OFF THE HOOK
Longtime Longhorns fans were calling it the most compelling game
to come to Austin in decades, the one that could at last return
Texas to the top echelon of college football. When Notre Dame
arrived last Saturday, it found a confident, veteran Longhorns
team whose attitude was best articulated by junior noseguard
Chris Akins, who said a few days before kickoff, "We can win and
we will win. We're ready for this."
No, replied Notre Dame. Not yet.
At the end of a riveting contest decided in the final seconds by
a freshman placekicker, it was Notre Dame that emerged
victorious, 27-24. It was the Irish who vaulted from their No. 9
ranking into the national-title picture. And it was the
Longhorns, No. 6 going into the game, who were left searching
September 29, 1996
"We had this game," said Texas flanker Mike Adams, staring
vacantly. "Then we gave it away."
Perhaps Notre Dame took it away. Three plays swung the game, and
the Irish made them all. With 6:47 to go in the final quarter
and Texas up 24-17, Irish linebacker Lyron Cobbins picked off a
tipped pass at the Longhorns' 33-yard line. It was the only
turnover in a game that, Irish coach Lou Holtz later said, "had
as much back-and-forth-momentum as any I've been involved in."
Notre Dame, which had trailed by 11 points in the second
quarter, wrested the momentum for good with less than three
minutes remaining. Sophomore tailback Autry Denson, breaking
right on Holtz's beloved option, scored on fourth-and-goal from
the six, making it 24-24.
So it was, after a stand by the Irish defense and two big gains
by the offense, that the game came down to a field goal attempt
by 19-year-old Jim Sanson, three months out of high school, who,
with five seconds left, lined up for a 39-yard kick and
visualized palm trees. At home in Scottsdale, Ariz., Sanson
would practice kicking footballs through a pair of swaying
palms. Now, before 83,312 fans, the largest crowd ever to attend
a Texas home game, he was, he would say later, "picturing the
tops of the trees and trying to kick it high."
Sanson, blue-eyed and boyish, addresses reporters as sir or
ma'am and says he is "always nervous...really nervous" before he
kicks. Yet the pressure of this game wasn't nearly as bad, he
admitted, as the stress of kicking in practice under Holtz's
critical eye. Sanson had been so erratic in the summer that the
coach had dubbed him Foul Ball and relegated him to second
string. Rattled, Sanson called his parents and said maybe he
should turn in his gilded headgear and come home. Instead, he
heeded encouraging words from his father and went to Vanderbilt
for the season opener. After kicker Scott Cengia missed a
37-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter, Holtz put
Sanson in, and he connected on kicks of 33 and 32 yards. Even
though Sanson sent a 30-yard attempt way foul the following week
against Purdue, Holtz called on Sanson with the Texas game on
the line. "Just because I call him Foul Ball doesn't mean I was
worried about having him kick," Holtz said afterward.
The ball split the south-end uprights, where Longhorns kicker
Phil Dawson's 50-yarder had beaten Virginia in the final seconds
last Oct. 21. That kick, coming after a 55-27 loss at South Bend
and a tie with Oklahoma, seemed to signal a Texas revival. The
Longhorns won the rest of their regular-season games, and after
two easy victories this year, the same ornery Texans who a
couple of seasons ago were calling up coach John Mackovic's
radio show and saying "We've got to fire you" believed Notre
Dame could be beaten.
After all, the Irish had troubles of their own. They had not
made a run at a national title in two years; they were trying to
ignore suggestions that their much-touted quarterback, Ron
Powlus, is merely mortal; and they were hobbled by the aching
right leg of their other stud tailback, Randy Kinder. "This is
the team's first true test," Irish defensive coordinator Bob
Davie said before the Texas game.
The early results were not promising for the Irish. With Texas
quarterback James Brown leading Mackovic's pro-style offense,
the Longhorns scored on two long drives to take a 14-3 lead
early in the second quarter. But a few large men can solve a lot
of problems, and Notre Dame's offensive line is, well, very
large. The starting guards and tackles average a tidy 6'7", 304.
That gargantuan group shoved the Longhorns' young defensive
front out of the way time and again on a nine-play
second-quarter drive that Holtz termed "our most critical in two
years." At the end of that march, Irish tailback Robert Farmer
scored from 18 yards out on an option, making the score 14-10.
"It's encouraging to look up and see those guys in front of
you," says Denson, who ended up with 158 yards on 24 carries.
"You pretty much know they're going to handle things."
