When Southern California tailback Charles White dove over the Michigan Line for a three-yard touchdown this afternoon, few in the huge Rose Bowl crowd gave much credence to the Wolverine players jumping around claiming they had recovered a fumble.
White's score gave USC a 14-3 lead, and proved to be the winning touchdown in a 17-10 win that may vault UCS to the national championship.
However, TV replays from four different angles show that Michigan's Ron Simpkin almost certainly stripped the ball from White at the two-foot line, knocking the ball out of his arms to the turf.
That play will live in Rose Bowl lore for years. It will stick in Michigan's craw just as long.
"That score really put us in the hole," said Wolverine Coach Bo Schembechler. "If we'd recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchback, we'd have probably played a lot different after that."
Nevertheless, despite their howls, the Wolverines did an excellent job of pointing out that, though the crucial call was probably incorrect, it was not a brutally call, in the football scense.
"The official who signaled touchdown was standing in the proper place -- with his feet across the goal line -- and he made the call very quickly," siad Simpkin. "That's all you can ask. He's not a machine. That's a split-second call and he can't see it from 10 angles in slow action."
The Wolverines' Jerry Meter recovered the ball in the end zone and Michigan would have gotten the ball at its 20 had the play been called a fumble.
"Yeah, I was in a perfect position to see it," said USC Coach John Robinson. "I was right on the 50-yard line."
Then he burst out laughing: "Of course, I couldn't see a thing... but that's the kind of tangled-up decision that refs have to make throughout a game. It isn't one of those out-in-the-open plays where everybody says, 'He blew it.'"
Schembechler was the most annoyed Michigander. While his players said, "That's the game... we should have come back anyway... it was a tough call," the coach was not so generous.
"Our whole team didn't think he scored," said Schembechler.
For Michigan players, that one-houchdown margin of defeat was familiar." "We're always close, so close," said fullback Russell Davis, senior captain from Woodbridge, Va., who has played in the 14-6 loss to USC three years ago and the 27-20 Rose Bowl upset to Washington last season that may have cost Michigan the national title.
The one man who was closest to The Fumble -- White himself -- met all questions with a mischievious smile. "It's history now. I thought I scored." White said, then broke out into a laugh. "Hey, I was just layin' it down in the end zone for the ref to pick up like I always do."
(However, the AP quoted White as admiting the ball popped out of his possession before he crossed the plane of the goal line.)
And it was not so funny to Schambechler, who has won eight Big 10 championship in 10 seasons, yet has zero bowl victories in six tries.
"We're just going to keep on coming here and doing this until we get it right," he said. "We're too good a team, too good an organization to have this keep happening to us. Say, we may run off a string of five or six wins in the Rose Bowl some time."