The 1978 college football season is remembered for a controversial split national championship, the continued frustration of one great coach and the sad ending for another. But above all, 1978 was about four games–one in the regular season and three in the bowls–that were defined by drama on the goal line. In this article we’ll take a look back on the road traveled to those four threshold games and the ultimate conclusion of this year in college football.
Alabama was ranked #1 in the preseason polls, with a balanced rushing attack led by Tony Nathan and Major Ogilvie, who were the SEC’s top two backs in yards-per-attempt. Quarterback Jeff Rutledge didn’t have to throw a lot, but he had a long NFL future ahead of him and was effective when he had to be. Rutledge’s 13 touchdown passes led the SEC in 1978.
Defensively, Alabama was anchored by defensive tackle Marty Lyons and linebacker Barry Krauss, each of whom made All-American. Cornerback Don McNeal would soon be an NFL starter on a Super Bowl team with the Miami Dolphins.
The Crimson Tide finished #2 in 1977, and felt they had been robbed in the voting. Bear Bryant’s program was aiming for its first national title since 1965.
USC was ranked #9 to start the season and the Trojans were looking for a bounceback year after a four-loss campaign in ‘77. They had a great tailback in Charles White.
White would gain over 1,800 yards in 1978, and set the stage for his Heisman winning season a year later. Lynn Cain was the backup, and with 977 yards of his own, Cain was still more productive than almost all of the starting backs around the country. All-American guard Pat Howell was the anchor of the offensive line that kept clearing the way.
The lefty quarterback, Paul McDonald, had a 19/7 TD-INT ratio, both exceptional numbers in this time period. Prior to 1977’s hiccup, USC had been to the Rose Bowl four times in five years and won three of those games. They were favored to return to Pasadena this time around.
Penn State produced unbeaten but uncrowned teams in 1968, 1969 and 1973 under the leadership of Joe Paterno. Much to the chagrin of the Nittany Lions, their rival Pitt was honored with a national title after a perfect season in 1976. After two years out of the major bowl picture, Paterno’s team was ready to return to the national stage.
The Nittany Lions had a ferocious defensive line, led by Bruce Clark and Matt Millen. Millen would later convert to being an effective NFL linebacker and after that convert to being the worst general manager in the history of the NFL with the Detroit Lions. But that was for down the road.
In the meantime, another future pro, Rich Milot, was at linebacker. And Pete Harris, the younger brother of Steeler/Penn State legend Franco Harris, intercepted ten passes in the secondary.
The Lions were no less stout on the offensive side of the trenches, with All-American tackle Keith Dorney, a top 10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft, and guard Eric Cunningham, who also chosen early in the draft.
Paterno was renowned for his conservative offenses, but Chuck Fusina put the ball up 242 times in 1978, a lot for a good team in that era and Fusina was a consensus All-American who finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
The backfield combined the speed for Booker Moore with the power of Matt Suhey. Penn State came into the season with high expectations, ranked #3 in the preseason poll.
The Big Eight was the organizational forerunner of today’s Big 12 and Oklahoma and Nebraska were its flagship programs.
Both offenses were built on the ground game, but OU’s went to an extreme. The wishbone attack, best compared to the read-option offenses of the 21st century, but with three backs in the backfield, churned out big plays. Billy Sims ran for over 1,700 yards, led the Big Eight in rushing by over 600 yards and won the 1978 Heisman Trophy.
Kenny King, a future NFL starter, was the #2 back. He and quarterback Thomas Lott each finished in the conference’s top 10 in rushing yardage. Lott threw only 55 passes all season, and backup J.C. Watts only threw 38.
Nebraska ran a power-I formation that relied on a great offensive line and backs who could read holes. Rick Berns and I.M. Hipp each went for over 1,000 yards and finished 3-4 among the conference rush leaders. Thus did the Sooners and Cornhuskers have half of the Big Eight’s ten most productive runners.
All-Americans dotted the lineups elsewhere, from OU linebacker George Cumby to Nebraska tight end Junior Miller to Sooner kicker Uwe von Schamann.
Oklahoma was ranked fourth to start the year, while Nebraska was 10th. The two programs were loaded for bear and eyeing their November 11 date in Lincoln.
Notre Dame was the defending national champion and had a senior quarterback by the name of Joe Montana at the helm. In 1978, even with the graduation of All-American tight end Ken McAfee, Montana threw for over 2,000 yards,. The offensive line was anchored by All-American center Dave Huffman, and behind it, Vagas Ferguson ran for over 1,100 yards and Jerome Heavens added 721 more.
