And then there was SMWho, a 7-3 victor over Pitt in a cold and damp Cotton Bowl, the only undefeated major-college team after Penn State's defeat of Georgia, but still the Rodney Dangerfield of football, knowing its chance to be voted national champion was just about nil. Seemingly the least ruffled by Penn State's anticipated rise to the top, which was confirmed on Sunday, was Bobby Collins, who had jumped into the pressure cooker as coach of the 1981 Southwest Conference champions after Ron Meyer had moved on to the New England Patriots last January. As Collins explained it, he had set definite goals for his '82 squad, and the national championship just didn't happen to be one of them. "Our goals were to defend the championship and to go to the Cotton Bowl," said Collins. "Before our final game with Arkansas we were 10-0, but we hadn't accomplished a single goal."
Trailing 17-10 in that game, SMU had scored a touchdown with 3:09 to play. Unhesitatingly, Collins ordered a one-point kick for a tie rather than going for two points and possible victory. "And I've never had a second thought about that decision," he said. "That tie gave us our two goals. And today we did what we had to do: We beat an excellent team in a major bowl."
Each team came into the Cotton Bowl with potent offensive weapons, which were relatively unfamiliar to the other. For Pittsburgh, it was Quarterback Dan Marino throwing behind a line that looked as though it once might have been a chunk of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the run-oriented SWC, the SMU defense was experienced in stopping people coming at them, not over them.
The Pittsburgh defense was on equally foreign turf. Except for a brief look shown them by Florida State early in the season, the Panther defenders had no experience against the option offense. Now they faced the SMU option executed by Quarterback Lance McIlhenny and his alternating senior tailbacks, Eric Dickerson and Craig James, the famed Pony Express. Together, Dickerson and James had rushed for 2,631 yards and 21 touchdowns this season.
January 10, 1983
As the teams squared off, the Mustangs discovered that Panther Coach Foge Fazio had redesigned his offense. Abandoning its I formation, Pitt set up with only one back behind Marino and the fullback perched wide on one of the flanks. The strategy gave Marino the luxury of having four receivers with whom to flood SMU's half-man-on-man, half-deep-zone secondary coverage, at the expense of requiring the big Pitt offensive line to hold its blocks longer. In just nine plays, including a daring 12-yard run by Rick Dukovich, a safety, from punt formation, Pitt muscled its way to the Mustang one.
From there a straight, uncomplicated dive by Fullback Joe McCall was ordered. But McCall never got a firm grip on the handoff from Marino and the ball bounded away into the embrace of SMU's Wes Hopkins at the two.
Pittsburgh had worked for two weeks on six defenses to stop the SMU option, but mostly it relied on Cover 7, designed to force the Mustangs to run everything inside. "Our primary concern is to stop the pitch man and to force McIlhenny to run the ball," said Charlie Bailey, Pitt's defensive coordinator. "Then we'll unload on him, punish him."
SMU countered with its Power I, a variant of the normal option formation that unites Dickerson and James in the same backfield with one just off the I as the powerback. The Mustangs had worked on the formation all season, but they had saved it for their seventh game, against Texas, which they won 30-17. Then they packed it away until the Cotton Bowl.
Pitt wasn't surprised. Peep Short, the strong safety, simply played the power back as though he were a tight end. And on SMU's first possession, the very physical Panthers introduced the Mustangs, who had played the entire season within the borders of Texas, to another world of football. On SMU's initial drive, Pittsburgh was flagged for four penalties, the first two for personal fouls against McIlhenny, the third for grabbing a face mask. Another personal foul would come a short time later.
Aided by the 40 yards stepped off by the officials, SMU went to the Pitt seven on a drive that ate up 9:25. But then, as McIlhenny turned to hand off to Dickerson, he and the ball were separated by Tim Lewis, and Jay Pelusi recovered for Pitt at the 15.
Yet another fumble, this one recovered by Short after a one-yard pass from McIlhenny to James, stopped an SMU drive at the Pitt 37. That came with 2:35 left in the half, and Marino, who had been besieged by the quick SMU pass rushers, finally got cranked up. Five passes advanced the ball to the SMU 10. With a fourth and two, Pitt brought in Eric Schubert, who hooked a 26-yard field-goal attempt wide to the left. Thus at the half, neither SMU, which had averaged 31 points a game, nor Pitt (29) had yet crossed the goal line.
During halftime Collins scrapped the option in favor of sprint draws. On defense, the cornermen were told to play more bump and man coverage. The Mustangs wanted to force Marino to hold the ball an instant longer to give their rushers a better shot at him.
Schubert got a chance to redeem himself on Pitt's first possession of the second half. With Marino, under blitzing pressure, going to the short pass, the Panthers moved to the SMU 28. From there, Schubert was successful on a 43-yard field goal that put Pitt ahead 3-0.
SMU came right back, with two passes by McIlhenny to Split End Bobby Leach picking up 62 yards to the Pitt 20. The second was a work of art. "The play came down from the press box, and I almost vetoed it," said Collins. "It was near the end of the third quarter, and we were going to get the wind. But our offensive coordinator, Whitey Jordan, said they were playing us close and it would work."
The play Jordan suggested sent both Flanker Gary Smith and Leach flying down the sidelines. McIlhenny faked a draw and then looked downfield for the Pitt safety. He saw that the safety had moved over to help cover the flanker. McIlhenny's pass hit Leach, a 9.3 sprinter, in full stride at the Pitt 20. "But I had got lost," said Leach. "I didn't know where the sideline was. It was such a good pass that I just tucked the ball away and went out of bounds. I wasn't going to make any fast moves and lose it." The play covered 42 yards.
Two runs by Dickerson gained nine yards, and then McIlhenny called 57, an option off left tackle. The pitch went to James, who ran two yards, saw a hole inside, tried a sharp cut and slipped down on the sleet-slickened artificial turf. "I could have got five more yards the direction I was going, but I saw a touchdown inside," James said. "When I slipped, all I could think was: Damn! Damn!"
Now McIlhenny called 56 Option, the same play to the right. "The first time, the Pitt defenders went after Lance, and I almost broke it," James said. "This time they were all on me." Seeing the pitch covered, McIlhenny turned inside, split between Pitt's Free Safety Tom Flynn and Linebacker Yogi Jones and went in. "I was the one faked out," said Flynn. "I had a crack at him, but I missed him by three feet."
Pitt had one more shot. With 13:43 to play, Marino drove the Panthers 67 yards on 12 plays to the SMU 7. He called for an alley-oop pass deep in the end zone for his Flanker Dwight Collins. As Marino dropped back, he found himself under pressure from blitzing Linebacker Clarence McDade and End Jerry Kovar. Marino broke far to his right and lofted a pass into the middle of the end zone. "I should have just thrown it away," he said later.
SMU's Hopkins saw the pass coming in his direction all the way, but as he stepped in for the interception the ball slipped between his gloved hands and ricocheted off his face mask into the grasp of fellow Safety Blane Smith. "I watched that ball all the way into my stomach," said Smith. "And all I thought was: Please let me hold on to it. I kept looking at that ball after I had fallen to the ground."
SMU had held Pitt to only three points, something no team had done since 1975, and would wind up second in the final national rankings. Ah well, the Mustangs got some respect.