Look Who's Perfect

Unbeaten Auburn can't be on TV or go to a bowl—but it can win. Just ask Florida
October 24, 1993

With Auburn, it pays to read the fine print. Comb the Tigers' box scores, because the team, on NCAA probation, is banned from the tube this season. Note the asterisk next to Auburn in the Southeastern Conference standings, which indicates that the Tigers are "not eligible for title." And by all means train an eye on the left biceps of tailback James Bostic, which was on display last Saturday evening after the Tigers' 38-35 come-from-behind triumph over No. 4 Florida. Hobbling around misty Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, wearing a T-shirt and paying tribute to the hometown fans, Bostic flashed a tattoo of a panther surrounded by these faint words: NEVER ENOUGH RESPECT.

How can there be enough respect for a team that has a Nielsen rating of zero and no bowl to play for, yet has gone 7-0 and earned a No. 10 national ranking? How can there be enough respect for the five Tigers from Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale who had endured ceaseless jawing back home after losing to the Gators the last two years, but who chipped in on Saturday when it meant the most? How can there be enough for Ace Atkins, a senior defensive end who entered the game with three career tackles and left with two king-sized sacks? And for placekicker Scott Etheridge, whose decisive 41-yard field goal with 1:21 to play redeemed an earlier miss from 35 yards out?

How can there be enough respect, finally, for first-year Auburn coach Terry Bowden, who watched his team nearly disappear into a 17-zip black hole, scrapped one game plan for another and remained upbeat throughout? Bowden is a law-school grad who knows a little about fine print but spoke more about the big picture. "I wanted so much for these players lo feel the good part in college football," he said after the game. "They haven't felt that in a while."

On a shelf in Bowden's office are a pair of white-and-orange sneakers, size 20. They were sent to him by a fan with a note that reminded Bowden of the magnitude of the shoes he had to fill. Before Pat Dye resigned as Auburn coach last November under a cloud of NCAA rules violations, he had brought the Tigers to national prominence and received the state's unofficial equivalent of canonization: favorable comparison to Bear Bryant. But the 37-year-old Bowden eagerly put his size-8 in Dye's footprints. After successful coaching stints at Salem (W.Va.) College and Division I-AA Samford (Ala.) University, he had been steeling himself for just such a Division I opportunity. "Besides," he says, "I'd had some experience filling big shoes before."

Indeed, as the third son of Bobby Bow-den, coach of top-ranked Florida State, Terry has faced daunting comparisons time and again. For the record Terry is better educated (magna cum laude at West Virginia, postgrad studies at Oxford, J.D. from Florida State), slightly plumper and far less folksy than Bobby. Though Terry has a keen feel for play-calling, he has not swamped his game plans with reverses and rooskies like his dad; the kind of player he has at Auburn thrives on a blue-collar, power-I team. And Terry sees being Bobby's boy for the advantage it is. "Every time Florida State's on national TV, it's talked about, how both the Bowdens are unbeaten," Terry says. "So we've gotten a lot of exposure out of the relationship."

A more likely heir to Bowden père—at least in terms of offensive inventiveness—is the Gators' fourth-year coach, Steve Spurrier. Against Auburn, Spurrier's Fun 'N' Gun attack put up its usual gaudy numbers: 560 yards in total offense, 196 coming on 22 carries by Errict Rhett. The defense, prone to surrendering large strikes, yielded no gain of more than 23 yards, while limiting Auburn's reliable running game to 116 yards. But in the end the Gators were undone by a handful of costly mistakes and by an opponent that didn't lose its composure or its faith—or the ball. Under Spurrier the Gators have now faced a ranked team on the road seven times, and seven times they have lost. Said Rhett after the game Saturday, "I'm still trying to figure out what happened."

It all began according to form. Thanks to the soft passing touch and prescient reads of freshman quarterback Danny Wuerffel, the Gators were appropriately lively 'n' lethal, taking a quick 10-0 lead and driving again with a minute left in the first quarter. Wuerffel's cause had been abetted by the Dillard High Five, three of whom start in the Tiger secondary. They were out of position on a few plays.

"We were too eager," said strong safety Otis Mounds. A redshirt junior, Mounds was the first of the Fort Lauderdale bunch to sign on with Auburn; Dye had continued to recruit him even after Mounds served 10 months in a Florida correctional institution for dealing crack. Dye's loyalty impressed four of Mounds's schoolmates—Bostic, cornerback Calvin Jackson, free safety Brian Robinson and wideout Frank Sanders—who followed Mounds's lead the next year. "Most schools wouldn't look at Otis because of his past," says Jackson. "It really gave me the feeling that Auburn cared."

On Saturday the Dillard gang began to assert itself on a second-down play for Florida at the Auburn 10. Wuerffel's pass to wide receiver Willie Jackson in the end zone found Calvin Jackson instead at the four, and the Tiger cornerback had a clear stretch of green in front of him. Touchdown. That made it 10-7, Florida, instead of 17-0. The game suddenly seemed on.

