lytle, at 190 pounds, ran mostly from the fullback position this season, although he is a natural tailback. Nevertheless, he gained a school-record 1,405 yards, averaged seven yards per pop and scored 13 touchdowns. He is also a devastating blocker.
If Lytle is bottled up, Harlan Huckleby, a 9.5 sprinter who gained 928 yards, can break off the big play. And so can fellow sophomore Russell Davis of Woodbridge, Va. (675 yards), or Leach, himself. The quarterback gained 675 yards running and threw for 897 yards and 13 touchdowns. Jim Smith, a wide receiver, has been his favorite target.
A Michigan quarterback who passes?
Yes, we'll throw it if we have to," said Schembechler."But you don't get this far without a running attack. People say our offense isn't very exciting. Hell, everytime our quarterback pitches the ball, he's going at full speed and so is the back. If that's not exciting, I wish somebody would tell me what is."
Michigan's numbers are staggering. The Woverines led the nation in total offense (362.6) and points (38.7).
But Southern California can move the ball quite nicely, too.
Bell is a 220-pound brute his teammates call "Bulldog" because he growis when he rumbles and rambles through opposing defenses. Like Lytle, he is probably playing out of position. He spent his first two seasons at fullback.Says one scout, "It doesn't matter where the kid plays, just give him the ball."
USC did that 276 times this season and Bell gained 1,417 yards, a five-yard average. He scored 14 touchdowns rushing and one with a pass. "He's got fair hands," said Robinson, "but we don't throw to him that much, anyway. We usually don't have to."
Quarterback Vince Evans, a 52 per cent passer this year, has other choice targets in swift wide receivers Randy Simmrin and Shelton Diggs. The two combined for 60 catches and 13 touchdowns and both average about 20 yards per reception.
There was a slight scare in the Southern California camp earlier this week when Evans twisted an ankle in practice Wednesday and missed Thursday's workout. But he is expected to start.
Evans usually has excellent protection. The Trojans' offensive line looks as if it was discovered up the coast in a redwood forest. The sturdiest tree of all is 265-pound Marvin Powell, a young man RObinson describes as "the best offensive tackle in America."
The USC offensive line averages about 6-3 and 225 pounds and is one of the primary reasons the Trojans were No. 3 in the nation in total offense (432 yards a game) and scoring (33.8 points).
The teams also seem evenly matched on defense. Michigan led the country in scoring defense, allowing only 7.4 points a game. After their shocking 46-25 less to Missouri at home in the season opener, the Torjans settled down and allowed only 11 touchdowns in their final 10 games.
Michigan uses a five-two front and relies primarily on quickness, its greatest asset. The Wolverines are not especially large and that could be a problem against USC's huge linemen and power backs.
The best of the Michigan defenders are Greg Morton, a three-year starter and all-America defensive tackel who likes to raise plants and talks to them, and linebacker Calvin O'Neal, another all-America with the world's largest arms.
Southern California has some Trojan horses, also, including defensive tackel Gary Jeter and safety Clint Strozier, both all-Americas. USC plays out of a three-four alignment and has done a decent job all season shutting off teams - like Michigan - that like to run to the outside.
"They don't look that quick coming off the ball," said Jeter, "but they really maintain their blocks well. We have to read, close in and pursue. A lot of teams recognize what Michigan is doing. They just don't get there in time."
Jeter recently came up with a nickname for his defensive teammates. There are 10 black starters and one white player, so Jeter calls them the "SWAT Team" - soul with a touch. Saturday, he and his teammates would like another moniker. "We'd like to be national champions," he said.