Danny Davis isn't the strong, silent type. Nor is he a man of few words. When not playing quarterback for the University of Houston, he counsels youths in a drug program and he fills in as a speaker at church functions. And even when he is playing quarterback, Danny Davis talks all the time. He ribs the running backs. He slaps palms with the linemen and he flashes the soul sign, chattering all the while. There is a bit of con in him, Davis admits, but, "I believe in people and then they believe in me."
That was pretty much the game plan last Saturday: Danny Davis & Co. would have to con No. 6-ranked University of Texas to make folks believe that the Cougars deserved to play host in the Cotton Bowl as Southwest Conference champion on New Year's Day.
"We match up pretty evenly," Houston Coach Bill Yeoman said before the game. "But their Johnny (Lam) Jones is a bad news guy and their Lawrence Sampleton isn't anything less. Both can kill you with one big play. But if we can stop them, well, I think we will win."
The game was played in Austin, where the Longhorns had been beaten but twice in the last 56 games. And, sure enough, Tight End Sampleton was held to two catches, only one of importance. Flanker Jones got his hands on the ball just twice and gained only 22 yards. And when it was all over, Houston had upset Texas 10-7. Unless Texas Tech and Rice, the Cougars' last two opponents, perform miracles, Houston will win that coveted berth in the Cotton Bowl.
While it was the Houston defense that roped the Longhorns all afternoon, it was Davis who branded them. Davis is a 48.8% passer and a 30-yard-a-game runner—he is more apt to scamper from sideline to sideline than to head down-field—but it is his convincing fakes, perfectly timed pitches and shrewd reading of keys that make Houston's attack hum. With Davis in charge, the Cougars won 10 games, the SWC title and the Cotton Bowl in 1976. They opened the 1977 season by beating favored UCLA. But a shoulder separation put Davis out for the rest of the year and Houston tumbled to a 6-5 finish.
Cougar fans weren't surprised: the team has run hot and cold for years. In 1967, Houston beat No. 1-ranked Michigan State, then stumbled to three losses. In 1968, the Cougars crushed Tulsa 100-6 one Saturday, and got beat by 20 points at Florida State the next. In 1969, they opened with two losses, then whipped Mississippi State 74-0 and won nine straight. The 10-2 championship season of 1976 had followed a 2-8 clunker in 1975. "It's always something," Yeoman says. "Injuries, lack of depth. Or, when we were an independent, trying to keep everybody up, week after week."
This year the Cougars seemed to be at it again. They opened by losing to Memphis State, now a 4-5 team. They looked only slightly better in overcoming outmanned Utah 42-25. Next Houston stunned 9th-ranked Florida State, 27-21 on the road. A 20-18 squeaker over then-winless Baylor was followed by a 33-0 thrashing of unbeaten Texas A&M. "It wasn't until then that we knew we could play," Yeoman says.
Indeed, Houston had started with a whole bunch of question marks. Recovered from his injury, Davis had to prove himself all over again. Both the starting running backs were new and so were three-fifths of the line. On defense, Yeoman was counting on four returning starters, plus David Hodge, an All-America linebacker in 1976 who had wearied of football and sat out a season before returning to school this fall. Hodge gradually returned to form, and Sam Proctor, who was used sparingly in 1977, and Steve Bradham developed into certified menaces as linebackers. Safety Elvis Bradley, a starter since his first game as a freshman three years ago, was as sound as ever, and soon Yeoman's two sets of ends, tackles and noseguards were playing into shape.
The team now comes equipped with eight healthy linemen whose average weight is 248 pounds, and all of them are quick-footed, especially Hosea Taylor, a 6'5" sophomore who slimmed down from the 295 pounds he weighed last year to 250, and Leonard Mitchell, a 6'7", 260-pounder who also plays basketball for the Cougars.
Still, some critics keep harking back to Houston's on-and-off performances of the past. Others call the university "Cougar High," a jab at its academic standards. They intimate that Cougars aren't recruited, but bought.
The outlaw image centers on the rosters: the same players seem to be listed year after year. There is a reason for this impression. Since Yeoman became coach 17 years ago, redshirting has been commonplace at Houston. The Cougars were independent until 1976, and had difficulty recruiting top players. It was Yeoman's plan to bring in promising kids, then give them a chance to develop. Offensive Line Coach Billy Willingham figures half of his linemen are redshirted each season. "The offense here is a finesse deal," he says. "It's not a mash attack where a freshman might come in and start right off. We play freshmen a little, then red-shirt them as sophomores so they have experience to reflect on. Then, if they develop physically, get some school work behind them and improve on technique, we might have them for two years. Redshirting is all in the selling. We encourage it and it sells pretty well." On the current depth chart, 16 players have redshirted at one time or another, including all three quarterbacks.
It may sell, but the players aren't bought. Of Houston's first 44 players, only 24 have some kind of automobile—mostly beat-up—and the rest are known as steppers. Davis is a stepper. So is Hosea Taylor, Houston's most valuable defender and a guy who ought to have a car if anyone does.
"Outlaws? I like being outlaws," Davis says. "For a long time nobody wanted us and now everybody is after us. We must be something to people. When we were nothing, our games weren't sellouts."
A record sellout crowd of 83,053 showed up under smoky skies and a light drizzle for the Texas game. In the first half both teams played cautiously, and neither was able to penetrate the other's 26-yard line. Then came the explosion. On Houston's first possession of the third quarter, Davis—optioning to the left—slid inside left end and dashed 29 yards to the Texas 28. Two plays later he hit Garrett Jurgajtis over the middle with a 25-yard pass to the Texas four.
Earlier in the week, Yeoman had said that he had high expectations for his trap option series. It's tricky business. The idea is to force a linebacker to be responsible for covering the dive play. If he does, it frees a guard to pull and block on the other side of the line. Yeoman's plan was to feed the ball to the dive man several times to keep the linebacker coming; in other words, sacrifice a few plays. Then, with the linebacker in tight, Yeoman would fake the dive and run an option to the opposite side, where the pulling guard would supply an extra blocker. It was this extra block that freed Davis for his run. After the Jurgajtis reception, Randy Love carried twice to the two and then Emmett King swept the right side to give Houston a 7-0 lead. The Cougars capped the quarter with Kenny Hatfield's 33-yard field goal, and it was 10-0.
But Texas finally came to life. Freshman Quarterback Donnie Little marched the Longhorns from their 18 to the Houston 29, mixing passes to Lam Jones and Sampleton with hand-offs to LeRoy King and Kermit Goode. From the 29, Little hit Sampleton for a 28-yard gain to the one-yard mark, and A.J. (Jam) Jones plunged across for Texas' only score.
When it was all over, Davis had a few words to say, as expected. "We're not a great team yet," he said. "But if we get to the Cotton Bowl, then I'll say that this is truly a great team." Danny Davis, who talks a lot, has spoken.