Bowden's battle plan at the outset had called for long drives full of running plays to keep the ball out of the Gators' hands. "But if they get up two touchdowns," Bowden had said, "I'm not sure we have the sort of team that can come back." Bowden was entitled to his doubt: The combined record of Auburn's first six opponents was 13-19. By halftime Saturday the Tigers had had five possessions, rushed 13 times and gained just 12 yards. Florida had owned the ball seven times and scored five times—and led 27-14.

Wuerffel was being supplied with ample time to take his three-step drop, find the open man and deliver. But that changed in the second half when Atkins nailed Wuerffel twice to stop two Gator drives. The son of late Auburn great Billy Atkins, the 213-pound Ace has written an unpublished spy novel and studied taekwondo, but before Saturday he had not had a tackle all season. "I've never been a part of a game like this one," he said afterward. "It was like a movie. I don't think that Hollywood or Robert Altman could have scripted it better for us."

Meanwhile, Bowden junked his pre-game strategy and went to the air, with quarterback Stan White hitting Dillard High's Sanders on intermediate routes to set up the run. White would finish with 23 completions in 35 attempts for 267 yards and, more important, earn the respect of Auburn fans who have treated him unfairly in his four seasons as a starter. Working under three different quarterback coaches, White has been erratic, with 49 career interceptions against 35 TD throws, but he has also been courageous, standing tall as first the pocket and then the team collapsed around him. Now, with Bowden scripting the plays and not demanding that the quarterback be the hero, White feels more self-assured. "We're not a team that's going to go out and throw 50 times, like Florida," White says. "We've got a balanced attack."

Auburn's revised game plan loosened up the Gator defensive backfield and created a bit of room for Bostic, which was more than enough. At six feet and 224 pounds, he may be the most fiercely aggressive ball carrier in the land. "He's going to run over you or through you," says Tiger fullback Reid McMillon.

Bostic has a sweet disposition off the field and will gently explain how his football career nearly ended when he was a junior in high school. Thinking the pain in his left leg was only shin splints, he played a Friday night game and rushed for 200-plus yards. The next day his leg swelled from thigh to ankle, and his foot turned blue. He was whisked to a hospital emergency room and rushed into surgery to remove a blood clot. "A couple of more hours," Bostic says, "and they'd have had to amputate my leg."

And so he runs now as if each carry were his last. That may partly explain the 76 yards he gained on 17 attempts against a Florida defense stacked to stop him and the four-yard touchdown he scored with 13:40 left in the fourth quarter to give Auburn its first lead, 28-27. On fourth-and-one, White pitched to Bostic, who faced two problems: 1) He had no blockers, and 2) Florida linebacker Dexter Daniels had both hands on him three yards behind the line of scrimmage. But Bostic blasted through Daniels's grasp—if not Daniels himself—and into the end zone. "I wasn't going to let him tackle me," Bostic said. "I had my second effort."

The fifth member of the Dillard gang, Robinson, was heard from three series later. Blitzing, Robinson forced Wuerffel to float a pass that Tiger cornerback Chris Shelling picked off and returned 65 yards, setting up a nine-yard TD reverse by Sanders to make the score 35-27, Auburn. Florida responded by marching 81 yards to tie the game with 5:44 left. On Auburn's next possession, White's third-and-eight pass from his own 42 sailed high, and the Tigers seemed to have stalled with barely four minutes to play. But Gator safety Lawrence Wright had nailed the intended receiver, Sanders, out of bounds, and the 15-yard personal-foul penalty kept the Auburn drive alive for Etheridge's kick. "I'm putting this loss on my shoulders," Wright said later.

Among his fellows from Fort Lauderdale, Sanders is an anomaly. Unlike Bostic with his panther or Mounds with his cat or Robinson with his tiger or Jackson with his eight ball (witch's claw attached), Sanders has no tattoo. "I'm the one who knows what to do with money," he says. "Otis probably has two, three hundred dollars in tattoos on his body." In addition, Sanders admits that after watching Florida's four-wideout sets and wide-open attack, he has occasional pangs of regret about having chosen Auburn. "That's a receiver's dream right there," he says of the Gator offense.

But the pangs, like the Tigers, eventually pass. "A lot of people thought we made a bad decision to come here," Sanders said after the game. "But this shows Auburn is a great program." Besides dropping Florida to 5-1 and dampening its national championship hopes, Auburn's victory paved the way for some verbal payback by the Dillard gang come summertime, particularly against Rhett, who is known for his nonstop chatter. "Those five guys live right down the street from me," Rhett lamented. "Now they've got bragging rights, and I don't have another chance to play against Auburn."

In some respects NCAA probation has been a plus for the Tigers; they have remained relatively free of expectations and pressure. "That's the positive—you can relax a little," Bowden says. "The negative is, the closer you get to having a good season, the more you realize what they have taken away from you."

TWO PHOTOSJIM GUNDBostic (33) led the charge as the Tigers roared back in the second half, and Etheridge's field goal put them ahead for good. PHOTOJIM GUNDAtkins, an infrequent tackler, made a timely hit on Wuerffel in Florida's final possession. PHOTOJIM GUNDThe Tigers have given Bowden, in his first year as a Division I-A coach, a wild ride.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)