This was the game that was supposed to be figured with adding machines: Arizona State and Houston, a couple of clubs from cactus country with enough collective speed to field their own Olympic track team. Speed? Shoot, neither one of them would let you carry water unless you could lug that bucket 40 yards in less than five seconds. They both think a sustained march is running a punt back 80 yards for a score. Or a 15-yard dive play followed by a 65-yard touchdown pass. Everything else is a yawn. Last season Arizona State, the new kid among major college powers, laughingly thumped 11 rivals 405 to 148, which brought its four-year point total to a staggering 1,552. The Sun Devils modestly bill themselves as the fastest guns in the West. They mean machine guns. And over the same four-year period, Houston, which has been known to bite off yardage in chunks of 99, was burning people for 1,476 points. Merely thinking about playing one of them was enough to send a defensive coach scurrying into the insurance business.
Which was a thought that playfully crossed the mind of Bob Owens, Arizona State's defensive backfield coach, as he studied the films of Houston's 23-21 opening victory over Rice two weeks ago. "Man," he said, shaking his head, "they just explode. The options and the dives are what make their Veer offense go, so our secondary knows it has to give good run support. But when Houston scores, it scores on the pass. So how much run support can we give?"
"Do you think our defense can stop them?" asked Offensive Coach Don Baker.
"Can you score 28 points?" said Owens grinning. "If you can, I think we can hold them to 27."
September 26, 1971
For Arizona State, this was much more than just another football game. For the first time in history the Sun Devils tasted the heady wine of the Top Ten last season, but they knew if they lost to Houston they would not get up there again. At least not this year. "When you play in the Western Conference," said Head Coach Frank Rush, the ex-All-America middle guard from Michigan State, "you can't lose to an outsider and not expect to get buried. We lose to Houston and we won't see the Top 20 again no matter what else we do."
National recognition has come hard to Arizona State for a fistful of reasons. For one, the prestige of the Western Conference does not exactly match the Big Ten's. And then there is the time-zone factor. Because of the heat, the Sun Devils play most of their games at night, and by the time they finish, all of the writers east of the Rockies are either asleep or at work on a bedtime Scotch. Arizona State can't even get its scores in the Sunday papers. TV exposure is just one step better than a total blackout. When the Sun Devils get it, which is seldom, it is always regional, and their region covers just 3.8% of the national population. ABC offered to do the Houston game regionally, but said it would have to be scheduled in the daytime. "In 105° heat?" asked the Arizona State people. "No, thank you." And so, after finally finding themselves listed among the Nebraskas and the Notre Dames, and not about to let go easily, Arizona State was hard-eyed and mean when Houston showed up in Tempe last Saturday night.
State had the guns to defend itself. Leading the speed was sophomore Halfback Woody Green, a 9.5 sprinter. And then there were 14 or 15—with that many, who counts?—others listed at 9.9 or faster, including two split ends, a few flankers, the entire secondary and enough running backs to fill a couple of relay teams. And for muscle there were people like Junior Ah You, a 218-pound defensive end from Hawaii who does fire and knife dances when he is not trying to squash enemy quarterbacks, and Ted Olivo, a 212-pound senior middle guard known as Squatty Body. "Coach says we should always think of a quarterback's head as a grape," said Ah You, grinning. "And that our objective is to pluck the grape from the stem."
"That Ah You is just plain vicious," said Squatty Body with great respect.
But for all the talent, Rush found himself looking forward to Houston with something less than optimism. "I am afraid that after all our talk about national recognition we are now going to have to stand up and pull up our boots," he said. "We've got three receivers who are as good as any in the country, but we haven't got a quarterback who can get the ball to them. I'll match our runners against any set anyplace, but I don't think our offensive line is big enough to block for them. Against Houston, we'll be giving away about 20 pounds a man. Even the greatest runner has got to have some kind of a hole to run through."
Until two weeks ago, Kush had a quarterback, Danny White, a tall, slender sophomore who can throw bullets. But during a scrimmage White fell and suffered a slight shoulder separation, and he had not been able to do more than lob soft passes since. Behind White there was nobody.
"We thought we could get outside Houston with the option, but now we can't even do that," Kush said. "I don't want Danny to get hurt any more than he is. And he can't throw the passes that can beat Houston, the hooks and curls about 15 yards out. You have to drill the ball on those, and he can't."
"What are you going to do?" someone asked him jokingly. "Give up?"
"We've got one chance," Kush said. "We'll throw three sets of backs against them. Two sets at least. We'll try and sustain a big running game by keeping our backs fresh. And we'll have Danny throw some short action passes. He can dump those. We'll send our receivers deep until Houston discovers he can't throw the ball that far. Maybe that will keep them honest for a while. It's not much, but it's the best we can do."
And so in the cool of evening (92°) Arizona State, boots pulled up, and Houston, Veer in gear, take the field, the nation's two offensive giants. So naturally at the end of the first quarter the score is 0-0. State's one drive ends with a fumble, something that happened 33 times last year, and the Houston machine can gain only 14 yards in nine plays, failing to make a single first down. But early in the second quarter Houston converts an intercepted pass into a touchdown, and by the end of three quarters the visitor's lead is up to 17-7. It hardly seems to matter when Houston's Sandy McCrea just misses a 32-yard field goal. In this defensive struggle, surely 10 points is enough.
Then, with the Cougars again on the move in the final period, Junior Ah You gets to pluck his grape. He slams into Quarterback Gary Mullins, forcing a fumble that teammate Richard Gray happily recovers at the Houston 36. Cranked up, Arizona State scores in two plays, a 29-yard White-to-Joe Petty pass and Brent McClanahan's twisting seven-yard scramble. White tacks on two points with a pass to Steve Holden, and suddenly it is 17-15. A few moments later Arizona State gets the ball and zips to a fourth and one at the Houston 21. In comes field-goal kicker Don Ekstrand, a 27-year-old Army veteran. Oops. Out goes Ekstrand. The ball is handed to Woody Green, who goes nowhere, and Houston takes over. There is less than six minutes to play.
Arizona State gets one more chance. Houston runs the clock down to 2:52 but then has to punt. The Sun Devils have the ball on their own 24. Eight plays later, with a minute to go, they are at the Houston 19. Arizona State jumps offside. They are at the 24 with 56 seconds left. Arizona State jumps offside. They are at the 29 with 53 seconds to play.
Kush sends in a special play, the 100-triple X, which when translated from football terminology means, the next guy that jumps offside I'll kill. Then, after White throws one last incomplete pass, and with only 19 seconds and no timeouts left, Kush sends in Ekstrand. This time he stays in.
When the ball leaves his foot at the 36 it is mush; a dying quail, low, wobbly, line-drive slice. At the goal line the ball seems to shudder and go on, like an old man climbing a steep hill. At the crossbar, it sighs, inches itself over and drops dead. Arizona State wins 18-17. Welcome, Sun Devils, forever to the land of Notre Dame and Texas and Nebraska. Or at least for a while.