Reporters from all over the country converged on Auburn, Ala. last Saturday to chronicle the rebirth of a once-proud power. The story was a good one. Auburn University has a dynamic young coach in Pat Dye, a powerful defensive line and a pair of exciting running backs, all of which would, it was thought, serve to bring Auburn out from under the shadow of its more storied cousin, the University of Alabama.
Many factors pointed to an Auburn victory. Texas was opening on the road, while the Tigers had worked out the kinks in a 24-3 win over Southern Mississippi the week before. And the Long-horns would be without their first-string quarterback (Todd Dodge, left shoulder separation), tight end (Bobby Micho, arthroscopic knee surgery), wide receiver (Ronnie Mullins, knee surgery, out for season) and middle linebacker (Jeff Leiding, minor surgery after slicing a leg open in a rafting accident). Two years ago, right after Dye arrived at Auburn from Wyoming, he tried to get this game off his schedule. After all, the Tigers also would play powerhouses Florida, Georgia and Alabama this year. Texas Coach Fred Akers searched for another opponent—he even called Alabama's Bear Bryant—but couldn't work anything out. Now it seemed that Akers, not Dye, was the one in need of a different opponent.
What happened, though, was that Texas stormed past Auburn 20-7, postponing the Tigers' much-ballyhooed resurrection, perhaps for the whole season. And by winning, Texas moved from No. 5 to No. 3 in the SI poll.
Auburn was never in the game, and maybe the Tigers suffered from overly inflated expectations. Playboy ranked Auburn No. 1 in its preseason poll, and most publications, including SI, put the Tigers in the top five—a lofty preseason perch for a team that hadn't won a conference title since 1957, which was also the last time it won a national championship. "Auburn just has to learn how to play in the big games," said Texas Middle Linebacker Tony Edwards, who replaced Leiding, afterward. "This was really no big thing for us. We've been in a lot of games like this."
Auburn hasn't. Last year the Tigers performed a similar dying-swan act when Nebraska came to Jordan-Hare Stadium and routed them 41-7. Saturday's game wasn't that bad, but it wasn't that good, either. The Longhorns built a 20-0 halftime lead, and though Auburn dominated the second half statistically, it managed only one sustained drive, a 95-yarder engineered by second-string Quarterback Pat Washington that produced its only score, with just 1:33 left.
Certainly Dye has done wonders since replacing Doug Barfield in 1981. He won 14 games in his first two seasons, beating Alabama 23-22 in '82, and he has attracted a flood of talented recruits who in previous years might have landed at Tuscaloosa. But the big question is, can his wishbone offense really produce a national champion? When Auburn fell behind Texas, it had virtually no chance to catch up. Though Dye's wishbone is more pass oriented than most, starting Quarterback Randy Campbell is still only 7 of 26 for 87 yards in two games, and his best receiver, Chris Woods, has caught just one pass in each game.
Further, the read-and-react nature of the offense has taken the ball out of the hands of Auburn's most talented running back, sophomore Bo Jackson. A 5'11", 220-pound sprinter who ran a 6.18 60-yard dash to qualify for a berth in the NCAA indoor championships and a centerfielder who last year turned down a $100,000 bonus offer to sign with the Yankees, Jackson is being touted as the most talented athlete in SEC history. But he rushed just once in the first half against Texas and finished with seven carries, three fewer than his running mate, tiny (5'7" and 170 pounds) Lionel James, and four fewer than Campbell. In two games Jackson has carried just 18 times, the same as Campbell and eight fewer than James. "Had they gotten the ball to Jackson, it would've been a much better test of our defense," said Mike Parker, Texas' defensive tackle coach. "I honestly don't know why they didn't."
Dye's explanation was simple: "We run a true wishbone. To get the ball specifically to Lionel or specifically to Bo would have to be predetermined, and that's not how our offense works." Not that it worked very well against Texas.
Before the game, Akers had no reason to be optimistic about his offense. When Dodge went down in the final preseason scrimmage on Sept. 9—he's expected back in two weeks—the Longhorn attack was left to junior Rob Moerschell, who had never started and had thrown only two passes in his varsity career, and senior Rick McIvor, who had missed all of last season with a knee injury and all of spring practice because of academic troubles. Akers had refused to name a starter all week—and in a rare show of humor had even left Moerschell's and McIvor's names off the depth chart posted in the Texas locker room. Fifteen minutes before kickoff, he walked up to Moerschell and said, "We'll open with 77 [tailback off tackle]."
Moerschell ran the offense efficiently, plunging over from the one-yard line to cap an 84-yard drive on Texas' second possession. Moerschell, who spent the last two seasons returning punts, gained 20 yards himself on the drive and completed a key 20-yard pass to Fullback Terry Orr. He also made good use of his tailback, senior John Walker, who finished with a game-high 57 yards on 14 carries.
A flashy punt returner with the incredibly apropos name of Jitter Fields played a big part in the Longhorns' next score. Jitter's grandmother gave him his nickname, but he can't remember why; at any rate, no one calls him by his real name of Alfred anymore. Fields, who also plays cornerback, had most recently made an impression on Texas football fans last year against SMU when a pass bounced off him and fell into the arms of Mustang Wide Receiver Bobby Leach, who raced for a 79-yard touchdown that helped SMU to a 30-17 victory. "That play made me want to get my act together," says Fields. He has apparently succeeded. His 66-yard punt return led to Jeff Ward's 37-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead near the end of the first quarter.
Then the Texas defense took over. Weak Safety Jerry Gray made a stunning one-handed interception of a Campbell bomb at the Texas 10-yard line. "Frankly, I couldn't believe it myself," said Gray, who may be Texas' best defensive player. The interception spoke volumes about Texas' scheme on D. Its approach is a gambling, challenging one that includes a lot of bump-and-run and man-to-man pass coverage. On the interception, Woods just ran by Cornerback Mossy Cade—no, Mossy isn't green; he's a senior and a two-year starter—but Gray, playing the run, raced back, got one hand on the pass and clutched it after it rolled on his shoulder pad. "In our defense," said Gray, "you've got to make big plays." Texas will get burned by a big play or two this year, as it always does, but Auburn wasn't the team to do the burning. Three plays after the interception, McIvor, who had been inserted late in the first period, whipped an 80-yard scoring pass to reserve Kelvin Epps to make it 17-0.
The Tigers' frustration was summed up by consecutive plays early in the fourth quarter, when Longhorn Tackle John Haines and End Eric Holle swatted Campbell's passes out of the air. Texas, it seemed, had waves of defensive linemen; the Longhorns used six tackles and four ends—with average dimensions of 6'4" and 253 pounds. For all Auburn knew, Akers could've slipped in Bevo XII, the Longhorns' 800-pound mascot. It wouldn't have been any worse for Jackson, who said: "I feel like I've been stampeded by a herd of cows."
Much was made of the Tigers' line, which has four All-SEC candidates and three solid pro prospects in seniors Doug Smith and Donnie Humphrey and junior Ben Thomas. Yet it could not overcome the 10-deep depth of Texas' defensive interior in a rare year when the Longhorns don't even have an All-America up front.
In fact, Texas' only problem may be a surfeit of riches. Akers has to juggle all those defensive linemen, 10 offensive linemen and eight running backs without causing a major collision on the sideline. Akers has already said that the two-quarterback system—McIvorschell, as it has inevitably been dubbed—will continue, at least until the Longhorns are ready to play Dodgeball.
Like all the Longhorns, Walker, who rushed for 57 yards, had a leg up on the Tigers.
Jackson got the ball so infrequently—seven times—that he gained only 35 yards.