Red Grange, you think as you sit there in the stands and watch, stood still. Tom Harmon only trotted. Glenn Davis shuffled. Surely all of the epic open-field runners in college football's history were arthritic Step 'n Fetch its compared to Wondrous Warren McVea, who runs like a blinking light, like a Zip Code, like a...a...oh, where are you, Roget's Thesaurus, now that a man really needs you? See. There goes McVea again, cracking through the cavern of Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, darting and wriggling, streaking and spinning, doing this Z, then this V, then a long——and finally a 6. And what Houston's Warren McVea is doing, of course, is humiliating mighty Michigan State by the surrealistic score of 37-7, and thereby escorting the season's first Doom Saturday into being.
Every year there are a couple of Doom Saturdays when a huddleful of highly rated teams take it on the chin strap. But this one came unusually early as no fewer than five members of everybody's Top 10 went crashing to the turf like a collection of wobble-legged blocking backs. Michigan State was first, and then, by the clock, went Miami, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas. But nowhere was a giant so utterly wounded, shocked and beaten as Michigan State.
The Spartans were winners of 19 of their last 21 games. They were co-national champions of the previous two seasons. They were at home before more than 75,000 people—their second largest opening-game crowd. And they were playing the University of Houston. As any college sports follower knows, Houston plays golf, not football.
Houston had indeed looked silly on the Michigan State schedule, especially when the game was first considered. It had been arranged only out of friendship, because Houston Coach Bill Yeoman had been on Duffy Daugherty's staff and four years ago Duffy had given his old pal a chance to play in the big time. Sure, Bill. Bring your kids up for a game sometime. How about 1967? Who you got? Homero Blancas? Kermit Zarley? Rex Baxter? Terrific.
October 1, 1967
Unfortunately for the good-natured Duffy, what Houston showed up with last week was a gang of the speediest athletes this side of a bobsled run. Led by the 180-pound McVea, it looked as if everyone on Houston's team could run the hundred in 8.6. Not only did McVea squirt out of sight every time he got the ball, so did a split end named Kenny Hebert, who merely led the nation in scoring last year, a feat Yeoman bitingly says was one of the best-kept secrets of 1966. And so did a little 5'8" flanker named Don Bean, who comes out of the same high school in Beaumont, Texas as SMU's Jerry Levias and the Detroit Lions' Mel Farr. There were all sorts of other streaks on the Houston squad, like a fullback named Paul Gipson and a safety named Mike Simpson, who are described by Publicity Director Ted Nance as "only 9.5." No one in East Lansing would be surprised if Yeoman's splendid pair of offensive guards, Rich Stotter and Bill Pickens, aren't 9.5 men, too.
But speed alone only wins track meets. The Cougars had some other things going for them as well. For example, Yeoman had them totally unawed about being at East Lansing or playing before their biggest crowd ever. The Cougars' poise stood out like their red headgear. On Friday afternoon, when they arrived at the stadium for a workout, the Spartans were already there. Michigan State dressed first and poured into a tunnel just outside the Houston dressing room door. There, as they enjoy doing, the Spartans began a combination growl, chant, cleat stomp and clap, obviously designed to psych their visitors. It built louder and louder.
In the Houston locker room, Yeoman listened for a minute and then turned to his Cougars, who were slipping out of their scarlet traveling blazers. "You can holler in the tunnel," he said. "But you play football out on that field."
The Houston players whooped with amusement, and some of them began to joke about another aspect of the game that helped them stay calm. The contest, several of them said, was merely for the "Beaumont city championship." Curiously, there were eight natives of Beaumont on the two teams, four and four. Several of the Spartans and Cougars knew each other extremely well. McVea, for one, was very close to Tody Smith, the ponderous Michigan State sophomore who is the younger brother of Bubba Smith.
"I kind of got a grudge for this game," said McVea. "I spent all summer with Tody and some of these other guys who've come up here, and I've been hearing about what the Spartans are gonna do to us. Then I got a letter from Tody last week asking me if I was ready to come up for the killin'."
