If they could only beat Texas A&I- if they could just beat Texas A&I and get the Javelina off Southwest Texas' back. The school from Kingsville had beaten SWT eight straight times heading into 1981, even though the Bobcats had won the league in 1980, the Javs left the lone blemish on SWT's conference schedule. It ate at head coach Jim Wacker. In the preseason media junket he mentioned A&I by name; "A&I has beat us eight years in a row and frankly we're sick of it." He should have been, A&I's 17-14 win the year before kept the 'Cats out of the Division II playoff.
A Stacked Deck
Wacker had the team to not only break the A&I streak but also to win the whole damn thing. It started with senior quarterback Mike Miller. The LaGrange product was second in the Lone Star Conference in total offense in 1980, accounted for 66 points, and threw for 1,375 yards. Miller was a true dual-threat quarterback who had led the Bobcats in total offense three straight years.
Leading rusher Donnie Williams also returned after averaging 5 yards a carry in '80. Wacker believed that David Vela had the potential to be the best receiver he'd ever coached. On defense, Rick Sowell and Mike Langford held down the interior while Mike Bailiff and Anthony Boyd were bookends on the outside. Cyril Friday played the role of tackling machine from his linebacker position. Bobby Watkins and Ken Coffey were a year better at corner, a weakness the previous season.
SWT was also moving into a brand new $4.4 million stadium, the jewel of not only the Lone Star conference but a facility that Division I program would have envied.
The Bobcats had a favorable schedule, they had an early season test with Southeastern Louisiana coming to Bobcat Stadium, and the much-anticipated A&I war would be in San Marcos as well. Two tricky trips west came in November, first to preseason favorite Angelo State who were 8-1-1 the previous year. A year earlier SWT squeaked out a 3 point win against the Rams. Then a trip to Abilene Christian, leading into a season finale vs. Texas A&I. That date had been circled for a year by Wacker and his team. If all went according to plan the playoffs were next in a loser go home bracket and if the Bobcats got in they liked their chances.
329 to 34
There was nothing left to do but to do it. The first test of SWT's veer offense and swarming defense was Prairie View to open the new Bobcat Stadium. The Panthers were outclassed, held to 49 yards of total offense and the Bobcats hit every note. Miller was 10-12 for 222 yards with three total touchdowns, two by land and one by air in just two-quarters of play. Donnie Williams chipped in two touchdown runs, and the Bobcats romped 56-0.
Next, the Cats headed the 22 miles down 123 to play Texas Lutheran in Seguin. TLU was a homecoming for Wacker who'd won two national titles with the Bulldogs in 1974 and '75. The Bobcats didn't waste any time dismantling the TLU. Miller threw for another two scores, both to Vela and Bobcat backs accounted for five other touchdowns and 296 rushing yards in the 59-0 blowout.
Wacker had circled the Southeastern game in the offseason as critical if the Bobcats were going to make the playoffs. The Lions had gone 9-2 the previous years, and the playoff committee would be watching. Division I-AA Southeastern was undefeated and a step up in competition. Miller went 13 of 22, and the Bobcat defense finally allowed someone to cross their goal line, just once though. The final was 35-10. A week later the Bobcats would dispense with their last non-conference challenger, Lamar, 24-7. The 'Cats were showing every bit of the promise that Wacker had expected out of his team. They'd outscored their opponents 174 to 17, and they had been able to stay relatively healthy. That wouldn't last.
Lone Star play opened in Brownwood vs. Howard Payne. Wacker's worst nightmare came true when Miller went down with a shoulder separation. The 'Cats didn't need Miller to dispose of Howard Payne. He was replaced in by a competent Ron Jacoby, and the Bobcats rolled over the Yellowjackets 41-0.
