Coach Fred Akers of the Texas Longhorns likes to say that Austin is the greatest setting for college football in all of America. But he doesn't like it when opponents agree with him, and there was SMU's Craig James last Saturday doing just that. "This place does give me thrills," James was saying. "When I was a child in Houston, watching Longhorns like Steve Worster and Jim Bertelsen, watching the band march onto the field...I dreamed about playing here. Coach Akers is right. This is college football. This is the greatest."
Of course, James's euphoria may have been induced by the fact that the Mustangs had just beaten Texas 30-17, thereby avenging their only loss of last season, extending their winning streak to 11 games—the nation's longest—and legitimizing their standing as the No. 4 team in the land. That result hadn't been part of Akers' plan or, in Texas football talk, Akers' scheme, and for one afternoon you might expect Akers would have to temper his enthusiasm for football in Austin just a bit.
"Nope," said Akers. "One play. Except for one freak play, it was our ball game. Boy! One darn play." That one play was a fourth-quarter Texas pass interception turned SMU touchdown, and it was a freak play in a game that had several. When a quarterback—in this case SMU's Lance McIlhenny—completes four of nine passes and three go for TDs, any one of them could be considered a freak play. But freak plays didn't win the game for SMU. It was SMU's defense and SMU's offense that won the game. And it was the scheme—Texas' scheme—that didn't work.
According to that plan, Texas was going to play most of its defense by controlling the football on offense, by keeping it away from SMU's tailback tandem of James and Eric Dickerson, who together were averaging 280.6 yards of offense per game. And when it had to, Texas would make fierce tackles and grind those glorified tailbacks into the carpet. As a result, the Mustangs would limp back to Dallas as 6-1 Ponies who had once again been gored by the Longhorns, rather than as 7-0 Mustangs stampeding toward the Cotton Bowl.
Akers was counting on Texas tradition and intimidation to make up for what the 3-1 Longhorns lacked—and because there were no more Hams, Lams, Jams or Simses around, that meant Texas lacked an established offense and defense. With two weeks to prepare for this Southwest Conference showdown, Akers did a masterful job of motivating his young team. The Longhorn players so saturated the newspapers with ugly noises about their opponents, it began to appear that Texas might have a Heisman-quality press agent hidden among its redshirts. "I respect every quarterback's ability to take a lick except for that guy at SMU," said Defensive End Kiki DeAyala. "McIlhenny is a crybaby," said Middle Linebacker Jeff Leiding. "I think they're scared. Deep down they don't really think they can beat us. If we can put a couple of sticks on Dickerson, he'll fold up and go tippy-toe."
Someone showed Leiding's quote to Dickerson at breakfast Saturday morning, and he was flabbergasted. He then showed it to James. The two of them laughed. "What's this?" James said to Dickerson. "I don't know if they think they're psyching us out or what," said Dickerson. "It's like they think we're freshmen or something."
The only freshman of consequence at SMU is Bobby Collins, 49, who came aboard last winter after a long, successful run at Southern Mississippi. He replaced Ron Meyer, who left SMU to take over the New England Patriots. The Mustangs, most of whom are seniors, including Dickerson and James, treated Collins like an unwanted stepfather at first. "I avoided him," says Dickerson. "To tell you the truth, I was really afraid of him. I saw the white hair and I thought, 'Oh, no. A father-figure type.' "
But the coaching transition went smoothly for the most part, mainly because Collins has the personality of a country parson, his football concepts are nearly identical to Meyer's and, more than anything, he was determined not to mess up a good thing. "It was an act of faith on the players' part," says Collins. "I get to Dallas, have a meeting with these players and say, I'm here. I'm happy to be here. But you're not going to see me for a while. Got to go recruiting.' Then I'm on the road, or at the motel where I'm staying in Dallas 'cause the family's still in Mississippi, and I think, 'Oh, my God! I haven't even met my players yet, and they're the ones I'm going to have to depend on. This whole thing could be a washout. We could go 5-6 with this great senior team. I ought to be out talking to a recruit. Or talking to my new linebackers. Just what am I selling? I don't even know where the chow hall is.' "
He did know about Dickerson and James, though, and beyond that, there wasn't much he needed to know. "In a coach's lifetime there's a good possibility that he'll never have one James or one Dickerson," he says. "To have both at the same time...." Dickerson is a 6'2", 217-pound natural, with very long, powerful legs, who ran a 9.4 100-yard dash as a high school junior in Sealy, Texas. James, at 6'1", 215 pounds, is just slightly more to the power-back side of the spectrum and about a quarter of a step slower than his backfield mate. But beyond that and the fact that Dickerson is black and James is white, there's little discernible difference between the two. "I never have any idea which one of them is in the game," says McIlhenny. "It doesn't matter one bit."
