On January 2, 1984, Rob Moerschell buckled his chin strap, ready to take the Cotton Bowl field and lead the #2 ranked Texas Longhorns when his head coach tapped him on the shoulder. Fred Akers wasn't giving Moerschell last second instruction, or a play; he was telling his quarterback that he wasn't going to start against seventh ranked Georgia. That designation belonged to Rick McIvor, a senior who would be making his first start in two plus seasons.
Such was the way Akers started the most important game of the Longhorn season. For the record, McIvor found out he was starting as he walked down the Cotton Bowl tunnel to run onto the field. The last second quarterback change didn't dim the Longhorn's chances. Initially, Akers looked like a genius as McIvor led the Horns to a field goal on their first drive. A three point lead for Texas looked like any other three point lead on the scoreboard, but for the 1983 Longhorns, a three point lead was different. Akers could now deploy Texas' vaunted defense.
The 1983 Texas defense is the stuff of legend. They were an eleven man anaconda, containing, controlling, and ultimately strangling their opponent. A massive front four was backed up by three ball hawking, physical linebackers. Four future NFL defensive backs patrolled the backend when they weren't covering; they were attacking ball carriers at the line of scrimmage. Texas defense allowed 9 points a game. More than that, they broke the will of the offense. Running at them was folly. Running around them gave them a chance to stretch their legs. Throwing meant that your quarterback wore a sizeable bullseye. If he was fortunate enough to get his pass off, the Longhorn secondary waited for it.
In 1983, Texas defense held Bo Jackson to 35 yards, ended Marcus Dupree's college career and had more interceptions (13) than touchdowns surrendered (10). If Texas could secure a lead in 1983, it was check mate. You can read more about Texas' impressive defense here.
Texas led the Bulldogs 9-3 as the clock wound down in the fourth quarter. With four minutes and thirty-two second, the game changed. So did the fate of the 1983 Texas Longhorns - on of the most dominant teams in the country. The fortunes of an upstart Miami program changed to a large part because of those final four minutes and thirty-two seconds. Fred Akers' career materially changed in four minutes and thirty-two seconds. Fate crowned a hero and a goat in the final four minutes and thirty-two seconds of the 1984 Cotton Bowl. A four play sequence cost Texas a National Title.
January 2, 1984
The college football season traditionally ended on New Year's Day. It was a sacred day. From the Cotton Bowl to the Orange Bowl, the collegiate football's grandest day and grandest stages were all contested on one day. A National Champion, or two, would typically be crowned via the various polls the next day. When New Year's Day fell on a Sunday, College Football, as it does today, would yield to the professionals and delay proceedings one day to the 2nd. Such was the case in 1984.
In the history of college football, January 2, 1984, was special. Texas and Georgia engaged in an instant classic. In a seismic shift, the top ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers would lose to Miami later than evening as the Huskers failed to execute a two-point play that would have given Nebraska an outright title. We now know that a tie probably would have given Tom Osborne his elusive first title. Instead, losses by the top two ranked teams, cleared a path for the arrival of the "U."
As Texas tried to recover from the devastation of their only loss of the season, their pain was no doubt multiplied as they watched the only team ranked ahead of them stumble. As Nebraska walked off the Orange Bowl Stadium grass, across the field, Howard Schnellenberger was lighting his pipe and watching the Hurricane dynasty launch.
While the two main events were classics, the rest of the slate that day didn't disappoint. Ohio State used a last minute touchdown to edge Pitt 28-23 in the Fiesta Bowl. In the Sugar Bowl, SEC champion Auburn with Bo Jackson held on to a 9-7 win over Michigan.
And yet as midnight drew near, the final four minutes and thirty-two seconds of the 48th Cotton Bowl signaled the first shot of the chaos to come and helped launch modern football. Without those four minutes, Texas wins a national title. At the very least delays the Miami dynasty. A national title once again comes to Austin. Perhaps the burgeoning A&M juggernaut hits a burnt orange wall. And Fred Akers is thought of much differently.
