As the dusk of Thanksgiving fell on i Auburn's final practice session, Coach Shug Jordan sighed; he had just learned of Nebraska's victory. Out on the field the Tigers were finishing a kick-off drill. Most of them had watched the first half of the game on television, all of them pulling for the Sooners, their Sugar Bowl opponent. As the last practice kick came tumbling out of the semi-darkness, Jordan whistled his troops into a circle around him. "Well," he said, "I can tell that most of you have heard that Oklahoma lost." A few players nodded; none spoke. "What can you expect?" said Jordan. "When you fumble three times and bunch up on a punt and let a boy go 70 or 75 yards, well, that's no way to win. And if you can't get yourself together and stop a 74-yard drive in the last five minutes, you don't deserve to win. Now you know how not to win. But we're going to Birmingham and do it right. And we're going to beat Alabama. We just ain't gonna have it no other damn way!"
Ah, but Alabama, with 13 of its 22 starters listed as walking wounded, was having thoughts much along the same vein, and, like Nebraska, it has a bunch of tough cocky kids on defense, any one of whom would be delighted to go one-on-one with a Panzer division. "We're ailing a bit," said Bear Bryant when pressed for a medical report, "but we just might hit a few people." Yeah. Bryant's defenders come on like a bunch of zoology students turned loose on a sack of frogs. They don't want to tackle you; they want to open you up and see what's inside. And when they got through operating on Auburn's potent offense they had won 31-7, and the Orange Bowl had itself a matchup that makes Thermopylae look like a beanbag contest.
The pattern of the game was set early, to Bryant's delight and Jordan's dismay, and it never varied. When Auburn had the ball it was harassed badly. When Alabama had it, it kept it. And kept it. And kept it. Auburn had possession just 18 minutes and 11 seconds, lost one fumble and had two of Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan's passes stolen, and managed but 179 yards. Before Alabama, the Tigers thought they were having an off day if they didn't gain more than that in one quarter. "One thing we have to do," Bryant had said, "is control the ball." Control it? Alabama owned it; owned it for a fantastic 41 minutes and 49 seconds, and most of the time it was hurtling through the Auburn defenses in the arms of Johnny Musso (see cover), who was running on a disjointed big left toe that would have put a lot of other running backs on crutches.
Three weeks ago, against LSU, Musso's big toe was wrenched from its socket, and from then until he started against Auburn the best the 196-pound All-America senior halfback could manage was a half-speed limp in tennis shoes. And he couldn't even do that until three days before the game. When Alabama went through its final light workout on Friday, Musso watched from the sidelines in street clothes. In nine games he had scored 14 touchdowns and gained 921 yards. With that toe, he didn't figure to gain 921 inches against Auburn's band.
December 6, 1971
"Don't worry," said the handsome 21-year-old. "I'll play. I've got this gadget Trainer Jim Goostree rigged up for me." And he held up a red plastic cast that had been molded to fit his foot. "I'll just tape it on and away I'll go. Auburn has this banner out that says: STOP THE WOP. I've got one hanging over my bed." He smiled thinly. "I'm going to be there to give them a chance."
If the game itself were not enough, plus the speculation over whether or not Musso could play, and if so how well, everyone in Alabama spent the holiday week in a frenzy over the Heisman Trophy voting. Even Alabama fans were pulling for Auburn's Sullivan, a state hero who was trying to ignore the hoopla and concentrate on Saturday's game. At Auburn it was sometimes difficult to discern which was of more concern: Alabama or Sullivan's chances for the trophy. "We're not really that uptight about it," said one Auburn official. "No more than we would be if the rest of the country picked a military Hall of Fame and left out Robert E. Lee."
"I've been trying to put the Heisman out of my mind," Sullivan said. "I mean that I've been trying to build myself up not to hope for it, then I won't be disappointed."
When the announcement was made over TV during the Georgia-Georgia Tech halftime Thanksgiving night, the little town of Auburn went berserk. Except for Pat Sullivan. He registered no emotion as his name was announced. Quietly he got up, walked across the room and shook hands with his father.
"Pat deserves it," said Shug Jordan with a smile. "He's a great player and a great person. And for as long as I've been here, the football players have been the leaders on campus. This is a real close-knit community. Our people don't think of players as baboons, gorillas or hoods. In fact, the enthusiasm for football in the whole state is remarkable. On a per capita basis, how could anyone rival the enthusiasm of these 3.4 million people? And I'll bet every one of them is delighted that Pat won the trophy."
If there was a feeling of oneness in the state over Sullivan on Thanksgiving night, there was none Saturday when Auburn took the opening kickoff and Alabama fans began screaming for blood. Auburn blood, Which they quickly got.
Bryant had Auburn defensed to perfection. He put double coverage on Sullivan's two great wide receivers, Terry Beasley and Dick Schmalz, assigned a quick linebacker to watch the tight end, and then threw everybody else at the Auburn quarterback. Alabama dared Auburn to run, which it couldn't, and gave up the short pass. The very, very short pass, like those of three and four yards. And under a tremendous rush, which included three safety blitzes in the first two series, Sullivan took those short passes gratefully. Before the day ended, he completed 14 of 27 passes for 121 yards, but one of those was for 40. That meant the other 13 gained but 81 yards. And none of them went for touchdowns, only the second time that he was shut out this season.
Auburn's only score came on a pass, but it was from Tailback Harry Unger, after a pitch from Sullivan, to Beasley. By then Alabama had scored twice and looked very confident and very much in command.
What Alabama did as well was force Auburn into making the errors that had haunted Oklahoma two days earlier. On the fourth play of the afternoon Auburn's David Beverly went back to punt and was smothered while trying to come up with a ground-skipping pass from center. Hey, hey, said Alabama with the ball on the Auburn 20. Hey, hey, said quarterback Terry Davis a few plays later as he sent Musso sweeping wide and watched as Auburn set off in mad pursuit. Then, keeping the ball, Davis stepped six yards to score. A short time later, after Alabama had driven 69 yards, Davis scored on the same play, this time from 11 yards out. Again with Musso sweeping the field clean.
The half ended 14-7, but Musso, who had carried 14 times for 59 yards, which sounds like a great plus for homemade plastic casts, wasn't all that happy with his performance. "It wasn't me," he said later. "I'd been playing too conservatively, favoring the foot."
In the second half, with Musso reeling off his patented now-you-got-me, now-you-don't runs of 18 and 12 yards, and a lot of sixes and fours that should have been ones and twos, Alabama took it to Auburn and came away laughing.
The Tide got a field goal from Bill Davis, then a pair of touchdowns from Musso on rams of 12 and six yards. Both of Musso's touchdowns came after Sullivan interceptions. He finished with 167 yards on 33 carries, which isn't bad for a one-legged Elvis Presley fan from Birmingham. Then he asked Halfback Joe LaBue to tie his brown knit tie, had an Alabama state trooper turn down the collar of his shirt, finally found a missing maroon sock and set off in search of Pat Sullivan.
"Pat and I have been close friends for a long time," Musso said. "I had all kinds of things in my mind I wanted to say to console him after we won, but when we met on the field after the game I couldn't think of one of them. I'm going to see him now. I'll think of something to say."
Whatever he did say, it surely wasn't "sorry."