The defense coped with the loss of Outland Trophy winner Ross Browner, but still had All-American linebacker Bob Golic. Expectations were appropriately high in South Bend with a preseason #5 ranking.
The first big game of the year came on September 2 when Alabama hosted Nebraska. The Tide spotted the Cornhuskers a 3-0 lead and then started taking over in the second quarter. ‘Bama drove 99 yards for the lead touchdown. They outrushed the powerful Cornhuskers 264-110, forced four turnovers and won the football game 20-3.
One week later, the national landscape got its first major alteration. Notre Dame dropped its opener at home to Missouri, getting shut out in a 3-0 game. The Tigers had a good program, one that would be bowl-bound at season’s end in an era when qualifying for a bowl was a legitimate accomplishment. And it wouldn’t be the last time Mizzou would be on the scene, as they seemed to play most every notable national contender.
Alabama would be one of those contenders on September 16 and even though Missouri moved the ball on ‘Bama, they couldn’t contain the Tide’s offense. Bear Bryant’s team won 38-28 to keep its spot at the top of the polls.
Meanwhile, another Top 10 showdown was on deck in the Rustbelt. Ohio State was ranked #6 and, along with Michigan, were in the Top 10. These two proud rivals were expected to dominate the Big Ten. Alas, 1978 would not be a vintage year for the Buckeyes. They matched up with Penn State and lost 19-0.
Two marquee games were on deck for September 23. Notre Dame hosted Michigan. The two schools renewed their rivalry in 1978 and this year marked the beginning of a long September tradition of this being one of college football’s first big games on the calendar.
Michigan had a good backfield. Harlan Huckleby and Russell Davis combined to rush for nearly 1,500 yards. And they had a versatile quarterback in Rick Leach who ran for 683 yards of his own, while throwing 17 touchdowns against just six interceptions.
Notre Dame was desperate and Leach hadn’t practiced during the week due to an injury. He started poorly, completing just 3/14 passes in the first half and the Irish took a 14-7 lead. Leach came out of the locker room warned by head coach Bo Schembecler that he was on a tight leash.
Michigan turned it around—an interception set up the tying touchdown, Leach threw a 40-yard touchdown pass and outplayed Joe Montana in the second half of a 28-14 win. The loss sent Notre Dame plummeting from the land of the ranked and all but ensured there would be a new national champion. The Wolverines had every reason to hope that the new champion would be them.
But that wasn’t the biggest game on September 23. The big one came down in Tuscaloosa, where Alabama was hosting USC. The previous year, the Trojans’ downhill spiral began with a home loss to the Tide and now it was time for payback. USC got it.
The game was tight in the fourth quarter, with USC leading 10-7. But the normally stingy Tide defense was vulnerable to the attack led by White and McDonald. The quarterback led consecutive fourth quarter touchdown drives that all but put the game away. The USC defense collected four turnovers in the fourth quarter alone and won 24-14.
The Trojans were moved up to #2 in the polls. Alabama fell to #7. Oklahoma was the new #1.
Oklahoma’s first test as the top-ranked team came when they played Missouri to close September and the Sooners rolled to a 45-23 win. Meanwhile, a rising independent in Florida State, led by a young head coach named Bobby Bowden had reached #10 in the polls. But the Seminoles were exposed in a 27-21 loss to a Houston team that we haven’t seen the last of.
There was no rest for the Sooners. The traditional battle with Texas was up on October 7. The Longhorns had gone undefeated in 1977 before laying an egg against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. UT was ranked #6 for this game. But they would be no match for Oklahoma.
Sims set the tone of the Red River War early, with an 18-yard touchdown run. He ran for 131 yards on the day and the Sooners overall rushed for 311 yards. They led 17-3 at half, 24-3 in the third quarter and were never threatened in a 31-10 win.
October was a tough month for Rose Bowl organizers. With both USC and Michigan in the top five, they had reason to be dreaming of a national championship showdown. But both lost on October 14.
Michigan lost 24-15 to Michigan State. The Spartans were a good team, with future baseball star Kirk Gibson at wide receiver. But Sparty was also on probation and ineligible to win the Big Ten. That would save Michigan’s Rose Bowl hopes by year’s end.
