|To me is the second game that made College Football. As I mentioned, the first was the Notre Dame-Oklahoma game in 1957. This was National Television on NBC’s Game of the Week
It took college football 100 years to build up the sort of pressure that would cook a team alive. And the Texas’ Longhorns have to climb out of that double-boiler twice in less than four weeks to secure the 1969 season’s national championship. The Longhorns did it before an overflow crowd of 73,000 and millions of television viewers on New Year’s Day, putting down a pulsating Notre Dame challenge, 21-17, in what has to be the most magnificent game of the 34-year-old Cotton Bowl Classic.
In fact, if it didn’t replace Texas’ dramatic 15-14 victory over Arkansas on Dec. 6 as the all-time classic game of college football’s first 100 years, it is only because the stakes weren’t quite so high.
The immediate temptation would be to rank the Texas-Arkansas match as tops for the first 100 and start the second centennial running with this one.
Certainly the drama and intensity Thursday was a deadringer for the Dec. 6 match between No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Arkansas as Texas stormed from behind in the final period to crush the marvelous bid of a Notre Dame team making its first bowl appearance since the famed “Four Horsemen” led the Irish to victory in the Rose Bowl game exactly 45 years ago.
The three living members of the “Horsemen,” in fact, sat in a 50-yard line box Thursday to watch the superb challenge of their alma mater, led by a wisp of a quarterback about the size of the man who quarterbacked that 1925 Rose Bowl team, the late Harry Stuhldreyer.
Joe Theismann, a thin 170-pound junior from New Jersey, completed 17 of 27 passes for 231 yards, passed for two touchdowns and drove the Steer defense frantic much of the afternoon. Even as Arkansas junior Bill Montgomery had done at Fayetteville barely more than three weeks before.
And just like at Fayetteville, it was Texas’ senior clutch artist, Longview quarterback James Street, who stripped all real meaning from those rival heroics.
Street was the architect of all three masterpiece touchdown drives that forged this 20th consecutive Texas victory and the 500th in school history.
The drives covered 74, 77 and 78 yards. The first finally got Texas on the scoreboard in the first quarter when the 10-0 Notre Dame lead looked to be the makings of the season’s most colossal upset.
But it was the final two which rushed the Steers from behind both times in the final frenzied quarter and must forever stand alongside those dramatic fourth-quarter moments of the Arkansas game as cornerstones of this national championship year for Darrell Royal’s team.
And, irony of ironies, it was again a last-ditch interception by defensive back Tom Campbell which cemented the victory. Campbell’s sure hands clutched victory from the deep Cotton Bowl shadows as he stole a Theismann pass, perhaps the only poor one the Irish quarterback threw all afternoon, with just 29 ticks left on the scoreboard clock. Against Arkansas, Campbell had intercepted a Montgomery pass to kill a similar last-gasp effort by the Razorbacks with barely more than a minute to play.
Campbell’s interception finally drained the life from a fourth quarter that defies description.
There was just a minute and two seconds to play when Theismann, undaunted by the touchdown Billy Dale had just rammed across to put Texas ahead with 1:08 to play, went to work. He has been similarly undaunted early in the period when Ted Koy circled left end untouched from the Irish 4 to give Texas a 14-10 lead.
Texas had used a whopping eight minutes and 10 seconds of the clock to fashion that go-ahead score. But it had taken Theismann only 2:56 and eight plays to get it back on an 80-yard drive that see-sawed Notre Dame back out front, 17-14 (video).
Now, after Theismann had hit passes of 16 and 27 yards to move the Irish from their own 23 to the Texas 39, Notre Dame called its second straight time out to stop the clock with just 38 seconds left. And when tight end Dewey Poskon circled back between two Texas defenders to stand awaiting Theismann’s throw at the 18, there was no reason to believe the slight Irish magician wouldn’t fire the ball right to his chest. He had done it all day, scrambling unbelievably to elude the air-grabbing pass rush most of the time.
But the ball nose lifted a bit on Theismann in this final crucial throw. It rifled above Poskon’s leap by a scant few inches.
And there was Campbell, moving to the stray football like a Nike missile, to end the finest battle ever seen in the 34 years of this classic on the Cotton Bowl’s muddy, battered turf.
Notre Dame, a 7 1/2-point underdog despite a fine 8-1-1 regular-season record, had staked its hopes of stopping Texas’ vaunted Wishbone-T attack, the Southwest Conference’s most prolific in history, on the size of its four huge down linemen and the quickness of its 4-linebacker squad led by Bob Olson, a demon sophomore from Superior, Wis. There certainly was substance to those hopes. Notre Dame had yielded an average of only 85 yards per game during the regular season and had ranked as the nation’s fourth best defensive team overall.