A little later, when Houston came out on the field to practice, the Spartans and Cougars greeted each other. There was an interlude of Hi Tody, Hi Jess, Hi Warren, Hi Don, Hi Baby, plus a lot of palm slapping and wrestling around.
So Houston was not smothered by Michigan State's reputation, but it still might have been suffocated by the Spartan team. What now gives extra impact to the ease and scope of the upset is that the Spartans were not that bad and, in fact, were expected by Duffy not only to be pretty good physically, despite the loss of such stars as George Webster, Clinton Jones and Bubba, but emotionally just right.
On Friday, Duffy said, "We expect Jimmy Raye to be a more mature, more consistent quarterback. Anyone who doesn't respect his throwing might get surprised. We've got some fine runners. And I've never felt so confident that a Michigan State team would go out there tomorrow and do a good job."
Daugherty naturally was concerned about Houston's quickness, and even more so about the fact that the Cougars had already played a game (beating Florida State, the team which would tie Alabama, by 33-13), but Michigan State was sure of itself and ready. "It's an old saying but a true one that a college team improves more between its first and second games than it does all year," said Duffy. "We'll make some first-game errors, but I hope we'll be good enough to overcome them." He clearly felt that his hope was well placed.
But Michigan State could have played blunderless football all afternoon and not overcome Houston's speed. The first time McVea (Mac the Knife, he is sometimes called) touched the ball he cut this way and that for 48 yards, and the second time he burst loose for 33 yards—both bobbing, weaving, beautiful runs that made it seem as if he were in Flint one second, Ann Arbor the next and Grand Rapids the next. You knew then that the Spartans were in trouble. Later, on the same play, an off-tackle quickie called 23-G, he went 50 yards for a touchdown—well, 50 in the statistics, but more like 80 what with all his cuts and feints. A run by Wondrous Warren seems to last six or seven minutes.
McVea was so effective that even when he did not have the ball the whole Michigan State defense sort of fell down trying to make certain. Jess Phillips and Drake Garrett, two of the Spartans' old campaigners in the secondary who have defended against the likes of Nick Eddy, Mel Farr and Jim Grabowski during their careers, were panic-stricken on the field and numb later.
"He's the best back I've ever seen," moaned Garrett. "His moves.... You don't know what he'll do next. He's there...and then he's not."
None of the Cougars were there, not for long. When McVea wasn't dashing off, others were, scoring touchdowns from insulting distances. Quarterback Dick Woodall, running the offense from a spread formation and throwing anyplace on the field, in the fashion of the pros, fired passes of 76 yards to Kenny Hebert and Don Bean for touchdowns, and Woodall's sub, Ken Bailey, set up a score with a 32-yarder to Hebert. And Mike Simpson went 41 yards for a touchdown with an interception before the Spartan who threw it could get his arm screwed back on and give chase. It was all so easy, exactly 37-7 easy.
More than slightly bewildered by the worst defeat of his Michigan State career, Duffy Daugherty was still congenial and honest after the game. "We're not this bad," he said. "But even if we'd played better, it only would have made the score closer. That team of theirs, you either catch 'em for a loss—or boom!"
Meanwhile, over in the giddy Houston dressing room, there was hollering about winning that Beaumont city championship and Bill Yeoman was saying that now maybe his players would get some recognition. He said he had known Wondrous Warren was the greatest runner in America for a couple of years, even if nobody else did.
And there was shave-headed, broad-smiling McVea himself, who had 258 yards in two games for a modest average of only 8.9 per carry (last year his average was 8.8), wondering if Tody Smith was going to wait around for him. "I want to talk to him about the killin'," he grinned.
Then he said it had not been one of his better games, not even considering the importance of it, because he has this sprained ankle, see, and, shoot, he has this pulled thigh muscle, and he really has not been able to move too good yet, and....
Sure, Warren, sure. But don't tell it to Tody.