The Miller injury didn't slow the machine; he returned to action the next week against winless Sam Houston. Even with one arm Miller and 'Cats kept rolling. Cyril Friday scored on a pick-six and Miller hit Willie Jenkins, and Vaughn Deary for touchdown passes. The Bobcats dispatched the Bearkats 38-4. A week later against Stephen F. Austin, Miller became SWT's all-time leader in total offense. Cyril Friday totaled ten tackles, was named the Lone Star Defensive Player of the Week and the Bobcats once again rolled 38-6.
The Bobcats set a school record for total offense in their win over East Texas State the next week with 668 yards in a 38-7 victory. Miller accounted for four touchdowns, three through the air and one on the ground.
The Bobcats were the number one team in Division II at 8-0 and had outscored their opponents 329-34. It was as dominant a two month stretch as any in college football in 1981, but Wacker had bigger plans for his talented team, and they didn't stop at the Lone Star title.
The Bobcats big November was now upon them. In front of them was a trip to 6-2 Angelo State and then a trip to 7-1 ACU.
Whatever hype was created for Angelo State was all for naught as the Rams fell pretty much like everyone else, 38-7.
If Angelo State wasn't up to the task, Abilene Christian was. The 10th ranked Wildcats welcomed the Bobcats to town as did the 13,000 fans who packed Shotwell Stadium. ACU quarterback Loyal Proffit was ready as well. He torched the Bobcats completing 23 of 44 for 431 yards and three touchdowns. His three scores came on the Wildcats first three possessions and staked ACU to a 21-0 lead. The twenty-one first-quarter points were the most given up by SWT in a game all season. Proffitt was rolling, and Bobcats were in for a fight.
By halftime, SWT had eaten into ACU's lead but still trailed 28-24. Miller tied the game with less than four minutes to go, 31-31, with a four-yard touchdown run. Proffitt would have the chalk last. SWT hadn't slowed him down yet, but he made the mistake the Bobcats needed. Ken Coffey picked off Proffitt's pass and returned the ball 41 yards for the winning score with 21 seconds left. ACU and SWT combined for nearly 900 yards in total offense, it was the first time SWT's defense had been exposed, but they had escaped, and more importantly, they had clinched a playoff birth and a Lone Star title.
Nine in a Row
In spite of the repercussions from the ACU win, Jim Wacker wasn't done. Texas A&I had been a thorn in his side and the only team that SWT hadn't beaten during his tenure. A&I had their own coach with ambitions in Ron Harms. Harms had arrived at A&I the same year as Wacker's arrival at SWT. Harms won the Lone Star title in 1979 and knocked SWT out of the playoff hunt in '80. His Javelinas came into San Marcos as the clear best challenger to SWT's supremacy. While the Bobcats led the Lone State in most defensive categories, A&I was close behind. Were it not for A&I suffering an upset loss at the hands of East Texas State, the SWT/A&I game would have been for the Lone Star title. Still, the stakes were incredibly high, and the game between two Division II teams was considered the biggest in the state.
Texas Tech transfer quarterback Mark James led the Javelinas. James was a dual-threat quarterback as well, throwing for over 1,800 yards and running for another 700 plus. He averaged nearly 220 yards per game for the Javs. On defense A&I was led by future NFL Hall of Fame inductee Darrell Green as well as Maurice Hill and Joe Barefield. In '81 they started the season 7-0 including an 18 point win over UTEP in week two. Back to back losses to Angelo State and East Texas torpedoed their playoff hopes, but they could save their season with a win over SWT.
A standing room only crowd of 17,600 crammed into the 15,000 seat capacity Bobcat Stadium for the showdown. The top two defenses in the Lone Star Conference made the game a defensive struggle in the first half. Late in the second quarter, Bobby Watkins picked off a Mark James throw and returned it into Javelina territory. Miller found Ricky Saunders in the end zone and a 7-0 Bobcat lead. SWT caused a Javelina fumble on the next A&I offensive series, but SWT gave it back as Darrell Green intercepted Miller.