The same cannot always be said about Powlus. On Saturday he
rarely got set in the pocket, and though he completed 13 of 24
passes for 127 yards, none was longer than 16 yards. Indeed, he
was at his best jamming the ball into the gut of fullback Marc
Edwards or pitching out to Denson on the option, and he
overthrew an open Bobby Brown in the end zone on Notre Dame's
final drive. But on the next play, while the Irish faithful were
still shaking their heads, Powlus found Malcolm Johnson, his
third read, for an 11-yard gain that set up Sanson's kick.
All of which left Notre Dame where it feels most comfortable:
running between the tackles, scoring on the option and aspiring
to No. 1. And Texas? "We were almost there," said Adams.
Not yet, Longhorns. Not just yet.
While it does not offer the tradition of Auburn-Alabama or the
hype of Florida-Tennessee, the rivalry between Auburn and LSU
has emerged as the Southeastern Conference's most satisfying,
second to none in its capacity to generate fresh drama. In 1994
LSU, a 10-point underdog, lost a 23-9 fourth-quarter lead at
Jordan-Hare Stadium when Auburn picked off five Jamie Howard
passes, returned three for touchdowns and won 30-26. Last fall
LSU's Troy Twillie intercepted an Auburn pass in his own end
zone as time expired to preserve a 12-6 LSU win and crush the
national-title hopes of Auburn, which had entered the game
ranked No. 5.
Then there was LSU's 19-15 win over Auburn last Saturday night
at Jordan-Hare, a typically exciting affair that wasn't decided
until the waning moments. Trailing 17-9, Auburn closed the gap
to 17-15 with 38 seconds remaining when tailback Rusty Williams
scored from seven yards out. But on the ensuing conversion
attempt, Auburn quarterback Jon Cooley was intercepted by safety
Raion Hill, who returned the ball 98 yards for two points. As if
that weren't enough drama for one evening, Auburn recovered an
onside kick two seconds later. Given one last chance, Cooley,
who had replaced injured starter Dameyune Craig early in the
fourth quarter, was again intercepted, this time by Cedric
The victory was LSU's first at Auburn since 1973, and it
bolstered the status of LSU's Gerry DiNardo as the SEC's newest
coaching star, a role he has taken over from his Auburn
counterpart, Terry Bowden. Last season, after an unremarkable
four-year stint at Vanderbilt, DiNardo led LSU to a 7-4-1 finish
and the school's first bowl appearance since the 1988 season.
The Brooklyn-born DiNardo, a master salesman, quickly won over
LSU's hard-to-please fans, and he is rapidly winning over the
remaining skeptics among his players. As the team was gathering
for a prepractice meeting two days before the Auburn game,
DiNardo burst into the room in camouflage attire. "And he was
wearing this orange hat from who knows where," says Hill,
laughing at the memory. "He was trying to tell us that he wanted
us to be the hunter, not the hunted, in this game. It was, I
don't know, crazy."
That's not a word many would use to describe DiNardo's approach
to other aspects of football, such as recruiting. For years,
many top Louisiana players went away to college: Marshall Faulk
to San Diego State, Kordell Stewart to Colorado, Warrick Dunn to
Florida State. But under DiNardo, LSU has become an attractive
option for homegrown talent, a fact that was underscored last
year when the Tigers reeled in Kevin Faulk, a distant cousin of
Marshall's and a native of Carencro, La., who was ranked among
the nation's top schoolboy running backs. Last fall Faulk rushed
for 852 yards as a true freshman and was named the SEC's
freshman offensive player of the year. On Sept. 7, in LSU's
season-opening 35-34 defeat of Houston, he had 376 all-purpose
The numbers tell a different story for Auburn, which went 8-4
last season after Bowden's dazzling 20-1-1 start in 1993 and
'94. Although losing to LSU does not eliminate Auburn from
contention in the SEC West, it was nonetheless devastating. It
was Auburn's loss to LSU last fall that set the scene for a
postseason shakeup that began when Bowden fired popular
defensive coordinator Wayne Hall and continued with the
resignations of assistants Rodney Garner and Kurt Crain.
"Everything that happened here in the off-season happened
because of the LSU game," says Bowden. "It was apparent to me
that something had to change."
Bowden's boldest gambit was hiring former Alabama defensive
coordinator Bill (Brother) Oliver to replace Hall. Although
Oliver was an assistant at Auburn in the late '60s, his Alabama
background is a source of consternation to Tigers loyalists. But
on Saturday his defense came through, holding LSU's offense to
241 yards, 122 fewer than Auburn's total. That was small
consolation for Bowden, who said, "This is going to be a game
that, when we look back on it, is going to make us sick."
As LSU linebacker Allen Stansberry jogged off the field after
the game, he called out, "The magic is back," the slogan LSU
adopted when DiNardo was hired. Above Stansberry in the stands,
a contingent of Auburn fans responded with empty taunts, no
doubt wondering where their own team's magic had gone.