"The opening kickoff was something of an upset: Tennessee kicked to Auburn and Auburn did not fumble the ball. An official almost stepped off 15 yards against Auburn for cheating. Up in the stands, fans turned hastily to their programs to see if they were in the right stadium. You see, Auburn and Tennessee are both awesome against almost any other team but wren they play each other it's the Fumble Bowl, old Stonefingers U. against Iron Hands Tech. In one quarter alone last year, they managed to give away the ball nine times. There are some teams that could not foul up that much even if it was part of the game plan. In the last two games against each other, 27 such blunders occurred, an average of a fumble lost or a pass intercepted about every four minutes. For the two defenses, Tennessee-Auburn is not a football game, it's the Alamo. And so the perfection of the opening kickoff return was dazzling. Nine plays later Auburn fumbled, Tennessee recovered and the real game was on.
By halftime, Tennessee, which itself had fumbled away one punt in the second quarter, had collected a pair of field goals from George Hunt and was holding a precarious 6-0 lead. Tennessee used two quarterbacks, neither of whom will be remembered for his passing, and the offense sputtered under the handicap. "We're not confident in our offense yet because it doesn't have a No. 1 quarterback who can come in and do the job," said Bobby Majors, Tennessee's All-America safety who led the nation with 10 interceptions last year. "We kind of worry about that."
But if Tennessee was worried, by half-time Auburn was frantic. Oh, the Tigers have a quarterback, one of the best. Last season, as a junior, Pat Sullivan led the nation in total offense while setting an NCAA record for yards gained (8.57) per play. Hardly a worry there. But on the seventh play against Tennessee, Terry Beasley, Auburn's exciting split end, leaped for a Sullivan pass, was flipped by Majors and came crashing down on his head. "I remember that and I remember coming to in the dressing room," Beasley said. "In between, nothing."
In between, he ran a fly pattern while unconscious and shortly was led to the dressing room. "I knew he was hurt," said Majors. "When he got up his eyes were glazed. And he hung around our defensive huddle for a moment before wandering over to his own side."
October 3, 1971
Without Beasley, who can run 60 yards in 6.1 seconds, Auburn's attack is something less than explosive. "It isn't so much the passes that he catches as what he does after he catches them," said one pro scout. Last year he caught 52—for 1,051 yards and 11 touchdowns. While Beasley was out of the game, the best Sullivan could manage was two completions in 12 attempts for nine yards. "I think it was the worst half I ever had," he said later. "The ball was just slipping off my hand. I had no control."
Auburn went into halftime with no points, just 88 total yards and six first downs. To the Tigers it seemed like even less. "Can you believe that?" said Wingback Dick Schmalz. "Here we are supposed to have the most powerful offense in the country. And in a half all we get was two first downs. You better believe we were pretty shook."
All week Tennessee had said that to win it had to stop Sullivan and Beasley, something it had failed to do the year before. With Sullivan pitching and Beasley catching, Auburn had won 36-23 and may have cost Tennessee, which went on to win its next 10 games, the national championship.
"Obviously, we have to eliminate the long pass like they got last year," said Bill Battle, Tennessee's young coach, on the Thursday before the game in Knoxville. "They do as good a job with the bomb as I've seen. But we still should have beat them last year. We were running the ball real well, knocking their tails out of there. Then all of a sudden I got the idea to start throwing the ball. They intercepted one and that started it. Without that, we could have killed them." He paused, frowning. Then he went on: "I've been thinking about Auburn all year."
Battle did not have to tell the players he was pointing for Auburn. As one, they felt the same. "When you talk about the Auburn-Tennessee game, you're talking about the national title," said Curt Watson, a senior fullback who is just 129 yards from the school's alltime rushing record, an honor that leaves him cold. "Oh, I'll be happy to have the record, but it really isn't a lot of yards [1,888], you know. Beating Auburn is something else. Like I was dating this beautiful girl last night. It was our first date and we're sitting there talking. She was going on about something and I never heard a word she said. Then all of a sudden I said: I hope we beat Auburn.' I hope she understood."
