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The field mice with their Alphabet Offense

The scufflers from SMU were supposed to be a drag on the Southwest Conference, but they were tied for the lead going in against Arkansas, and had more plays and formations than anybody

In August, when Southern Methodist hired an advertising agency to plug its football team, there was an immediate response from the public it was trying to woo: snickers and belly laughs. There was also a rush to the ticket offices—not those on Mockingbird Hill, but those belonging to the Dallas Cowboys, with whom SMU competes for the local entertainment dollar.

"Excitement '68" was the theme of the advertising campaign, a choice that fell flat when prospective ticket buyers considered the team's 3-7 record in '67 and the apparent absence of a quarterback who could turn that around with the promised excitement this fall. The experts coldly picked SMU for the Southwest Conference cellar. This was pretty much in keeping with the recent history of the Mustangs, who went 18 years without winning a championship despite the presence of such players as Kyle Rote, Raymond Berry, Fred Benners and Don Meredith. Not even the team's dramatic first-place finish in 1966 could stave off interest in the Cowboys.

But the ad boys weren't kidding. Going into last week's game at Arkansas, SMU was tied for the conference lead, was 6-2 on the season, had the country's top passer and total-offense leader as well as the leading pass receiver and was scoring and getting scored on fast enough to account for better than 50 points a game. The circus was sidetracked, temporarily, at Little Rock Saturday, but it remained in style. What other team but the Mustangs could hold the opposition scoreless in the last quarter, score 29 points themselves and still lose? Any team that can almost win like that is a better draw than most real winners, and the Bluebonnet Bowl signed up the Mustangs on Monday.

The main reasons for SMU's improbable success are the two national statistics leaders—sophomore Quarterback Chuck Hixson and Jerry Levias, the flanker who may be better described as a split end because he is about the size of, and is as bubbly as, a small bottle of champagne. The two stars take their parts in an offense concocted by Coach Hayden Fry that includes everything but Dr. Pepper at 10, 2 and 4. "I really have to concentrate just to do my job," Hixson says.

There are plays, for instance, such as Slot Right Fake 44 Boot at Six, Fake Levi Special FTD and Slot Left X Liz 42 Mustang that have actually accounted for some of the team's 33 touchdowns. Linemen often abandon the traditional four-point stance and stand almost upright—the better to read the defense and to drop back and protect Hixson, who has thrown as many as 69 passes in a game. The rest of Fry's attack is replete with so many slots, flankers, slants, splits, Is, Ts, shifts, strong sides, weak sides, reverses, pitchouts, double hand-offs, pass routes and other mumbo jumbo that it might be labeled the Alphabet Offense. The SMU players have been called field mice and refugees from a third-period phys-ed class, and Fry characterizes himself as "dumber than I thought." But the scouts are not laughing at them any longer. Scouting the Alphabet Offense is like scouting a square dance.

At the center of all this is Hixson, the precocious sophomore who has now completed 239 of 417 passes for 2,755 yards and 18 touchdowns, obliterating sacred SWC records belonging to the hallowed likes of Meredith, Davey O'Brien and Sammy Baugh. Married and with a baby daughter, Hixson had to get up at 4 a.m. each day last summer to drive a bread truck to help support his family. "There must be better jobs in the world," he decided, and assuming that pro quarterback might be one of them, he came home from work each afternoon and threw 200 passes.

"I send in most of the plays," Fry says, "but Chuck sometimes calls audibles. Against Texas A&M, we led by six points, and I sent in a running play to use up time. When I heard him check it off at the line and call a pass I threw up my hands and thought, oh, no. But he completed it for a touchdown and we won. Pros say it takes five years to learn to call audibles. Well, Chuck has already called five or six for TDs and he's only a sophomore."

Against Arkansas, Hixson was blitzed unmercifully, his receivers dropped passes and the Mustangs fumbled six times. Down 7-0, Levias fumbled a pitchback on the Arkansas six, and thereafter SMU did not cross the Razorback 40 until it was 35-0. Then came the wondrous last-quarter charge that was to fall just short at 35-29.

In 14 minutes and four seconds of the game's final period Hixson completed 14 of 24 passes—plus two of three on extra-point tries—for 203 yards and four touchdowns. The SMU drives were for 63, 51, 25 and 37 yards, and what made this all the more amazing was that on two other occasions the Mustangs were stopped at the Arkansas 16. There was hardly a "sooey" to be heard in the whole incredible quarter.

"Ole Flypaper Hands," as Hixson calls Levias, caught eight of the passes, one for a touchdown and a bonus one for the points after. Though he is only 5'10" (his estimate) and 174 pounds, and though he has been double and triple teamed all season, Levias has hung onto 74 passes for 1,025 yards and six touchdowns.

The first Negro ever recruited to play in the conference, it is doubtful that he would have played football anywhere had it not been for his sister Charlena. "When I grew up in Beaumont," he explains, "I was always playing my sax or studying. But Charlena shoved me out of the house and locked the door so I would get some exercise. I tagged along with the big kids, and we played a lot of football." Two of those he tagged along with were cousins Miller and Mel Farr, now both pros, and he learned well.

Levias' statistics were so good as a high school senior that, as he puts it, "my coach had to cut them down because everyone thought he was lying about them to get me a scholarship."

At SMU, opponents tried to cut him down directly. They insulted him regularly, intimidated him and spat on him. But Levias has not tried to retaliate, and indeed often cracks jokes about himself. Good-naturedly, he even enjoyed wearing a Wallace hat and button that his teammates gave him. The whole college experience appears only to have made him better for it.

"And he'll make it big as a flanker in the pros," says Ermal Allen, backfield coach and scout for the Cowboys. "Forget his size. He's tough like Tommy McDonald, has the moves of Lance Al-worth, can catch a ball in a crowd and adjusts to all kinds of coverage."

Levias, who has run 9.6 and can also dunk a basketball from a standing position, has, indeed, become a craftsman. "I learned a lot from summer workouts with Miller, who's a defensive back," Levias says of his cousin. "For instance, he taught me that a receiver often tips off when he'll make his cut or break by starting to chop his steps just before he turns or by bringing his hands up to help shift his weight." Levias often practices his steps, his fakes and other moves as he walks across campus.

"I always consider myself the underdog," he says. "I believe there is always someone better than me, and I always think that every defensive back that I face is the best in the nation. Even in my dreams I'm always the underdog. But in my dreams I always come out the winner."

More often than not, these days, Levias and his teammates have been winners, too. They enjoy football as never before, and even the folks in Dallas have stopped their snickers to buy tickets for Excitement '68.