Through SMU's first six games, Collins stayed with Meyer's practice of alternating James and Dickerson—the Pony Express—as the tailbacks in the I, a strategy that last year enabled the two to become only the fifth pair of backs on the same team to average 100 yards or more apiece per game for a season. Dickerson's average was 129.8; James's was 104.3. Going into last week's game the Express was rushing for 253 yards a game, 19 yards ahead of last year's pace; Dickerson was averaging 166.8 and James 86.2. They were still alternating—one possession you play, one possession I play—but Dickerson had carried the ball 29 more times, or about a game's worth of carries, than James. But then, James had become SMU's punter and was booming them 46.1 yards per boot, fourth-best in the nation.
Far from being rivals fighting for the football, James and Dickerson are in fact close friends. Last Wednesday they did some late-night partying together and showed up the worse for it at practice on Thursday. "Our annual weekly night on the town," said a somewhat hurting James. Dickerson is easygoing and forever joking; James is the perfect blue-eyed Mr. Wonderful every Texas momma would love to have for her debutante daughter. Bad news for the debs: In March, James will marry SMU coed Marilyn Arps, whom he has dated since his days at Stratford High in Houston.
Because Dickerson has emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate—especially after his 241-yard show against Houston a week before the Texas game—the Dallas press has been trying to uncover signs of jealousy between James and him. James had been attributing his lower numbers to bad luck: "I'm running better than ever," he would say. "Eric just seems to be in for the long drives, and I get in for the short ones." And to penalties: "I've had 200 yards called back, and that's no exaggeration." But last week he told the Dallas Times Herald, "Because I don't go in and complain, because I don't go in and cause an uproar with the coaches, maybe they think they can walk all over me." This made the coaches sit up and take notice, because James's is one ego no coach would want to see bruised. Still, there was little the staff could do because James had indeed been getting his regular turn at tailback. However unlucky James may have been so far this season, there was—and is—no ill will between him and "Dick."
For his part, Dickerson says he refuses to "get caught up in [the Heisman] limbo, because then if I don't get it, it will be such a disappointment." Besides, he likes James, and he likes alternating. "Oh yeah, sometimes when you're really hot you'll think, 'Damn! I wish this was my series.' But alternating is better for both of us and definitely better for the team. Look, late in the game I'm always fresh and Craig's always fresh. The defense is tired. They don't alternate tackles, guards and linebackers."
Not that Texas wouldn't have if it had had the personnel. Last year the Longhorns beat the Mustangs 9-7 on three field goals. The game was sort of a romp in the playground for Kenneth Sims, who, not incidentally, became the first-round draft pick of Meyer's Patriots. "Sims tossed me around like I was a baby," says Dickerson, who was held to 38 yards, his only sub-100-yard game of the year. James got only 56, his second-worst performance of the year. This time around, Texas' defense would be doing not only without Sims, but also without two starting tackles sidelined with injuries. Even so, one could hardly call this Texas unit a no-name defense. Names they have. Mossy and Jitter (Cade and Fields), Fred Acorn and Robert Smothers, a boy named June (Linebacker June James) and a tackle named Tony Degrate. "When he gets mad he really plays and we call him Degratest," says DeAyala. "When he has a bad game we call him Deworst."
Though the Texas defense was young and thin, it did well to hold Dickerson to 118 yards on 19 carries and James to 57 on 17. But the Express took its toll on Texas, anyway. Collins isn't about to entirely change Meyer's system of alternating the two, but several weeks ago he had taken to putting both of them in the backfield together in goal-line situations, and SMU was seven-for-seven in scoring close-yardage touchdowns. On Saturday, Collins went with the loaded backfield for all three downs on SMU's first possession of the game, and continued to use it off and on thereafter. It's a strange-looking arrangement. Call it the Cock-I'd formation—an equilateral triangle with freshman Reggie Dupard, the third tailback, making an appearance in the fullback position, Dickerson or James in the normal I-back position, and the other member of the Pony Express off to the right or left, between the I-back and the fullback.
