The tailback for the SMU Mustangs is averaging 234.3 yards and nearly four touchdowns per game, and he never gets tired. Peruna the pony runs up and down the field each time SMU scores, and has been exhausted lately. No wonder: SMU is 6-0 and alone at the top of the Southwest Conference. No SMU pony has had to work as hard since 1947. And even Doak Walker, as great a back as he was, got tired sometimes.
Last Saturday night in the Astrodome the SMU tailback gained a meager 147 yards in 38 carries and scored only two touchdowns. But the defense came up with five interceptions—four, including a touchdown return, by Strong Safety Wes Hopkins, and one, for another touchdown, by Free Safety James Mobley—as the Ponies trampled Houston 38-22. And as the game wound down, the Mustang Maniacs who came over from Dallas called for the next victim: "We want Texas! We want Texas!"
SMU should win its first Southwest Conference title since 1966, although it's on NCAA probation for recruiting violations and can't go to a bowl. That means SMU's tailback won't be on national TV this year, and that's a shame. Of course, the SMU tailback is only a junior and not merely a probable first-round draft pick, but two first-round picks. That's because the SMU tailback is two tailbacks: Eric Dickerson and Craig James.
Dickerson's 109 yards rushing, including touchdown runs of 31 yards and one yard Saturday, gave him 812 yards and 14 touchdowns for the season. James, who was held to 38 yards on 17 carries by Houston (his poorest performance since the Cougars shut him down last year), has 594 yards and eight touchdowns. Dickerson, ballyhooed in 1978 and booed in 1979, has gained more than 100 yards in each of SMU's six games and is the top scorer in the country, with an average of 14 points a game, as well as the top rusher in the SWC. James has surpassed 100 yards three times and is second in the conference in rushing. The two have been on the field together for just a few plays all year; SMU Coach Ron Meyer swears he doesn't even notice which one of them is out there. Dicker-son averages 24.3 carries a game while James averages 22.2. The former says, "I'm having an Eric Dickerson season. Finally." As far as James is concerned, the difference is merely a matter of breaks—and torn jerseys.
Whoever starts stays on the field as long as SMU has the ball. On the next offensive series, the other goes in. This shuttling continues throughout the game, except when one of them gets his tear-away jersey ripped off. Then he's replaced until he gets a new shirt on. Against Houston, James, the "power" runner of the pair—though he says he's as much of an outside threat as Dicker-son—had to change his jersey eight times. Here he was in the third quarter, just getting warmed up, when off came the shirt. Out he went for a quick change, and Dickerson took a pitch from Quarterback Lance McIlhenny and darted around right end for his 31-yard touchdown. "That's the way my luck has gone," James says. "The breaks just haven't gone my way."
"I don't need much," Dickerson says. "Just a quick shot."
"We like it like this," James says. "Eric or me, it doesn't really matter who it is. What one of us does, the other does as well. And we don't get beat up."
Dickerson and James are 10th and 29th in the nation in rushing, first and 16th in scoring, while SMU ranks eighth and third in those categories. James is already the third-best rusher in SMU history. Dickerson is fourth, only 34 yards behind. And, if they continue at their present rate, they would be the 12th pair of 1,000-yard rushers in NCAA history and the fifth pair to average 100 yards a game for the same team in a season.
Texans, as everyone knows, love a good story, and the tale of the two tailbacks is just about too good to be true. Dickerson (6'2", 215) and James (6'1", 220) grew up an hour and 20,000 miles from each other in the Greater Houston area. James's home is in the up-scale suburb of Spring Branch, tonier than where Dickerson hails from: the farming town of Sealy. They heard about each other when they were high school stars but never saw each other play. Dickerson scored 84 touchdowns and gained 5,875 yards in three years at Class AA Sealy High. James, at Class AAAA Stratford, broke Earl Campbell's single-season rushing record with 2,411 yards and scored 35 touchdowns in his senior year. Each led his team to an undefeated state championship season. Dickerson won the state 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds; James ran the 100 in 9.7 without training, on a busman's holiday from Stratford's baseball team one afternoon. Dickerson was named the nation's No. 1 running back by Parade magazine and was vigorously recruited by Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and USC, in addition to SMU. James, a .400-plus-hitting first baseman, was a potential high major league draft choice. (He can also punt a little. On Saturday he filled in for injured Punter Eric Kaifes and kicked seven times for a 39.7-yard average.)
"It was a lot of fun recruiting them," says SMU offensive coordinator Steve Endicott. "Especially Eric. Every game was like a coaches' convention." There were Oklahoma's Barry Switzer and Texas' Freddie Akers and Texas A&M's Tom Wilson, all of whom were ready to promise Dickerson the world. James, on the other hand, wasn't much of a problem. He passed up baseball for football, largely, he says, because he wanted to prove that a white boy could still excel at running back in the Southwest Conference. "Everybody said that because I'm white, I couldn't compete," he says. "There was no doubt in my mind. I played on a state championship team just like Eric. People thought I was slow—I have never been caught from behind." James committed himself to SMU during his senior season. The hard part was having to tell Bear Bryant to his face that he really preferred SMU over Alabama.
In Meyer's recruiting pitch, he promised the pair they would play together as splitbacks in the wishbone or the veer. Dickerson ran from the I in high school, James from the wishbone. At first, things didn't quite work out. James did fine his freshman year, gaining 761 yards. But Dickerson suffered from the pressure and injuries, including hamstring pulls, thigh bruises, a concussion and AstroTurf toe, missed two games and gained just 477 yards. He thought about leaving. That year the Mustangs were 5-6.
"I saw Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and thought, 'Wow. Did I blow it?' " says Dickerson. "I wanted to get 2,000 yards and score 30 touchdowns. I saw USC in the Rose Bowl and figured I could be the next Charlie White. I could have been Marcus Allen."
Last year Meyer knew he had to change things. "We tried the wishbone, splitback veer, this and that in practice; well, we don't know those formations," he says. "What we know is the I."
Now in his sixth year at SMU, the 40-year-old Meyer is an Ohioan who learned most of his football as an assistant to Purdue's Jack Mollenkopf. In the middle of last season, after losing to Baylor and Houston, mainly on turnovers, Meyer switched from a multiple offense, which averaged almost 30 passes a game, to a ball-control attack, with McIlhenny, then a freshman, replacing junior Mike Ford. Against second-ranked Texas the following week, McIlhenny threw only eight times—he averaged fewer than 10 passes the rest of the season—and James gained 146 yards and Dickerson 85, and SMU pulled off one of the upsets of the year, winning 20-6. Then the Ponies beat Texas A&M, Rice and Arkansas to finish 8-4 and tie for second in the SWC. Dickerson and James ended up with 928 and 896 yards, respectively, and 11 touchdowns between them.
This year, SMU's offense is about as complex as a calendar: 82% of the attack is confined to the ground. And three of every four hand-offs or pitchouts are to Dickerson or James. Baylor Coach Grant Teaff called the SMU tandem "uncanny" after it ripped the Bears for 247 yards and four touchdowns two weeks ago. Houston Coach Bill Yeoman said, "Those two can slash your throat, and you don't even know who's going to draw the razor."
"We're getting what we want out of them," says Meyer. "Forty-six carries per game from our tailback! And every single one of them is from a rested tailback. So it's working out even better than we thought."
Of course, there is a chance that Dickerson and James will share the same backfield. If they don't against Texas or Arkansas or Texas A&M—and they might, Meyer lets on with a wink—they probably will when the All-Southwest Conference team is chosen.
Dickerson (right) and James may stretch together, but they rarely play together.