A walk-on walked off with the Cotton Bowl.

Safety Wes Hopkins, who arrived at Southern Methodist University without a football scholarship four years ago, recovered a fumble on his two-yard line in the first half and assisted in a game-saving end zone interception in the second to help lead SMU past Pittsburgh today, 7-3.

Mustang quarterback Lance McIlhenny scored the only touchdown at 13:43 of the fourth quarter on a nine-yard option run. The drive included passes of 20 and 42 yards to Bobby Leach.

After the touchdown, quarterback Dan Marino led the Panthers downfield with passes to Dwight Collins, Bryan Thomas and Keith Williams.

On third down and goal from the seven, Marino dropped back to pass and looked for Collins on the right side of the end zone.

Collins ran a ragged pattern and Hopkins had him well-covered, but Marino, who often relies on his extraordinary arm, threw to him, anyway.

"It's strange what happened," said Hopkins. "The ball went through my hands and hit me in the face mask. When I looked down I saw Blane catch it." Free safety Blane Smith's interception, with 8:15 left, was Pitt's last good chance.

Marino did try one more time. With 2:16 left, fourth and seven on the SMU 37, Marino found Collins open in the left flat, but Collins' diving attempt to catch the ball earned him little more than a handful of rain.

The wet weather didn't help Pitt's passing game. Marino, who finished with 19 completions and one interception in 37 attempts for 181 yards, saw pass after pass go through the hands of his receivers.

"We just didn't catch 'em," said Pitt Coach Foge Fazio.

After the game, with his left shoulder packed in ice, Marino was asked if the missed passes frustrated him.

Marino frowned deeply.

"Read the face," said a Pitt supporter.

"Just don't write the face," said Marino, who also faced a heavy pass rush all afternoon.

"I don't know what it was," said Collins of the team's dropped passes. "One time I had one and the next thing I knew, it was gone."

The rain discouraged fans as well as receivers--11,118 ticket-buyers stayed away from the Cotton Bowl, which was attended by 60,359.

The Mustangs remain unbeaten, with an 11-0-1 record; the Panthers dropped to 9-3. After the game, SMU Coach Bobby Collins said, "As far as I'm concerned this is the No. 1 team in the nation . . . How else can you judge a team than from what they do? They did everything they had to do."

Was the victory enough to challenge the Sugar Bowl winner for the national title?

"Considering who we were playing and the conditions out there, there's no doubt about it," said Collins.

The only blemish on SMU's record was a 17-17 tie with Arkansas.

McIlhenny was named offensive MVP and Hopkins won the defensive award. SMU's tailbacks, Eric Dickerson, with 124 yards on 27 carries, and Craig James, with 54 yards in 14 carries, kept Pitt's defense moving.

Pitt's field goal, a 43-yarder by Eric Schubert, came at the end of a 36-yard drive with 4:38 left in the third quarter.

SMU responded with its 80-yard touchdown drive.

The first half ended in a scoreless tie. Both teams had excellent scoring opportunities on their opening drives, and both teams lost them with fumbles.

Starting from their 28 after the opening kickoff, the Panthers tried to supplement their running game with short passes. Marino's first throw of the game--a quick slant pattern to flanker Barry Compton for a 13-yard gain--was typical of this year's Pitt offense.

The drive came to an apparent halt at the SMU 39. But with Tony Recchia back to punt, the snap went instead to the short man, Rick Dukovich, who ran for 12 yards and a first down at the SMU 27 at 10:32 of the first quarter.

On the next play, Marino threw a swing pass to Joe McCall coming out of the backfield. McCall broke four tackles for a 26-yard gain. But on the next play, McCall was hit by the inside of the SMU front line on a dive play and fumbled.

Hopkins recovered for SMU on the two.

"The ball was sitting there on the ground," said Hopkins. "I don't think anyone else even saw it."

From the start, SMU made no secret of its offensive strategy. Dickerson ran five straight times to bring the ball to the Pitt 21.

Then a series of Pitt penalties--personal fouls against Al Wenglikowski and Ray Weatherspoon, face-masking against Michael Brooks and an offside call--helped SMU advance. The penalties helped nullify a 23-yard loss on McIlhenny's botched pitchout to Dickerson.

Two short runs by Dickerson put SMU at Pitt's seven with 57 seconds in the first quarter. But on second and goal, McIlhenny fumbled when cornerback Tim Lewis hit him before he could pitch the ball to Dickerson. J.C. Pelusi recovered for Pitt and after 9 minutes 35 seconds, 22 plays and five first downs, SMU, too, came up with nothing.

The rest of the first quarter and the entire second quarter was a series of short, frustrated drives. SMU, led by defensive end Anthony Beverley, put strong pressure on Marino, often forcing him to scramble, which Marino usually avoids. Three fumbles and penalties, seven of them for 69 yards, also stifled Pitt's offense.

Pitt's last drive of the half, sustained by medium-range passes from Marino to McCall and Compton, was promising, but the drive ended at 0:54 with Schuber's 26-yard field goal attempt. The kick was wide to the left.[TABLE OMITTED]