Darrell Royal was prepared to turn in the keys to the kingdom. By 1977 he was sick and tired of dealing with Oklahoma and the Aggies and to some degree the University of Texas. He was prepared to hand the keys to his lieutenant Mike Campbell. The powers that be chose Fred Akers to take over the Longhorn empire. Akers assisted at Texas and ran the program at Wyoming.
Royal loyalists never fully bought into Akers, even after the Longhorns won eleven straight in Akers first season. The Horns ranked first in the country since late October but were denied a national title after a blowout loss to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. '77 was a microcosm of Akers' Texas career, he won, just not the big one. In Austin that proved fatal. Akers '81 team rose to number one in the country having dispatched with Miami, and Barry Switzer's Sooners before a road trip to Arkansas derailed their season. Twice in his first five years, the Longhorns would lose that one, critical game. The one that his detractors swore up and down Royal wouldn't have lost. Akers couldn't win the one game deaden the criticism.
In spite of winning 73% of his games at Texas, Akers lost seven of his nine bowl appearances. On January 2, 1984, the Longhorns were four minutes and thirty-two seconds from curing all those heart brakes. Once again Royal couldn't win the big one.
By the mid 80's the kingdom was crumbling. Rivals from College Station were closing the gap in the Southwest Conference and Barry Switzer was using Texas kids to win national titles. "Fire Fred" bumper stickers started appearing in Austin and around the state. Worse, "Keep Fred" bumper stickers decorated cars from College Station to Norman.
To Fake or Not to Fake
As had been the case almost all afternoon, the dominant Texas defense shut down the Georgia offense, forcing them into a fourth and long. On fourth and seventeen with under five minutes to play and Texas leading 9 to 3. The two competing sidelines had two very different ideas of what was coming next. Akers and his staff feared a fake and kept ten of their eleven defenders on the field, only substituting Jitter Fields, Texas' return man. It was a personnel package known as "unsure return." Texas deployed it only when they were unsure whether a fake was coming. Jerry Gray exited the game, and only Fields came on.
Across the field, Vince Dooley didn't give the fake a second thought. He was playing for field position. An unsuccessful fake would pin the Dawgs defense and give Texas a chance to make the game a two score contest. Georgia's chances of scoring twice on the Longhorns were slim and none, as were Georgia's chances of moving the length of the field against the vaunted Texas defense. Dooley called a punt to pin Texas deep and hope his talented defense could get one more stop to give his struggling offense one more chance.
The winds in the Cotton Bowl, even before the expansion of the late 90's, tended to swirl. On a cold day like January 2, 1984, the winds could knock down a punt, cause it to dive. Craig Curry was Texas' strong safety. A talented defensive back, Curry had not returned a punt during his Texas career. Akers inserted Fields for that purpose.
Chip Andrews punt dipped well short of Fields, and up-back Curry circled underneath it. "I don't know what happened to me. We were expecting a fake and had no idea it would be short. I just don't know why I did it," Curry would later say. Fields stated that in most "unsure return" scenarios the Longhorns wouldn't even attempt a return. As the ball knuckled down toward Curry, well short of Fields, it hit off Curry's shoulder pads and passed him. Fields tried to recover the live ball only having it skip underneath him on the Cotton Bowl turf. After a mad scramble, Georgia's Gary Moss came up with the ball at the Longhorn 23.
The Dawgs had new life, but scoring on the best defense in college football and perhaps the best of all time was not a given.
Can't Run and Can't Throw
Dooley knew that getting the ball back deep inside Texas territory didn't guarantee his team a win. Negotiating 23 yards against a Texas defense that featured eleven future NFL draft picks. Dooley didn't believe that his offense could muster enough of a push up front nor enough speed to move the ball on the ground.
Georgia's offense proved his point on first down when a Barry Young dive netted all of two yards. Future Lamar Head Coach Ray Woodard would make the play from his defensive tackle position. On second and eight the Bulldogs were able to confirm something they'd noticed on film and all game long. Lining up in the I-formation, the Bulldogs brought their flanker across the strength of the formation in motion. Texas sent a corner back all the way across with him in man coverage. Man coverage wasn't a weakness for the Texas defense. The Horns possessed two lockdown corners in Mossy Cade and Fred Acorn as well as Curry and Gray, two gazelles at safety. All four would play in the NFL. The glaring issue with the man adjustment was that it left Curry all alone, covering one side of the field. If Georgia could get outside, there was a chance, however slim, that the play could break.