USC did not play well in a 20-7 loss to unranked Arizona State. Meanwhile, Notre Dame was starting to show signs of life. They won their third straight game, this one a 26-17 decision over ninth-ranked Pitt. The Irish still had hopes of a major bowl and they still had a date with the Trojans ahead in November.
The Southwest Conference–whose teams would merge with the Big Eight in the mid-1990s to form the Big 12–was where the action was. Arkansas had opened the season #2 in the polls. Texas and Texas A&M were each in the Top 10.
But Houston was the SWC team that emerged in October. They blanked the Aggies 33-0. After Arkansas lost to Texas, the Cougars finished off Lou Holtz’s Razorbacks with an impressive 20-9 win on October 28. The calendar would turn to November with Houston and Texas leading the fight for what was an automatic Cotton Bowl bid.
November opened with a showdown in the East. Penn State was still undefeated and now ranked #2. They nailed fifth-ranked Maryland 27-3. The national championship picture looked clear.
The Big Eight had an automatic bid to the Orange Bowl, who could pair up #1 Oklahoma and #2 Penn State, who was an independent (the Lions did not join the Big Ten until 1993). And with Nebraska at #4, the Orange Bowl had a fallback in place–even if the Cornhuskers knocked off the Sooners, a Nebraska-Penn State game would be no less compelling.
That was the national landscape on November 11 when Oklahoma visited Nebraska, and where the drama on the goal-line got started.
Nebraska had been steadily gaining steam since the season-opening loss at Alabama and a less-than-impressive win over Cal that briefly knocked the Cornhuskers from the Top 10. But Oklahoma was a big thorn in the side of Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne. He was 0-5 against the Sooners and even though his tenure had been a clear success, including major bowl victories, it wouldn’t be complete until he could beat OU.
It didn’t start well. Sims again looked to set the tone of a big game, bolting 44 yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But a turnover, when Lott’s pitch on the option went awry, set up Nebraska for the tying touchdown. It would prove to be a pattern—the Sooners fumbled nine times on this day and the Cornhuskers recovered six of them.
The game was tied 14-14 early in the fourth quarter when Nebraska got a field goal that marked their first fourth quarter points against Oklahoma since 1971.
OU still drove down to the three-yard line with less than five minutes left and looked ready to win it. In a fitting conclusion, Sims fumbled on the goal line, the Huskers recovered and the Orange Bowl bid was theirs.
The Nebraska win also opened the door for arguments. On the same day, Alabama delivered an impressive 31-10 knockout of 10th-ranked LSU. The Tide was #3 coming in and with a win over the Cornhuskers could argue they deserved the crack against Penn State, which would come in the Sugar Bowl.
And what about USC, ranked #5 and with a head-to-head win on the road at Alabama? With the Trojans tied to the Rose Bowl, they couldn’t play Penn State or impact the bowl matchups, but USC could certainly make its case on the field and in the media. They did the former in a big way on November 11, beating #19 and defending league champ Washington 28-10.
Nor could you rule out Houston. The Cougars beat Texas 10-7 to take control of the race for the Cotton Bowl. Houston was #8 coming into the day and with chaos starting to break loose, they had their own case to make.
When the ensuing polls came out, Penn State was predictably #1. Nebraska got the nod for #2. Everything was in place for a clean-cut finish to the season in the Orange Bowl. Or so it appeared.
Another order of business remained for Nebraska—a home game with pesky Missouri one week later. The Tigers were not only an eight-win team and bowl-bound themselves, but they had two future NFL stars—running back James Wilder and eventual Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow. Osborne was worried and he had every reason to be.
The Cornhuskers got the game off to a strong start, when Berns romped 82 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play. Berns would run for 255 yards, a single-game Nebraska record and he also became the program’s all-time rushing leader. But what should have been a day of celebration—the records and an outright Big Eight title–went off the rails.
After leading 21-7, the Nebraska defense couldn’t contain Wilder, who scored four touchdowns on the day. Winslow caught a TD pass and Missouri pulled a 35-31 upset.
In the meantime, Oklahoma was taking out its frustrations by scoring 62 points against Oklahoma State. The Sooners and Huskers were co-champs of the Big Eight. Nebraska still had the automatic bid to the Orange Bowl by virtue of the head-to-head win, but now the question of whom to invite loomed.
Penn State was redirected to the Sugar Bowl, where Alabama was moved back up to #2. The Orange Bowl Committee, in a decision that justifiably enraged Nebraska, decided to invite Oklahoma and create a rematch.