Meanwhile, south in Auburn, Alabama, if there was any tension it was only in the backroom of the local Gulf station where students gather to drink beer and swap lies. Out on the practice field, Shug Jordan, who has been sending Auburn teams into battle since 1951, shuffled about, hands joined behind his back, the picture of total unconcern. "I heard Tennessee said they are determined that Sullivan and Beasley aren't going to do it to them," he said with the suspicion of a smile. "Well, there are other ways to beat them: Sullivan to somebody else, for instance. We had 11 different people catch passes in our opening win over Chattanooga. Tennessee won its bowl game easily last year and finished with an enviable record. But all they seem to remember is that one loss to us. Of course, revenge is a pretty strong motive."
Beasley was worrying more about an upper front tooth broken in half against Chattanooga than he was about any double-or triple-team tricks Tennessee might be planning. He had elected not to have the tooth fixed until after the Tennessee game, perhaps not until the end of the season. "The doctor said he'd have to give me Darvon or something," said the chunky redhead. "I said no. You take anything like that, even an aspirin, and it'll slow you down. And nobody ever accused me of being good-looking anyway."
But at halftime the kid with the broken tooth was just waking up and discovering that his team was behind 6-0. And that he had this terrible headache. When he tried to walk, he found out he had injured his left big toe. He didn't know how, just that it was swollen and painful. About then, across the room, Sullivan, as team captain, stood up. "I just want to tell the defense," Sullivan said, "that if they continue to hold them, we'll get the points we need." Beasley stood up, decided his head felt fine and that his toe didn't hurt. With the team, he limped out onto the field.
The second-half kickoff was more like old times. Tennessee fumbled and Auburn's Miles Jones recovered on the Vols' 13. Auburn managed just two yards in three plays. Gardner Jett, the placekicker, came in. He had tried a field goal in the first half but it had been blocked by Linebacker Jackie Walker. Given a second chance when Tennessee was called offside, Jett kicked again, and Walker got a hand on it again. "I don't think he knew how quick I am," Walker said. This time Jett knew. He made the short field goal, cutting Tennessee's lead to 6-3. "He was quicker," said Walker.
Near the end of the third quarter, Auburn fumbled and Tennessee's Ken Lambert recovered near midfield. Tennessee turned that into a 50-yard field goal by Hunt and took a 9-3 lead with less than 15 minutes to play.
Then Sullivan and Beasley started Auburn moving. No more was the ball slipping. It went to Beasley for eight. To Schmalz for 18. To Beasley for 11. When Tennessee's Conrad Graham was red-flagged for pass interference against Beasley, Auburn had the ball at the two. And, of course, it fumbled into the end zone on the first play. Tennessee's Tim Townes recovered for a touchback.
Sparked, Tennessee began to move. In 13 plays the Vols drove to the Auburn 14. Overhead, the rain clouds were gathering. At third and two with a possible touchdown or easy field goal coming up, Tennessee followed the game plan. Fumble. Auburn's Bill Luka fell on the ball with 195 pounds of happy muscle. "We can move now," said Sullivan. "Let's go." So here came the Auburn offense. Zap. To Beasley for six. Tennessee shifted into a prevent defense. "We changed our coverage," said Majors. "And their receivers ran deep posts in between our zone. They hit us in the seams."
Sullivan told Schmalz to run a curl. It started that way, but seeing he was well covered he broke his route, cutting inside. Sullivan hit him with a line drive for 23 yards. Sullivan then called the same play, same pattern. Schmalz broke his route again, cutting inside. Sullivan hit him for 22 yards to the Tennessee 35.
"With Beasley in there," Schmalz said, "all the pressure is on him. A blind man could get open. And that Sullivan is something else. Twice I break my pattern and twice he finds me."
Zap. Zap. Line drives to Beasley and Schmalz picked up 30 yards and Auburn was at the five. Everybody was thinking fumble. Except Sullivan. He handed off to Tailback Harry Unger, who scored. Jett's kick made it 10-9, which was how it ended a few minutes later.
"That Sullivan, he never gives up, never loses his cool," said Beasley, flashing a happy 31½-tooth grin. "He was an All-America out there. And so was Schmalz. And our offensive line. And our defense. Everybody but me. I was lousy."
But across the way, a Tennessee player had a more realistic appraisal. "Damn that Beasley," he muttered. "Why did he have to come to?"