Ron Jackson would take the second down carry and burst up the middle for four yards, setting up a third down and four.
Vince Dooley described his quarterback John Lastinger as being a player "who can't run and who can't throw very well." Other than that Lastinger was perfect for the position. Lastinger was also smart. He'd seen the Longhorns adjustment to motion and new that if he could get outside the tackle, he'd put Curry in a difficult position.
On third down the Dawgs lined up again with a flanker on the strong side and brought him in motion across the formation. On the day the Bulldogs were 1 of 13 on third downs. Texas prepared to hold them out twice, assuming Georgia was in four down territory. Sure enough, Cade followed the motion leaving Curry on an island. At the snap, the Texas linebackers, including All-American Jeff Leiding, were within four yards of the line of scrimmage and coming down hard on the fullback.
The Georgia tight end got just enough of a hook on Texas defensive end Eric Holle to create an edge. Georgia's right tackle got to the second level and made a nice shoe string tackle on Texas' SAM linebacker Mark Lang and created a pile of Longhorns trying to get outside. Lastinger turned the corner in a heartbeat, and there was the matchup the Bulldogs were looking for: Craig Curry defending two players. Curry, expecting help from Lang, Leiding and Gray neutralized the wide man to limit the big play. Instead Lastinger "broke it wide open" according to Dooley.
The quarterback who couldn't run and really couldn't pass made a play that guarantees him free lunches all over the state of Georgia and one that haunts Texas fans of a certain age. By the time Jerry Gray closed the distance, Lastinger dove across the pylon and into Georgia lore.
Kevin Butler's extra point gave Georgia a one point lead with three minutes and twenty-two seconds to play.
Texas still had a chance with the ball and over three minutes to play. Rich McIvor was 8 for 25 passing to that point with two interceptions. Georgia's defense smothered any hope of a miracle comeback. McIvor took two sacks and threw an incompletion forcing a three and out and a Texas punt. With one timeout left, the Bulldogs could play keep away. On fourth and one, from the Texas 36, Georgia salted the game away with a Barry Young plunge and a Texas team that minutes earlier looked primed to celebrate an undefeated season, now could only watch as Georgia took a knee to kill the clock.
The clock which was Texas' friend, now its sworn enemy. After the game, Craig Curry was understandably inconsolable. To his credit, wildman Jeff Leiding offered the proper levity in a horrible situation, "I feel like I have been out shooting birds all day without a miss and then at the very end I finally miss one, but it's over. We had a great season. We just came up on the short end this time. Such is life."
Such is life indeed.
So much changed in that final four minutes, not just globally, but individually.
Imagine working your way into a scholarship offer from the premier program in the state and one of the most prominent in the country. You are an elite athlete. You came to Texas to win championships. It's attainable at Texas. You work, sweat, bleed through offseason, spring ball, summer conditioning, fall camp, a regular season schedule where you come from behind six times, you are the number two team in all of College Football with less than five minutes to an unblemished record and a chance to win a national title. Then in less than the time, it takes you to listen to Total Eclipse of the Heart, it's all gone.
Craig Curry felt the effects most directly. In spite of a four year NFL career, the wounds linger. As the Horns prepared for the 2005 National Title game, Curry hoped a win would bring some measure of redemption, “I am hoping and praying that they win the national championship this year. Please, because I am just dying. I don’t even go to games at this point. I’m afraid that my presence will be like a taboo. Somebody will see me there and throw rocks or something like that.”
For Akers, he never got another chance to win the biggest prize in college football. In 1986, after his first losing season, the powers that be took their chance to get rid of him. There to watch him leave and hire his replacement was Darrell Royal.
A national title delivered on a silver platter thanks to events that would happen hours later in Miami. An outcome that caused ripples felt a decade later all across college football. All because of four minutes and thirty-two seconds.