Other bowl invitations were falling into place. Notre Dame was up to #10 in the polls and a 38-21 win over #20 Georgia Tech sealed a second straight Cotton Bowl invite, even though the Irish had another game at USC still ahead.
Meanwhile, Danny Ford had an emerging force in Clemson. The Tigers were up to #12 in the polls and they knocked off Maryland 28-24. Clemson would finish the season 10-1. They would have been a better choice for the Orange Bowl as an opponent for Nebraska. Oklahoma could have been sent to the Cotton Bowl to play Houston where the Cougars were up to #5.
At the very least, Notre Dame’s major bowl invite could have been made conditional on the results at USC. But bowl politics then make today look like a golden age, and there was no way Clemson was getting anywhere on New Year’s Day ahead of the Sooners or Fighting Irish. The Tigers would accept a bid to the Gator Bowl–where they would be a part of some unfortunate college football history.
There was never a debate about the Rose Bowl, with the Pac-10 and Big Ten comfortably locked in. USC took care of their business, although it wasn’t easy.The Trjoans jumped out a 17-0 lead on UCLA, with McDonald throwing a pair of a second-quarter touchdown passes.
But the Bruins fought back and with five minutes left had closed to 17-10. Robinson gave the ball to White and the great running back took matters into his own hands, salting the game and the Rose Bowl trip away. And Nebraska’s loss meant the national title was back in play, as the Trojans awaited Notre Dame.
There were three big games for Thanksgiving weekend. Penn State had one more hurdle to clear against #15 Pitt on Friday. Saturday would feature a marquee doubleheader, starting with Michigan-Ohio State and ending with Notre Dame-USC.
Pitt’s program was “in-between”, with Tony Dorsett being gone and Dan Marino not yet there, but they were a good team that had won eight games. And with 5:20 left in the game, Pitt led 10-7.
Penn State faced a fourth-and-2 on the Pitt 4-yard line. Paterno eschewed going for a tie. It was probably a wise move. The Lions didn’t get any slack from the pollsters and even with being the only undefeated team in the country, a tie would risk dropping them behind any or all of Alabama, USC, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and preventing the Lions from controlling their national championship fate.
Paterno gave the football to fullback Mike Guman, a decision that would foreshadow one coming on New Year’s Day. Guman delivered with a touchdown run. Milot then intercepted a pass to set up a clinching field goal from All-American kicker Matt Bahr. Penn State’s 17-10 win had them going to the Sugar Bowl ranked #1
Michigan was hit with a good dose of adversity in their game at Ohio State, even though this was not a vintage Buckeye team, and had already lost twice. The Wolverines led 7-3, but Leach pulled a hamstring. He stayed in the game, but with the quarterback lame and Huckleby already out with an injury, Schembecler’s team was up against it.
The defense and Leach came through—the Buckeyes never scored again and the quarterback turned in a gutty effort and led a 69-yard touchdown drive that wrapped up the 14-3 win. Michigan shared the Big Ten title with Michigan State, but because of the Spartans’ sanctions, it would be the Wolverines that got to go to Pasadena.
There was a lot of drama out west. It didn’t look that way for the better part of three quarters, as Notre Dame fell behind USC 24-6. But the Legend of Joe Montana and his knack for comebacks was already developing, and this game added to it. Montana came through with a comeback that put the Irish up 25-24.
When Trojan quarterback Paul McDonald fumbled in the closing minute, it appeared the game was over. Only the Pac-10 officiating crew ruled that McDonald’s arm was going forward–that it was not a fumble, but an incomplete pass. The Trojans took the reprieve and won 27-25 on a last-play field goal.
Thus, the four major bowls were set. The early afternoon on New Year’s Day would see Notre Dame play Houston in the Cotton Bowl. Even though the Cougars suffered a surprise loss to Texas Tech on November 5, both teams were still playing for a spot in the final Top 10. The day would end with the traditional prime-time game in the Orange Bowl, the OU-Nebraska rematch.
And then there were the two games that would decide the national championship. Penn State-Alabama were set for an early kickoff in New Orleans. A Lion win and the title was theirs, no questions asked. If the Tide won, it created opportunity for both themselves and USC. The Trojans and Wolverines would kick off mid-afternoon in the Rose Bowl.
The big news on the bowl undercard came out of Jacksonville. Clemson beat Ohio State 17-15. The result itself was simply a nice finish for Clemson’s season and it wasn’t surprising. But the way the game ended was.
