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.' "