One moment spoke for an entire afternoon. Texas A & M linebacker Aaron (the Quiet Avenger) Wallace, so nicknamed for his ferocious but gentlemanly play, had just blown past two Houston blockers and hit quarterback Andre Ware so hard (though oh, so cleanly) that Ware's helmet flew off. Happily, and no thanks to Wallace, the helmet was discovered to be empty once it had stopped rolling on the turf.
The fourth-quarter play—hereafter to be known in College Station as The Sack—squashed Houston's last real chance to score and sealed the Aggies' 17-13 upset victory over the previously undefeated Cougars, who had been ranked 12th by SI. The Sack occurred on a third-and-long at A & M's 37, and it caused Houston to punt, while also giving the Quiet Avenger cause for uncharacteristic celebration. To the frenzied delight of the crowd at the Aggies' Kyle Field, Wallace first held Ware's helmet aloft and then dropped it disdainfully to the playing surface. "Did I do that?" he asked afterward, cringing.
Ware, for his part, rose unsteadily and had to be helped to the sideline. For A & M, his wooziness was the day's final proof that Ware was, in fact, mortal. If the Aggies had come to suspect otherwise, who could blame them? Ware's air strikes had become the talk of the nation. While operating Houston's high-octane, run-and-shoot offense, the 6'2", 205-pound Ware had struck for 390 passing yards against UNLV and 503 against Arizona State and had thrown for seven TDs against Temple. On Oct. 7, Baylor—then the top-ranked team against the pass—was supposed to present the Cougars with their first true test. Some test. Ware led his team to four TDs in one quarter of a 66-10 rout.
Ware's test came a week later than expected. And as it turned out, he did have a relatively mediocre game in him; it just took A & M—and its high-risk defensive scheme—to get it out of him. Ware's numbers on Saturday (28 for 52, 247 yards, one TD) were nothing to be ashamed of. It was, however, most un-Ware-like. He was intercepted three times, sacked six times and harried all afternoon by a wonderful defense designed specifically to defuse the run-and-shoot.
October 22, 1989
With its profusion of gun rack-equipped pickups and Stetson-wearing Aggie boosters—not to mention A & M's 2,200-member ROTC cadet corps—College Station was an unlikely venue for what broke out Saturday: a veritable Haight-Ashbury of pigskin radicalism. As Houston coach Jack Pardee unleashed his four-wideout, no-tight-end, no-huddle offense, Aggie coach R.C. Slocum countered with a counterculture shtick of his own. He gave his beefy defensive tackles most of the day off and used a defense that stressed quickness. "Sure it's dangerous," Slocum had said Friday, referring to his unorthodox D. "It'll be like tossing a lit stick of dynamite back and forth. But it's our only hope against those guys."
A & M was desperate for other reasons too. It had been stunned 27-24 by Texas Tech on Oct. 7, and a second Southwest Conference defeat would probably knock the Aggies out of the Cotton Bowl picture.
"We don't need bowl games to motivate us," said Houston tackle Joey Banes before facing A & M. A good thing, too: The Cougars are on NCAA probation for some 250 rules violations committed between 1978 and '86; they won't be allowed to go bowling until 1991. "Personal pride motivates us," said Banes. "And, this week, good old-fashioned hatred."
Feelings aside, certain aspects of A & M football also represent what is wholesome about big-time college sports. Is there another Division I-A school that has anything like the Aggies' 12th Man, a collection of walk-ons who make up the kickoff team at home games? And where else do 40.000 students assemble in the stadium at midnight before home games and hold Yell Practice, during which the stadium lights are dimmed for an intermission so that the Aggies might kiss their dates?
The pre-Houston holler session featured a stirring oration by Slocum. "They don't huddle up, and their quarterback is planning to yell the plays out to those wide receivers," he told his listeners. "Something tells me that's not going to work." A thunderous din confirmed that. Emboldened by the crowd's enthusiasm, Slocum continued: "They think they're coming up here for a track meet, but we're going to introduce the run-and-shoot to the blitz-and-destroy!" Rousing cheers ensued. It was the highlight of the night—aside from the dimming of the lights.
It's tough not to root for a guy like Slocum—and not just because it would take thumbscrews to get such interesting and inflammatory quotes out of most other coaches. Seventeen years ago at A & M he waited for eight hours outside the office of Emory Bellard, the coach at that time, before Bellard agreed to talk to him. Once inside, Slocum talked himself into an assistant coach's job. When coach Jackie Sherrill resigned under fire after last season, university president William Mobley could have hunted around for a big-name coach. Instead, he offered the job to Slocum. As A & M's defensive coordinator from 1982 through last season, Slocum was responsible for the Aggies' trademark kamikaze-style defense.
Still, before Saturday, Houston's offensive line had protected the quarterbacks masterfully, allowing only nine sacks. "Before every game the coaches tell us, 'If we're going to win, the O line has to have a great game,' " said center Byron Forsythe. "After we win, they say, 'Andre and the receivers, great job.' " Forsythe smiles even as he gripes because no Cougar begrudges Ware the renown he earned by passing Houston to a 4-0 start, thrusting himself into Heisman Trophy contention in the process.