And the theory and hope glowed brightly for more than a quarter. Olson, who was to make a runaway of the most valuable defensive performer, ranged as swiftly and deadly as had Arkansas’ linebacker Cliff Powell to slow the usually-overwhelming power of Texas’ full-house backfield of Street, halfbacks Ted Koy and Jim Bertelsen and fullback Steve Worster. Olson and All-America tackle Mike McCoy paced the execution which shut down Texas’ inside yardage well in the early going. The Steers managed only two first downs their first three possessions.
But Street directed the attack outside on the terrifying options and pitches to Bertelsen to open things up, especially at the vulnerable Irish left flank. And it worked to perfection. Despite the slow start, Texas rushed for a gaudy 331 yards, 155 of them by Worster, who polled 59 votes as the game’s outstanding offensive hand compared to 32 for Street and 15 for Theismann.
Certainly it was one of the greatest afternoons for Worster, the 208-pound junior from Bridge City. He slashed inside the Notre Dame ends time and again as Street’s fakes of the pitchout found consistent cracks of daylight just inside the flanks.
Yet it was some of Street’s finest passing of two solid seasons at the Steer helm, and his continued sleight of hand with the football, which played as great a role in this classic victory for Texas.
Street completed 6 of 11 passes for 107 yards. And two of them, perfect strikes for 17 yards each on which Cotton Speyrer and Randy Peschel made perfect catches, igniting Texas’ first touchdown thrust, which came with 11:12 left in the second period. Peschel, who made the game-saving fourth down catch which played a leading role in the win over Arkansas, grabbed his at the Irish 27. Bertelsen then made it three straight 17 yard gainers as Koy cleared him with the type of blocking Texas’ amazing running backs were throwing for each other all day. Bertelsen got the TD from the 1.
It was an incredible fake to Bertelsen ripping up the middle to be hit by at least 5 defenders which allowed Koy to escape untouched around left end from the 4 for the score that put Texas ahead, 14-10, early in the final period.
But the final and what proved the winning touchdown drive must be ranked as a classic of classics. The Steers had just six minutes, 47 seconds to pull it off. Enough time, of course, if they didn’t lose their cool.
The Longhorns didn’t. They drilled the 76 yards yards on 17 plays and left the bare minutes of course for the Irish to make a last stab. And again, it was a tremendous clutch play which saved it. One fourth-and-2 from the Irish 10, Street had to hurry a throw under much duress. The ball was a little short for Speyrer, but the junior gamebreaker of so many an Orange afternoon twisted away from his shadowing defender, Clarence Ellis, to somehow dive under the ball before it hit the ground for a first down at the 2. Dale got the touchdown three plays later (video).
Theismann, who set both Cotton Bowl game passing and total offense records, guided the Irish 72 yards the first time they owned the ball but had to settle for Scott Hempel’s 26-yard field goal. Then he ran the count to 10-0 on the first Irish play of the second period, arching a perfect strike to split end Tom Gatewood, who had raced well behind Texas defensive back Danny Lester.
But Lester saved face greatly with a diving interception from the hands of fullback Andy Huff at the Texas 13 to kill a spirited Irish drive last in the second quarter.
The 25 first downs each team forged were Cotton Bowl records. Texas out-totaled Notre Dame only 18 yards on offense. And even the controversial plays were about even. Notre Dame growled quite a bit about field judge Theron Thomsen’s ruling that Texas had called time out before the ball was snapped on a play which ended up with the Irish recovering a Street fumble just before the first half ended.
But Steer loyalists growled as loudly when Thomsen ruled Bertelsen and Dale were a bit short on three straight near-misses for a first down at the Notre Dame 6-yard line midway in the second quarter.
So Texas pulled it out, and presented the game ball to Freddie Steinmark, the Steer safety who lost a leg to cancer a week after the Arkansas game and who watched it all on crutches on the sidelines.
Former president Lyndon Johnson was in the stands and visited both dressing rooms after the game. Richard Nixon was in the stands this time, as he was at the Texas-Arkansas game, after which he personally proclaimed Texas No. 1, touching off secession proceedings in Pennsylvania.
The President did telephone Royal in the Steer dressing room. But this time he kept his neck snugly at his shoulders. Penn State hadn’t yet gone to bat against Missouri in the Orange Bowl.
And besides, a man doesn’t get to be president without enough smart to know the risks of a foot twice exposed to a hasty mouth.