01/07/2012 12:49 PM
SMU And Pitt Collide In BBVA Compass Bowl
Once upon a time in college football history (and within memory for many), a bowl matchup between SMU and Pittsburgh stopped everyone in their tracks. More on that in a moment.
Their next meeting on Saturday isn’t likely to generate nearly as much attention, but the contest will at least remind supporters both ways of better times and the hope that someday the Mustangs and Panthers might return to the nation’s elite.
The schedule tells us that SMU (7-5 straight up, 4-8 against the spread) will be facing Pittsburgh (6-6 SU, 7-5 ATS) at Birmingham’s venerable Legion Field on Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl. A check of the Don Best odds pages notes that the Big East Panthers are priced anywhere from 3-3½ point favorites at most Las Vegas wagering outlets, with the total mostly at 47 (though a stray 47½ or 48 could still be found at midweek).
Kickoff on Saturday will be at 1:00 p.m. (ET), before NFL playoff action commences later in the day. ESPN will provide TV coverage.
Mention of SMU and Pitt in the same breath will forever recall the memorable 1982 season, and the January 1, 1983 Cotton Bowl in particular. Those were the "Pony Express" Mustangs of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, and the Panthers of Dan Marino.
Both hovered near the top of the polls all season, and for one week in early November actually ran 1-2 in the rankings before Pitt was stunned by Notre Dame, 31-16, in what might have been Gerry Faust’s finest hour as Irish coach. SMU stayed unbeaten and was then jockeying with Herschel Walker’s Georgia for the top spot in the polls before a regular-season ending 17-17 draw vs. Lou Holtz’ Arkansas Razorbacks at Texas Stadium, the home base of the Ponies in those days. That hurt national championship hopes but SMU had still done enough to win the old Southwest Conference and a New Year’s Day berth in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl.
Meanwhile, Pitt, which relinquished serious national title hopes after the loss to Notre Dame, also dropped its finale vs. Penn State, but was still regarded as a desirable bowl entry because of Marino. The Panthers, sixth in the final regular-season polls, would tackle fourth-ranked SMU in the Cotton Bowl.
In retrospect, that 1983 Cotton Bowl was a showcase for two of the biggest college stars of the generation, Dickerson and Marino, each of whom would go on to record-setting NFL careers and become featured components of the fabled '83 NFL Draft. Marino’s senior year had been something of a disappointment, caused, some believed, by the coaching switch prior to that ‘82 season in which Jackie Sherrill jumped from Pitt to Texas A&M.
Foge Fazio, promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach, provided uninspired leadership for the Panthers, immediately reflected in the downturn in Marino’s stats and ultimately causing his NFL Draft stock to plummet to the bottom of a star-filled and QB-heavy first round. That's where Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins selected Marino, and you know the rest of that story.
As for Fazio, he oversaw a decline in Panther fortunes until his dismissal after the 1986 campaign. SMU also had a first-year coach in 1982, Bobby Collins, brought in from Southern Miss to replace Ron Meyer, who moved to the NFL New England Patriots.
The bowl meeting between the schools which promised so much offense instead evolved into a defensive war. Both sides reached deep into the other’s territory in their first drives, only to be sidetracked by fumbles, Pitt’s caused by hard-hitting SMU safety Wes Hopkins, another from that Cotton Bowl who would go on to a long and decorated NFL career.
Pitt, which confused the Ponies early with then-radical four wideout looks that day in Dallas, was eventually stymied. Meanwhile, the robust Panther "D" was keeping the Pony Express in relative check, as the reconfigured Mustang alignments with both Dickerson and James in the backfield at once (rather than rotating as usual) netted only modest results.
The Panthers did not get onto the board until a third quarter drive netted Eric Schubert’s 43-yard field goal to putt Pitt up 3-0. SMU answered, however, with QB Lance McIlhenny piloting an 80-yard drive that spanned into the fourth quarter. A key 42-yard pass to WR Bobby Leach moved the ball to the Pitt 20. Three plays later, McIlhenny ran a basic option, first faking a handoff to Dickerson on the dive, then faking a pitch to James before keeping the ball himself for a 9-yard TD run with 13:43 to play.
That was it for the scoring on the day, although the Ponies still needed to pick off Marino in the SMU end zone deep in the fourth quarter on a pass deflected by that man Hopkins into the hands of safety Blane Smith. The 7-3 scoreline in favor of SMU stood until the final gun. Stat-wise, Dickerson rushed for 124 yards and James 54 more, while Marino posted decidedly modest stats (19-of -37, 181 yards).
Yet memories of that game are a bit bittersweet for both sides, as neither has hinted at national honors since. SMU, of course, endured the unthinkable death penalty four years later. Perhaps Saturday’s BBVA Compass Bowl will provide the impetus for both programs to eventually recall those past glories.
In the meantime, this year’s meeting has its own intriguing storylines, though they have little to do with action on the field. In the Panthers’ case, coach Todd Graham abruptly resigned during preparation for the bowl, taking the Arizona State job and leaving Pitt to be coached on an interim basis by defensive coordinator Keith Patterson for the bowl game. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has been enlisted as the Panthers’ new coach for 2012.
If the scenario sounds a bit familiar at Pitt, it should, because the Panthers were in a similar predicament last year at this very bowl game in Birmingham. Twelve months ago, the Panthers had just fired coach Dave Wannstedt, then dismissed successor Mike Haywood due to domestic violence charges before the bowl game vs. Kentucky. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who ironically had earlier been SMU’s head coach, then stewarded Pitt to a 27-10 win over the Wildcats. So it’s a little deja vu for Pitt in Birmingham.
As for the Mustangs, they’ve had an interesting six weeks since their regular season concluded, too, as coach June Jones seemed set to take the Arizona State job before boosters in Tempe nixed the deal. And, as mentioned, it was Pitt’s Graham who eventually took the Sun Devils’ post.
Though SMU’s 7-5 straight-up record is better than Pitt’s 6-6, the Mustangs were not playing better than the Panthers down the stretch. Indeed, SMU dropped its last six pointspread decisions as the Jones’ Red Gun offense began to stall behind increasingly erratic performances from QB T.J. McDermott, who tossed 11 picks and just six TD passes in the second half of the campaign. The Ponies also weren’t helped when leading rusher Zach Line, who gained 1224 yards rushing, went down with a November knee injury and will miss the bowl game.
Even with Line, the Ponies’ rush game was one of the worst in the country, and ranks a lowly 118th. Moreover, SMU was very mistake-prone, with a nation’s-worst -17 turnover margin.
Meanwhile, Pitt enters Birmingham having covered five in a row and narrowly missing out on an unlikely BCS bid had the Panthers not blown a late lead in the Backyard Brawl at West Virginia on November 25. Graham’s offense, however, looked nothing like the attack he presided over in his previous stop Tulsa, perhaps because offensive coordinator Chad Morris didn’t accompany Graham to Pitt (Morris moved to a similar role at Clemson).
Panther QBs were sacked a nation’s-high 55 times this season, and QB Tino Sunseri’s numbers were not as good as they were a year ago. Moreover, top rusher Ray Graham went down at midseason with a knee injury, though Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown ran with some flair before he, too, was injured in the Syracuse finale. Sources say Brown’s bruised sternum healed enough for him to play vs. SMU.
Defensively, sources believe Pitt might have an advantage with the nation’s fourth-ranked sack defense led by DE Aaron Donald and OLB Brandon Lindsey, who combined for 18½ sacks between them.
Still, who knows what might transpire in Birmingham? We might see another 7-3 scoreline, just like we witnessed 29 years ago when these sides last met in Dallas.
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