A&I gave SWT the ball right back when the Javelina punter was ruled to have touched his knee to the turf while fielding a snap. Donnie Williams would convert the mistake into a touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Then A&I found life. Barely. With one second left in the first half, Mark James lofted a prayer that was answered when the ball deflected into the hands of receiver Steven Fuller who streaked into the end zone. The 74-yard heave gave A&I a lifeline and cut SWT's halftime lead to 14-7. The Javelinas had the momentum, and they wouldn't waste it.
The start of the second half featured a 56-yard Javelina drive that resulted in a Mark James quarterback sneak to tie the game at 14. With the tide clearly on the side of A&I, on the next offensive series, James found Fuller once again, this time for a 54-yard score and a 21-14 lead. The air sucked out of Bobcat Stadium. It was happening again.
The 'Cats fought back in the fourth as Mike Miller cued up his late-game heroics, driving SWT down to the A&I six. But it wasn't meant to be. Durwood Roquemore would add his 21st career interception to the books, picking off Miller's pass in the end zone.
Once again Wacker was left to wonder why his team couldn't beat A&I as the Javelinas headed south with their ninth straight over SWT.
"They'll Be Back Next Saturday"
As devastating as the A&I loss was, Wacker had to rally his troops for the playoffs which were kicking off in a week as the 'Cats were set to host Jacksonville State. For two weeks the juggernaut had looked beatable. SWT had relied on a miracle at ACU and then blew a 14 point lead to their nemesis Texas A&I. Now they faced the 8-3 Gamecocks in a win or go home scenario. After the A&I loss, Wacker told the reporters assembled outside the locker room that his team was resilient and they'd be back next Saturday ready to play.
The key would be getting Mike Miller back to doing Mike Miller things. A&I had beaten him up and frustrated the Bobcat offense. The Lone Star Conference's Most Valuable Player and SWT's most prolific offensive player would be the key to take the 'Cats as far as they would go. After the opening kickoff, it didn't look like that would be very far.
The Bobcats fumbled the kickoff at their own 15 and Jacksonville State was more than happy to jump on it. One of the more efficient Division II quarterbacks, Ed Lett, would throw for a touchdown with just 40 seconds gone in the game. A bad snap made it a 6-0 Gamecock lead. Another turnover in Bobcat territory would lead to a Jacksonville State field goal and a 9-0 lead.
Ricky Sanders was a standout performer in Super Bowl XXII, catching nine passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns, while also returning three kickoffs for 46 yards. He set Super Bowl records for most receiving yards (193), most total yards (235), most touchdowns in one quarter (2), most receiving yards in one quarter (168), and longest touchdown reception (80 yards, tie) in Washington's 42-10 win over the Denver Broncos. He would go onto win a second Super Bowl with the Redskins in 1991. Before he became a household name, the Belton high school product was a major cog in SWT's offense in 1981. Against Jacksonville State, he took it upon himself to pull his team out of its funk.
Sanders took a pitch from Miller and went 78 yards to get the Bobcats on the board. The Bobcats had a pulse. Jacksonville State's Lett did his best to smother the 'Cats two series later with a 76-yard touchdown pass to extend the lead to 16-7. A week earlier Texas A&I had found life with one second left before halftime and used that lifeline to pull away in the second half. SWT would ironically find themselves in the same position when Miller drove them down to the seven with one second left, setting a field goal and cutting the Gamecock lead to just six.
The Bobcat defense adjusted in the second half and started making life hard on Lett. The Bobcat defense got the ball back for their offense, and Mike Miller drove the team 70 yards in ten plays for a go-ahead Vaughn Deary score. Hero cornerback Bobby Watkins added to Lett's frustration with an interception minutes later, returning the ball the Gamecock 12. Donnie Williams would score, and the 'Cats now led 23-16.
The Bobcat offense then set about grinding out a 76 yard sixteen play drive to crush whatever spirit was left of Jacksonville State. Dreary would score again, and a 33-16 lead put the game away. Miller would score in the fourth and Jacksonville State added an "oh by the way" touchdown with less than two minutes to go as the Bobcats advanced 38-23.
