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Yes, it was a small-college football game but, no, it was not a small-college crowd. In fact, everything that San Diego State does in football is big-time nowadays, and to the people of San Diego last Friday night it might as well have been Michigan State against Notre Dame. San Diego State, the defending champion of small-college football, was playing Tennessee State, No. 2 last year, and 45,296 turned out in San Diego's magnificent new stadium to watch the Aztecs win their 17th consecutive game, 16-8, and start moving toward their second national championship in a row.
In defeating Tennessee State, San Diego beat a team that was not only bigger and faster, but one that outnumbered it in pro prospects by about 10 to 5—a statistic unobtainable on the program but readily available from the 17 pro scouts who had a large interest in this small-college contest. The reason the Aztecs were able to win might well have been, as one San Diego coach put it, "We couldn't afford to lose," a statement that could be taken literally.
Overlooking the Mission Valley just east of the city, the San Diego State campus has begun to resemble a factory, which, in a way, is consistent with Coach Don Coryell's football teams—precisioned and indestructible, like Ford or General Motors. In his six full seasons Coryell has won 49 games, lost 10 and tied one at San Diego, and he has also won all the college football fans who are far enough south of Los Angeles not to care whether Gary Beban plays for UCLA or USC.
With his horizons ever expanding, and his stadium already expanded, Coryell foresees offering the $50,000 guarantees needed to lure North Carolina and Maryland—and then the Big Ten teams—into San Diego to play his Aztecs. "We've reached a critical point in our growth," Coryell says. "We've got to move now, while we're in the national spotlight. But it's going to take time. And to stay in the national spotlight the very thing we must not do is lose football games."
So it is small wonder that on many a summer night Coryell found himself chilled as he envisioned Eldridge Dickey, Tennessee State's heavenly quarterback whose nickname is The Lord's Prayer, running into the Aztec end zone with the football or throwing it to somebody who was already there. Dickey was the leader of an offense that once scored 83 points on a 1966 opponent and seemed strong enough to do it again.
Coryell, meanwhile, had no proven quarterback. Don Horn, a Little All-America who passed for 2,234 yards and 18 touchdowns in 1966, had been the first choice of the Green Bay Packers. In his place Coryell was trying out three rookies, none of whom ran or threw spectacularly well.
Some 1,700 miles away, on a hard, dusty field behind a machine shed on the northwest side of Nashville, Tennessee State had prepared for the biggest game in its history in slightly different fashion. Head Coach John Merritt, who favors softly iridescent suits of gray and brown and drives a 1966 autumn-rust Cadillac, rarely had attended practice. He feels he does not have to. His Tigers, as always, were as loose as the cattle that graze in an adjacent meadow. Their workouts were simple, revolving around the long, quivering passes that Dickey delivered into the hands of receivers 60 yards downfield. Dickey, a handsome young man blessed with a Johnny Unitas arm and Gale Sayers speed, would like to become the first successful Negro quarterback in U.S. professional football—and he may. That is what Merritt has been grooming him for all along. While winning 44 of 50 games at Tennessee State, Merritt has sent 27 players into professional football, but none, he says, has had the potential of Dickey.
As the San Diego game began, Dickey showed he was everything Merritt had hoped and Coryell had feared. He repeatedly moved the Tigers into Aztec territory. However, all he succeeded in doing was to show the San Diego defense that it had hope—for in minute after minute of futility the Tigers never scored.
The first time they had the ball Dickey hit John Robinson on the Aztec 10—but Robinson caught the pass out of bounds. Moments later, following an interception, Dickey fumbled a snap from center on the six, and San Diego State recovered. A few plays later Dickey was back again, hitting Robinson on the Aztec three, but a holding infraction stopped the Tigers.
On the third play of the quarter Dickey finally scored for the Tigers with a touchdown pass to Joe Cooper, but by now San Diego State had swung the momentum in its favor. An Aztec field goal made the score 6-3, and then came the two breaks that decided the game. With third and eight on his 42, Dickey slipped away from a hard rush and delivered a perfect pass into the hands of Halfback Leroy Motton, only to have Motton drop the ball, though there was nobody within 15 yards of him. Moments later, with three minutes left in the half, the Aztecs were forced to punt from their end zone. John Beck lifted a high spiral out to the Aztec 40, and Motton, racing with his back to the ball, tried to make an over-the-shoulder catch. The ball caromed off his shoulder pads and bounded back to the Tennessee 41, where San Diego State recovered. From there Joe Turpen—the third of Coryell's quarterbacks—retreated to pass. He drew his arm back so far it almost brushed the grass behind him and threw to End Tom Nettles, who was scrambling between two defenders. Nettles caught the ball and leaped over both men into the end zone with the touchdown that may well earn the Aztecs their second straight small-college championship.