For those who haven't checked an atlas lately—and especially for those folks in Lincoln, Neb.—American Samoa is a tiny speck in the South Pacific, closer to Australia than to the U.S. and a 5,000-mile swim from Pullman, Wash., where Jack Thompson has wound up playing football for the Washington State Cougars. Thompson was born in Samoa 21 years ago in the town of Tutuila, the grandson of an Englishman and a lady of the island. His first name is actually Siaki, and he is the first quarterback that Tutuila has ever produced.
Keep these facts in mind because they are likely to become topics of nationwide concern. Thompson, you see, throws the football very, very well. And last Saturday he opened his assault on the Heisman Trophy by completing 18 of 30 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns as the otherwise unheralded Cougars hung a 19-10 upset on 15th-ranked Nebraska.
A handsome and dark-complexioned flinger in the mold of Sonny Sixkiller and Jim Plunkett, Thompson appears ready-made for stardom. He already has a catchy nickname, the "Throwin' Samoan"—surprise!—and he is only a junior. Thompson did not become Washington State's No. 1 quarterback until the fourth game of the 1976 season, yet he ended up completing 208 of 355 passes for a whopping 2,762 yards and 20 TDs. He threw only 14 interceptions and wiped three of Plunkett's Pac-8 records off the books. If Thompson seems an amalgam of all that is good in a quarterback, as those who have seen him say, it is apparently no accident of nature.
"I guess I've borrowed the best elements of many quarterbacks," he says. " Ken Anderson is called a machine because he is so accurate. Bert Jones is not afraid to run with the ball. Terry Bradshaw can really zing it. Joe Namath has the quick release. I also try to emulate Roger Staubach's leadership on the field, but I don't have his quick feet."
If that is Thompson's Achilles' heel, Nebraska certainly did not take advantage of it. That the Cornhuskers were 17-point favorites at game time was largely a reflection of the reputations of the two teams and the fact that the game was being played in Lincoln. Washington State, though only 3-8 last season, sent 19 returning starters onto the field from a team that averaged nearly 24 points a game in '76. And, in the case of last Saturday's game, the home-field edge may even have been negated by the presence of so many Nebraska people along both sidelines.
Washington State's new head coach is Warren Powers, a Cornhusker alumnus who was an assistant to Nebraska's Tom Osborne last year. As often happens in these situations, nine of Powers' assistants also turned out to be Nebraska people, having either coached or played in Lincoln. They included Rich Glover, a 1971-72 All-America, and Terry Luck, a former team captain.
Having coached the Big Red's secondary, Powers was in a unique position to help Thompson exploit it. Powers had preached the blessings of zone coverage, but his successor, Lance Van Zandt, changed the strategy overnight. Van Zandt maintained that Cornhusker defensive backs weren't doing enough to help stop the run, and he instituted man-to-man coverage. That approach may work in the Big Eight, where they think a forward pass is just a migrating duck flying overhead. Against Thompson and Washington State, it seemed like poor judgment.
After a scoreless first quarter, Thompson found Flanker Brian Kelly covered by a lone Nebraska cornerback, Ted Harvey, and hit him with a 19-yard touchdown pass. Nebraska came back to tie the game at 7-7 on a 20-yard gallop by Rick Berns. But in the third quarter Kelly, one of four WSU receivers who caught at least 40 passes last fall, got loose from Harvey again. Thompson put the ball in his hands for a 20-yard TD and a 14-7 lead. The Cornhuskers continued to move the ball, ending up with 470 yards to WSU's 294, but a case of the dropsies did them in.
Nebraska had taken the game's opening kickoff and marched 80 yards to the Cougar five. But in what was to become a pattern, I-Back Isaiah M. Hipp, who expects such great things from himself that he now prefers to be called I. M. Hipp, fumbled and Washington State recovered. Another possible Cornhusker touchdown was lost when Quarterback Randy Garcia coughed up the ball just two yards from the goal line. And later, at the other end of the field, Garcia was caught in his end zone for a safety. These frantic events, plus a field goal on each side, closed out the scoring.
It had been a weekend of ambivalent feelings on both sides, and when Nebraska Athletic Director Bob Devaney went to the Washington State locker room after the game it was to offer heartfelt congratulations to a lot of old friends. But before he could get through the exultant mob to the winning coach, the Throwin' Samoan intercepted him. "Thank you for Warren Powers," Thompson said. "Everyone in this room would go to war for him. He never lies and he has us believing in ourselves."