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It was argued that this parity made a parody of the bowl games. Who, after all, were these guys, and what were they doing playing for prizes and trophies? Ten of the 18 bowl games featured teams that had lost at least four games. One team, Houston, lucked into a major (the Cotton) by playing in a conference (the Southwest) that took equality to the extreme. Champion Houston beat Texas and SMU all right but lost to Arkansas and TCU—and to 2-9 Louisville in a nonconference game. At home. Two bowls had to sell five-time losers, the Holiday (Michigan) and the inaugural Cherry (Michigan State).
It wasn't always easy. The Cotton Bowl failed to sell out despite having Heisman-winner Flutie, and the Orange Bowl had its second-smallest crowd in 38 years. The flip side was that several freshly minted teams, buoyed by parity, turned out to be much in demand. The Holiday Bowl was jammed, and the Gator Bowl, where South Carolina came with the first team in its history to have won more than eight games, had a record 82,138 in attendance. Oklahoma State, triumphant in the Gator by 21-14, had never played before such a crowd and, for the first time in its 83 years of football, wound up with 10 wins in a season.
Boston College earned its first bowl victory in 44 years when Flutie led the Eagles to a 45-28 defeat of Houston in the freezing rain in Dallas. Army and Virginia played in their first bowls ever, and both won—Army over Michigan State in the Cherry, Virginia over Purdue in the Peach. Bowl favorites lived dangerously through the postseason. In 10 bowls, the underdogs beat the point spread, and eight won their games—Army, Washington, USC over Ohio State in the Rose, SMU over Notre Dame in the Aloha, Air Force over Virginia Tech in the Independence, Kentucky over Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame, West Virginia over TCU in the Blue bonnet and UCLA over Miami in the Fiesta. Such is the healthier side of college football's touch-and-go romance with the record-wrecker parity. From that perspective, only the diehards in Norman and Austin and Tuscaloosa could possibly argue that it has not done the whole of the game good when color can be seen in the cheeks of more members.
And what was the bottom line on the best of the passers when the last bowl was finally over? Well, you know about Bosco and that Flutie on an off day (13 of 37 for 180 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions) was still plenty good enough to beat Houston. Miami, behind Kosar's passing, scored 37 points against UCLA, but ever since Johnson began "simplifying" the Hurricane defense early in the season, almost every good-to-mediocre passer Miami faced wound up performing like Otto Graham. This time it was Steve Bono, who led UCLA to more points than it had scored in a game all year and a 39-37 win over the defending champion Hurricanes, who lost their third straight. In those three nightmarish trips through the twilight zone—vs. Maryland, Boston College and UCLA—Kosar quarterbacked his team to 122 points, an average of more than 40 a game, and lost each one by two. ("One thing you ought to be able to do when you learn how to pass," says Edwards, "is learn how to defend against it." Brigham Young defends against the pass very well. Miami has some catching up to do.)
Kentucky upset Wisconsin 20-19 when its quarterback, Bill Ransdell, rallied the Wildcats from a 16-7 halftime deficit. The passing of South Carolina's Mike Hold and Arkansas' Brad Taylor kept those two teams in games against superior opponents, Oklahoma State in the Gator Bowl and Auburn in the Liberty, respectively. At one point in the second half, Hold put Carolina ahead by covering 71 and 77 yards for touchdowns in a total of six plays and a minute and 36 seconds, which was all but six seconds of the time the Gamecocks had the ball in the third period. Quick strike capacity indeed. Like Nebraska and Florida, Oklahoma State is gifted in all phases of the game, and its quarterback, Rusty Hilger, happened to be a better midrange passer than Hold was a mad bomber. Also, Hilger's receivers didn't butcher as many balls. Auburn, of course, still wins with defense and Bo Jackson.
More relevant to the issue, perhaps, were the manifest inclinations of a growing number of teams that had shown only grudging interest in the forward pass but now seem to find it increasingly beguiling—not to say profitable. Nebraska's Craig Sundberg threw only 15 times against LSU in New Orleans, but three went for touchdowns, two in the last quarter. Texas, which has abandoned the wishbone, its own creation, actually passed for more yards than it ran for against Iowa in the inaugural Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, Calif., but for its trouble got an education from a quarterback who really knows how to throw. Chuck Long overwhelmed the Longhorns with 461 passing yards and more touchdowns (six) than any quarterback has ever thrown for in any bowl. The final score was 55-17, and afterward Iowa coach Hayden Fry suggested that Hawkeye fans write letters "in care of the football office" to persuade Long to come back next year. A redshirt junior, Long is eligible for the NFL draft.
Equally pertinent is how glaring the deficiency now seems when a team cannot pass. Neither USC nor Ohio State is really very good at it, and Oklahoma is a lost cause. Other lesser lights just don't try. As Florida State's Bowden says, "Passing is dynamite in your hands." And if you handle it poorly.... Wisconsin, with the chance to win, moved to Kentucky's nine late in their game and had an interception. Notre Dame mounted a late drive in its 27-20 loss to SMU in Honolulu, only to have Steve Beuerlein miss a wide-open Milt Jackson in the end zone on fourth down with 30 seconds to play. Kosar was sacked and fumbled away Miami's last gasping effort to overtake UCLA, but, of course, he was the Hurricanes' only hope.
The antithesis of the quick-strike passing attack is, of course, the wishbone. The wishbone is a ball-control, option-running offense that relegates passing to the back of the bus. So how do you figure Army, a team with limited talent, size and a dubious "football commitment," reverting to such a thing, and with such success in 1984? Well, the wishbone is not what people think it is—a ram-it-down-your-throat offense. It's a finesse game of blocking on the fly, requiring impeccable technique and precision, and it is based more on whom you don't block than whom you do. In other words, an offense made to order for a West Point cadet. The Corps is loaded with such discipline.
So how, in the end, to evaluate these radical shifts in the college game? After the rule changes in 1980 it took awhile for coaches to realize how much they could get away with. Offensive linemen now use their hands in a variety of Byzantine ways, some say to the point where a guard is not doing his job if he doesn't have a handful of jersey, and where tackles should get karate belts instead of letter sweaters. It is an exaggeration, but with a pair of high-powered binoculars any casual observer can pick up the use of hands (legally and otherwise) the way they have never been used before. Penalties for offensive holding and illegal use of the hands have been reduced from 15 yards to 10 and five, respectively, and blockers are allowed to move downfield before a screen pass if it is thrown behind the line of scrimmage.
Bowden says that, given those parameters and his own enviable feel for the intricacies of movement and patterns that go into the timing of a passing game, Schnellenberger "came the closest of any coach I have ever seen to perfecting the forward pass" in 1983. With Kosar, Schnellenberger had a quarterback smart enough to pick up the progression of options as they opened up downfield, and he actually timed Kosar's reads to fractions of a second so that the first receiver to appear in his sights (say a back curling out of the backfield) would be there at 2.2 to 2.4 seconds, another farther downfield (squaring out, say, in the intermediate range) at 2.8 to 3.0 seconds, and a third, or deep receiver, running a "fly" or a "post" at 3.0 seconds plus. It is impossible to double-cover three receivers traveling the same line of flight.