EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The first time they touched the ball they zipped 67 yards in 10 plays. The next time they went 50 yards in six plays. And the time after that they went 53 yards in eight plays. Not the California Golden Bears. The Temple Owls. Not the team from the Pac 10. The team from the East.
It didn't remain that easy in yesterday's Garden State Bowl, of course. The 21-0 lead melted to 21-17. So they pulled themselves together and did it again. With the game on the line, Temple went 78 yards in 14 plays, and when the drive ended, wtih Gerald Lucear on his back in the Cal end zone clutching the footbal, the eastern team had proved a point for itself and for all those other Eastern teams.
Eastern football, the West Coast discovered yesterday, is more than Pitt and Penn State.
Roger Theder, the Cal coach, had raved about his defensive unit. "I think our defense right now is probably the best defenses in the country," he said. "We have some great athletes on the defensive side of the ball."
If so, then Temple must have some pretty good athletes on the offensive side of the ball yesterday at Giants Stadium. The eastern team hardly anybody out West had ever heard of gained 300 on the ground against the team with "one of the best defenses in the country." The eastern team the cynics laughingly referred to as "Temple Who," they were screaming. And more. Lots more.
Chances are, you had to be part of that Temple team to understand. Those players had been fighting an uphill battle for recognition so long that yesterday, when they finally grabbed a huge handful of recognition, it tasted better than anything they had ever tasted in their football careers. They rolled it around on their tongues, and they savored that wonderful taste and a few of them went out of their way to let the big-time team from the Pac 10 know how sweet it was.
But surely nobody understood the feeling better than Wayne Hardin.
"You know the most satisfying thing to me, really and honestly? It's the first time I really feel that somebody else rooted for Temple besides Temple, said Hardin. "You know, I really feel good about that.
"I told the kids before the game, I said, 'Hey, you've been maligned, you've been kicked around. We're used to it all. Today, for the first time, we're representing the East. You're representing other people. Some people are going to be rooting for you.' "
Had Temple lost this game, had Cal done to Temple what Temple did to Cal, people on the West Coast, and elsewhere, would have been making jokes about Eastern football. We've been brainwashed in this part of the country. We believe the propaganda from the WEst and the South. We believe that, except for Penn State, eastern football is for laughs.
Temple didn't change all that by winning a single football game against a team that lost five others during the regular season. But it helped.
"I remember 1970, when I walked out there for the first time (at Temple)," Hardin said softly. "I looked at those kids and I looked at that practice field and I said, 'Fellas, this is it. You might as well get down to the basic facts of life. We're going to be the team and we're going to be the rooting section and we're going to get the job done.' "
The team has grown remarkably since those days, and the rooting section has begun to grow, too. Yesterday it made so much noise that Rich Campbell, the Cal quarterback, had to ask for silence before a key fourth-quarter play.
"To me," Hardin was saying, "this win is as much a part of that (first) team as it is a part of this team...."
He was interrupted by the sudden arrival of the Cal coach. Theder had spent a considerable amount of time in his own locker room complaining to the press about the offensive holding calls that kept putting his team in a hole. Now, however, he wanted only to congratulate the winners.
"Great job," he told Hardin. "Great job. I mean it. your kids played like hell. I'm sorry about any of those other things (in the papers), which I did not say. I know it got you a little fired up, and it should have ... You played better than we did today."
"I don't appreciate what he said about us," Hardin said when Theder had left. "Then he changes what he said and claims he really said it about Villanova. I don't appreciate that, either. Why must you say anything about somebody else? I'm just worried about my team."
Theder's words, accurately quoted or not, obviously provided additional motivation for Temple in its first bowl appearance in 4 1/2 decades.
"I think their coach was the one who motivated us today," said Lucear. "It was like an East vs. West thing. West Coast teams, they don't respect anybody (in the East), except Pitt and Penn State. We felt if we beat them we would show everobydy eastern football compares with anybody...."
Lucear smiled, then added the zinger. "They were nowhere near as physical as some teams we faced in the past," he said.
"I think people understimate eastern football a lot," one of Temple's defensive standouts, tackle Guy Peters, said. "We can play with anybody in the country. No question about that. Not only us. I'm talking about Pitt. I'm talking about Penn State. Rutgers. I felt Cal realized (at the end) that they got beaten by a better football team."
"They're a very physical team," Cal's strong-armed quarterback, Rich Campbell, was saying in the other locker room. "I got hit pretty hard ac ouple of times. I was pretty impressed with Temple. They wouldn't disgrace themselves by any means if they played in our league."
That's the point the Owls put across yesterday. That's the message their impressive victory carried across the country. Eastern football isn't for laughs. Temple, the third-best team in the East, is good enough to beat a Cal team that enjoys a comparable rating in the West.
"Everybody's got it out of focus now," Hardin said. "They're saying, You want to play Southern Cal now? I don't want to play Southern Cal. I don't want to play Notre Dame. I'm not trying to be No. 1 in the country. Temple's not trying to be No. 1 in the country. There's no way."
But there is a way to earn respect across the country for Temple football and for Eastern football, and the Owls found it yesterday.
"People were rooting for Temple, actually rooting for Temple," Wayne Hardin was saying. "In Philadelphia. In New York, they were rooting for Temple's football team, and that's great.
"Well, I'm rooting for all of the others, too. I want Syracuse to win their bowl game. I want Penn State top win their bowl game. As long as I'm in the East, I'm rooting for the East. I just wish everybody would be one nice, happy family and say, 'Hey we are the East and we have been kicked around and it's time we got off our duffs and fought for ourselves."
Let the record show that Temple's football team is now prepared to take an active part in that fight.