This season Ware has averaged more than 50 passes a game. He estimates that as a veer quarterback at Dickinson (Texas) High, he threw no more than 50 times his senior year. Ware, who is black, then endured the lamentable yet predictable fate of many black, running quarterbacks: Colleges weren't interested in him as a quarterback, but as an "athlete." Although Ware had dreamed since childhood of playing quarterback for the University of Texas, coaches there told him he was not quarterback material. When Longhorn coaches refused to budge, Ware called and canceled his recruiting visit to Texas. He still vividly recalls the response that came over the phone from an assistant coach: "You mean you're not even going to give us a chance?"
When Ware visited College Station, no one out and out told him he could not play quarterback at A & M. Sherrill was more subtle; Ware's first meeting was with the defensive backs' coach. He got the hint and passed on A & M. That year the Bill Yeoman-coached Cougars were 4-7. When Ware expressed interest in them, they were flattered: Kid, you tell us where you want to play. Just sign on the dotted line....
After a wretched 1-10 season in 1986 (Ware was sidelined due to an academic misunderstanding that has since been rectified), Yeoman resigned under pressure. Fondly recalling the offensive orgies that the USFL's Houston Gamblers had once enjoyed under Pardee, the Cougars' athletic director, Michael Johnson, brought him and his run-and-shoot to Houston. In '87 Ware started three games before suffering a fractured forearm, and the Cougars finished with a 4-6-1 record. Last year, with Ware regaining the starting job eight games into the season, the Cougars went 9-3. "In Andre's first year in the run-and-shoot, he was timid," says Houston running back Chuck Weatherspoon. "He would aim the ball, and you could tell he was afraid to make a mistake. Now he's just unbelievable."
But offensive coordinator John Jenkins insists that Ware's feats are mere appetizers for what lies ahead. "I call our offense a multiple-adjusting passing game," he says. "Theoretically, nothing can stop it except our own mistakes—the ball in the dirt, the ball over the head, the drop. But I don't think we've even come close to our potential." Jenkins refuses to rule out the possibility of a 100-point, 1,000-total-yards game for Houston. "We're entering unexplored territory...like those folks at NASA, talking about going to Venus and Mars," he says. "The bottom line is, nothing can stop us—except ourselves."
To acclimate the Cougars to the raucousness expected at Kyle Field, Pardee conducted last week's practices amid a deafening medley of A & M fight songs and cheers. By Wednesday the Cougars had learned most of these by heart. After Thursday's workout several players could be heard chanting, "Farmers, fight!" as they came off the field. Alas, nothing could have prepared the Cougars for the aural buzz saw that greeted them in College Station. Ware struggled all afternoon as he sought to make himself heard above the din. Any advantage Houston might have derived from going without a huddle was nullified by the crowd noise. "One team was able to call its signals, the other wasn't," said Pardee afterward. "That's a sizable advantage."
Noise was only a minor nuisance to Ware compared with the difficulties caused by A & M's blitz-and-destroy. Vowing to "counter speed with speed," Slocum substituted linebackers for defensive ends and added an extra defensive back at outside linebacker. A & M lined up seven people along the line of scrimmage on almost every play. Sometimes it dropped eight people into zone coverage. More often—75% of the time, defensive coordinator Bob Davie estimated—the Aggies blitzed all seven players at the line of scrimmage.
Facing such an assault, the Cougars produced only four punts and a botched field goal on their first five possessions. That Houston was able to punch the ball into the end zone on its penultimate possession of the first half—tying the score at 7-7—was attributable not to Air Ware but to Ground Chuck: Weatherspoon had rushed for 83 yards by intermission. He finished with 147 and was the Cougars' only consistently effective offensive weapon against the Aggies.
"Every time we held them on downs, we'd get a little more enthused, and they'd get a little more confused," A & M outside linebacker William Thomas said later. If this scheme had been custom-designed for anyone, it was for Thomas, a 6'3", 205-pound former safety whom Slocum converted to linebacker last spring. Against Houston, Thomas made 16 tackles, had 3½ sacks and forced two fumbles. "I don't get to play like this every week," he said.
Each all-out blitz left the Aggies' defensive backs to cover Houston's wideouts one-on-one. Regardless of how cornerback Kevin Smith perceived that prospect before the game, he assured listeners afterward that playing pass defense had been no sweat. "I'm trying to be as modest as I can," he said, "but we have the best one-on-one coverage in the conference." Smith had picked off one of Ware's passes and helped make sure that Ware's longest completion went for only 26 yards. He had some room to talk.
Nonetheless, the architects of the run-and-shoot went home thinking that they had simply shot themselves in the foot. "All we had to do was burn the blitz once," said Pardee.
Ware had another explanation: "We didn't play pass-and-catch. When we execute, we cannot be stopped."
C'mon, Andre, how about giving a little credit to the Aggies' D? True, your receivers had a few balls clang off their hands, and your aim on this afternoon wasn't quite as sharp as usual, but you and your teammates didn't beat yourselves. You had plenty of help. Give a listen to Wallace speaking with characteristic understatement—but absolute accuracy: "Oh, I'd say we had something to do with it."