Up next was a semifinal game against Northern Michigan in San Marcos. Whatever hype there was for the game quickly faded as SWT dominated the previously unbeaten Wildcats 62-0. Northern Michigan starting quarterback Tom Bertoldi missed the game due to an emergency appendicitis and a freshman who'd never thrown a college pass filled in. It didn't go well.
The Bobcats were one win away from the goal that Jim Wacker had laid out for them nearly a year before. They had the benefit of playing a virtual home game in McAllen, Texas against another team from up north.
The Palm Bowl
As with Texas Lutheran, Jim Wacker had a history with North Dakota State. Recent history. Wacker had coached the Bison from 1976 to 1978, just before coming to San Marcos. Two of those three years Wacker took the Bison to the Division II semis. One of Wacker's former assistants Don Morton had taken over once Wacker left. 1981 was his first playoff season as the Bison head coach, and his 10-2 team was similar to SWT as they preferred to run the ball down your throat via the veer.
The Bison averaged 347 yards per game with only 54 of that coming through the air. It was a different approach than the Bobcats had seen through two rounds of the playoffs.
The Bobcats were putting up nearly 600 yards of total offense a game and had used the previous two playoff games to get back on track.
Nearly 10,000 fans came to Veterans Memorial Stadium in McAllen for the title game. Most were there to see the Bobcats get their first National Title. Things didn't go to plan early as North Dakota State took the opening drive 69 yards for a touchdown.
SWT turned the ball over twice, deep in Bison territory and played a generally messy game at the outset. The Bobcats settled down, and Donnie Williams scored to tie the game. Anthony Boyd recovered a fumble on the next Bison series, and Miller hit Vela for a 35-yard touchdown and a lead that the Bobcats wouldn't surrender. North Dakota State made it 14-13 heading into the half, but SWT's defense shut the gate on the Bison in the second half. All told Williams would score twice and Miller threw for three scores and ran one in himself.
In the end, the best team in Division II pulled away comfortably from North Dakota State with a 42-13 win. It's difficult to win a title, let alone one that everyone expects you to win. For Jim Wacker, he knew he had a stacked deck, and he played it well. His team went unchallenged for much of the season, but when adversity struck, the Bobcats responded.
There may be some debate as to who the greatest player in Texas State history is. Yes, you can argue for players like All-American C.J. Carroll or Houston transfer Barrick Nealy. Claude Mathis was a two-time All-American running back for the Bobcats. Glen Mangold made All-Southland three times at three different positions. Bob Daigle was All-Conference three years in a row at center in the early 70s. Ricky Sanders went onto to great NFL fame and two Super Bowl Trophies. For our money, Mike Miller stands apart.
Miller ran Jim Wacker's veer offense to near perfection. When asked to throw, Miller holds the three highest yards per completion seasons in Bobcat history including his best in '81 with over 18 yards per completion. He still holds the top two Bobcat records for yards per attempt as well. His 1981 season sits fourth all-time in touchdowns responsible for with 25. He's third in most rushing touchdowns all-time, fourth in passing yards, third in career touchdowns. For four straight years, he led the Bobcats in total offense. He did all that playing in a different era, in an antiquated, run-first system. And Miller won. Not just a national title in '81, but he is the winningest quarterback in Bobcat history. Jim Wacker made no bones about the expectations on Mike Miller, and Miller surpassed them.
The rest of the 1981 Bobcats weren't too shabby either. Seven of the defenses eleven starters made first-team All-Lone Star. The Bobcat defense gave up 9.1 points a game still a school record and pitched four shutouts.
Four offensive starters made the All-League team. The Bobcat offense still ranks first in school history scoring 37 points a game and rushing for 3,205 yards. Miller, Bobby Watkins, Cyril Friday and Donnie Williams all made All-America in 1981.
For Wacker his mind turned to two things, could SWT repeat and could they finally beat A&I?