Cryin' Time in Texas
Here we are, not even a third of the way into the season, and already it's painfully clear that the SWC is the So What Conference. The Southwest hasn't produced a national champion since Texas shared the crown in 1970, and its representative has won only two of the last eight Cotton Bowls, but the league has never looked as weak, top to bottom, as it does now.
In Texas the gridiron has become the grimiron, except at Baylor, which is 3-0 after knocking off UTEP, Colorado and Missouri. To show you how crazy things have gotten, Baylor last Saturday got 300 yards passing from quarterback J.J. Joe and 126 yards rushing from fullback Robert Strait and rolled to a 47-21 victory over the same Mizzou team that had upset Illinois 23-19 the previous week. So all the Illini did last Saturday was stick Houston, the Southwest Conference preseason favorite, with its second consecutive humiliating loss on national TV.
The 51-10 thumping by Illinois knocked the Cougars off the board as far as Heisman Trophies and national rankings are concerned. Houston simply did not have a good enough offensive line or defense to compete with the Illini, who are regarded as only the third-or fourth-best team in the Big Ten. Once again Illinois got a sensational Doug Flutie impersonation from 5'9" junior quarterback Jason Verduzco, who passed for 340 yards and three TDs. "I don't believe we've played a better game in my four years here," said Illini coach John Mackovic.
But an opponent from the Southwest Conference can make just about anybody look good. Take Tulsa. On Saturday the Golden Hurricane upset Texas A&M when quarterback T.J. Rubley completed a 63-yard touchdown pass to flanker Chris Penn with 2:47 to go, giving Tulsa a 35-34 win. Adding insult to injury, Rubley said, "It wasn't a Mount Everest game for us. We really thought we could win it." In other games involving Southwest Conference teams, Auburn beat defending conference champion Texas 14-10 in Austin, and Wyoming topped Texas Tech 22-17. Even the league's wins weren't exactly reason for optimism—Arkansas, which leaves for the SEC after this season, eked out a 9-7 victory over Southwestern Louisiana in Fayetteville; TCU barely outlasted pitiful Oklahoma State 24-21; and Rice beat winless Tulane 28-19.
Nobody is exactly sure what has happened to the Southwest Conference. Could it be that the league, which had six teams on NCAA probation at one time or other in the 1980s, is feeling the recruiting aftershocks of a damaged reputation? Could the no-pass, no-play rule for Texas high school athletes be draining the state's talent pool? Whatever, there's only one response possible when anybody brings up the SWC these days: So what?
After Southern Cal's 32-25 loss to Arizona State last Saturday in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Trojan senior linebacker Kurt Barber pointed an accusing finger at the USC staff, blaming coach Larry Smith and his aides for employing the same blitzing defense against the Sun Devils that had worked so well against Penn State a week earlier. "ASU watched the films and knew exactly what to do against it," Barber said. "You can't do that. In the second half, we ran our base defense and beat them. Why we didn't do that in the first half, I don't know." Indeed, USC did outscore the Sun Devils after falling behind 25-10 at halftime.
Southern Cal defensive coordinator Chris Allen claimed that the Trojans must live or die with the blitz because of their youth. However, even Allen conceded that Arizona State did an excellent job of using the Penn State game to prepare for USC. Sun Devil coach Larry Marmie and offensive coordinator Mike Martz devised a game plan that called for a lot of traps and screen passes from sophomore quarterback Bret Powers, who was making only his third start.
Powers responded like a veteran, completing seven of 14 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a TD and had no interceptions. "I was real concerned about what we were asking him to do," Martz said after the victory. "I was flabbergasted at how cool he was. I'm in the press box saying, 'Holy cats, he's actually getting this stuff right.' "
Afterward, Marmie, who has been criticized for being too unemotional, grabbed the game ball and ran around on the Coliseum track, pointing to the Arizona State fans in celebration of his first win over a Los Angeles team since he was hired in 1987. It also was Arizona State's first win in a Pac-10 opener since '85.
Taking the old bulletin-board ploy to new heights, Kentucky coaches clipped a column about Indiana tailback Vaughn Dunbar from the Bloomington Herald-Times, had it blown up about 300% and stationed it prominently in the Wildcat training room. The Kentucky defenders got the message. Although they let the Hoosiers come from behind for a 13-10 victory in Bloomington, they made Dunbar work hard for his 147 yards. His 39 carries were the most ever by a Wildcat opponent.
"They did a great job of keying on me and throwing those stunts up front," said Dunbar. "There were delays, blitzes, twists—things we haven't faced before."
Dunbar, a 6-foot, 207-pound senior from Fort Wayne, Ind., had better grow accustomed to being a marked man. National Football Scouting, a service used by 14 NFL teams, ranks him as the No. 1 pro prospect in the country. But then, attaining that status wasn't easy, either.
When Dunbar was recruited to play at Indiana in 1987, he hoped to share time at tailback with Anthony Thompson, then a sophomore on his way to setting an NCAA record of 65 career touchdowns. However, Dunbar failed to make the grade academically and was packed off to a junior college, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. "it was like some kind of isolation camp," Dunbar says. "Nothing but cows, trucks and ten-gallon hats." Dunbar made it to Bloomington in 1989, but with Thompson then a senior, coach Bill Mallory decided to redshirt Dunbar. Last season, as a junior, Dunbar more than adequately replaced the departed Thompson by gaining 1,224 yards.
Last Saturday. Dunbar was at his durable, elusive best when it counted the most. With the Wildcats leading 10-7 in the fourth quarter, the Hoosiers went on an 11-play, 77-yard drive in which Dunbar carried seven times. His longest run of the afternoon, a 19-yarder, put the ball on the Wildcat one, from where he vaulted over for the winning TD with 1:52 remaining.
Florida got trounced by Syracuse 38-21 in the Carrier Dome last Saturday, but what really hurt was that the blowout was ignited by a couple of former Florida high school players who had migrated to Syracuse. The Orangemen's Terry Richardson, a sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, took the opening kickoff and handed it off on a reverse to Kirby DarDar, a redshirt freshman from Tampa. DarDar took it the last 85 yards of a 95-yard TD, and the Gators never recovered....
Bill Mc-Arthur, coach of Western Oregon State, an NAIA school, made quite a comeback in his Wolves' opening game, a 35-7 loss to Western Washington. McArthur retired in 1982, after 35 years at Western Oregon. He agreed to come back last winter at the behest of school president Richard Meyers. At 73, McArthur is the nation's oldest coach.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Chris Hughley, a junior running back at Tulsa, rushed for 231 yards on 29 carries and scored on touchdown runs of nine, 10 and 53 yards as the Golden Hurricane upset No. 15 Texas A&M 35-34.
Ohio State sophomore strong safety Roger Harper had eight unassisted tackles, including one sack, and returned an interception 42 yards for a TD as the Buckeyes beat Washington State 33-19.
Bodhi Amos, a senior safety for Division III Williams, had 13 tackles and intercepted a pass at the Ephs' three-yard line in a 15-0 defeat of Hamilton that extended the nation's longest winning streak to 22.