Still, through the first quarter SMU got nowhere running the ball. Then, just as the second quarter started, on third-and-two from the SMU 31, McIlhenny pitched to Dickerson, the I-back, on an option right. James, who also loves to block, of course, took out Safety Jerry Gray and Dupard cracked inside on Acorn, opening up a hole large enough for Dickerson to streak through and go untouched until he was caught by Acorn 60 yards downfield, at the nine. Three plays later Dickerson slammed over for the game's first touchdown. Jeff Harrell's 30-yard field goal in the third quarter looked like all the insurance points SMU would need in what appeared to be another crunching defensive battle.
In the fourth quarter, though, Longhorn Defensive End Ed Williams caused McIlhenny to fumble as he was sprinting out on an option play, and Texas recovered at midfield. SMU had been anticipating that Quarterback Robert Brewer would eventually try to get the ball to speedy Flanker Herkie Walls. But Brewer hadn't been able to do it through the air, so now Texas ran what looked like its end-around for Walls, a play the Mustangs had prepared for. Only this time it was a fake, which SMU wasn't prepared for. Longhorn Tight End Bobby Micho got behind Safety Blane Smith downfield on a coverage mixup and Brewer hit him for a 51-yard touchdown. A few moments later, Tailback Darryl Clark went 24 yards with an option pitch to set up Raul Allegre's 41-yard field goal, and before you could say hook 'em, the game was tied up at 10-10.
Now the Mustangs were pressing, and here was where all the pregame intimidation would show if it was going to. On third-and-nine from his own 21, McIlhenny was forced to pass for only the seventh time. "I was scared to death," he would say later of the moment when he realized that his throw, intended for Bobby Leach, was heading straight into Fields' hands at the Longhorn 35. But they don't call him Jitter for nothing. "I thought he had the ball and was going the other way. He apparently thought the same thing," said Leach. The next Leach knew, the ball was jittering right off Jitter's shoulder into Leach's hands, and he won a footrace against Gray and Fields into the end zone with the freak touchdown for a 17-10 SMU lead with only 7:37 to play.
The Longhorns were disbelieving but not ready to roll over. On the next series Texas had a second-and-19 on the Mustangs' 44, but the wide-open Walls dropped a bomb and the drive died.
McIlhenny soon found himself with another third-and-long, from the Texas 33. This time he threw a balloon ball to Jackie Wilson for another SMU touchdown to make it 23-10. Texas came back with a 51-yard drive that ended with a two-yard Brewer pass to Walls, who somehow picked the ball off in a swarm of Mustangs to make the score 23-17 with 1:50 to go.
McIlhenny then iced the game with his third straight TD completion. With Texas in an eight-man front looking for SMU to run out the clock, McIlhenny called a play-action pass, a 46-yard floater to James, who disguised his route as a regular blocking assignment on Cade. At which point Dickerson, James's most vocal cheerleader, safely announced to his fellow Mustangs, "See what happens when people go talking all that trash!"
In the end, Texas was still hung up on "that freak play" while SMU was sniffing a Nov. 20 showdown with unbeaten Arkansas. "We needed this to prove we belong near the top," said Dickerson. On the other side Akers was saying, "We're Texas. And being Texas counts for something."
On Saturday, being Texas counted for 17. Being SMU counted for 30.
Setting up SMU's first score, Dickerson galloped 60 yards before Acorn (17) got him.
Joe Beard kept the Pony Express rolling by blowing out Longhorn defenders for James.
SMU's new Coach Collins has stuck to his strategy of not messing with a good thing.
When McIlhenny wasn't handing off to members of the Express, he threw for three TDs.
The Ponies didn't find Texas Tailback John Walker disarming. He gained but 45 yards.
Leach, pursued by Gray (2) and Fields, scored on a pass that Fields couldn't field.
Wilson stretched the SMU lead to 23-10 with a 33-yard catch in the fourth quarter.