Tiger nose tackle Charlie Baumann intercepted a pass to clinch the win and went out of bounds on the Buckeye sideline. An enraged Woody Hayes hauled off and slugged Baumann. There is reason to believe that Hayes was off his meds (I mean that literally and respectfully), and not thinking clearly. But either way, the action left Ohio State with no choice but to fire the 65-year-old head coach.
Our New Year’s Day narrative can start by leading with the conclusion. The Orange Bowl was predictably anti-climatic. Oklahoma made a strategic adjustment and ran in more of a convoy, keeping people around the ballcarrier in the event of a fumble. It turned out to be unnecessary—the only fumbled once. After spotting the Huskers the first touchdown, OU scored the next 24 points and led 31-10 before a couple late Nebraska touchdowns made the final score respectable at 31-24.
The other three bowl games would be more than a little dramatic, and provide a fitting conclusion to the year of drama on the goal line.
Houston was out for respect and adding Notre Dame to a list of wins that included Texas, Arkansas and Texas A&M would surely do it.The Cougars collected seven turnovers, including three interceptions of Montana and built up a 34-12 lead in the fourth quarter. This game looked over.
The Irish quarterback, playing with the flu on what turned out to be a cold day with gusting wind in Dallas, had gone to the locker room and ate chicken soup to try and regain his strength. He returned midway through the fourth quarter of what it appeared to be a lost cause.
A blocked punt by ND and two-point conversion cut the lead to 34-20. Montana threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Heavens and it was 34-28. Notre Dame got the ball back one more time and drove inside the 10-yard line with six seconds left.
Montana looked for leading receiver Kris Haines in the right corner of the end zone, but the pass fell incomplete. Two seconds left. Montana went back to the same play. This time it was a touchdown and Notre Dame had a stunning 35-34 win.
The Sugar Bowl was a defensive classic. Penn State couldn’t move it all in the first half. Alabama could, but kept coming up empty. Finally, late in the first half, Rutledge rifled a bullet over the middle that was caught in the end zone by Bruce Bolton for a 30-yard touchdown catch. In the third quarter, Fusina tied the game with a touchdown pass of his own.
Penn State was driving for the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter when McNeal intercepted a Fusina pass. Then Rutledge gave it back with a bad pitchout and the Lions had the ball on the Tide 19-yard line. They ground it down to the goal line where they would have three chances from the one-yard line.
The first time up the middle was stuffed. The second time up the middle was stuffed. It was down to one play and even though six minutes still remained, it was realistically for a national title. Paterno opted to give the ball to Guman. The fullback tried to go up and over in the middle of the line, aiming to score the winning/tying touchdown of each his team’s final two games.
Krausse was ready. He leapt and met Guman head on, inches from the goal line. A Sports Illustrated cover caught the collision head-on in a photo for the ages. Alabama had held and they won the game 14-7.
The Rose Bowl matchup will be forever remembered by what happened on the goal line in the second quarter. USC was leading 10-3 and ready to add on, with the ball on the 3-yard line.
White got the ball and went into the middle and leapt over the top, trying to make it all the way. He fumbled the ball at least a yard prior to breaking the plane. The play was ruled a touchdown. The officials conferred. The tiebreaking vote, keeping the touchdown was cast by the same official who had ruled Paul McDonald’s potential game-ending fumble against Notre Dame an incomplete pass.
USC won 17-10, with “The Phantom Touchdown” taking an infamous place in college football lore. It might explain why the national championship vote went as it did.
With Alabama and USC the last two teams standing, there was no argument for voting any way other than the Trojans. They had, after all, won head-to-head–on the road and decisively. But the Phantom Touchdown was the big story as the voters went to the polls.
In fairness to USC, it has to be said that they surely managed the game differently with a 17-3 lead than they would have with the 10-3 lead that should have been in place after the controversial sequence of events. Hence, looking at the 17-10 final score and saying the Phantom Touchdown decided the game is overly simplistic.
The combination of this, along with the questionable call at the end of the Notre Dame game, add to the shady circumstances that surrounded the end of USC’s season.
Given that–along with the fact Alabama felt they had been robbed in 1977–perhaps it’s understandable that the result was a split vote, with the Tide and Trojans as co-national champs. But understandable is not the same thing as getting it right. USC deserved to be the outright champions of college football in 1978.