Bo Jackson was everything you'd want from a Heisman Trophy winner today, leading the Auburn Tigers in rushing, receiving and scoring. Which is why, in a curious twist, Texas A&M won the Cotton Bowl, 36-16.
The best running back on the field couldn't beat the best team. He was outnumbered. Texas A&M's offensive balance and defensive grit overcame a one-man gang. Jackson was Auburn's lonesome big stick, a thoroughbred supported by plow horses.
The Aggies countered with volume, a multitude of lesser-known fly swatters. Auburn's sole rushing threat was Jackson, who gained 129 yards on 31 carries. The Aggies had four colts -- Anthony Toney, Roger Vick, Keith Woodside and Harry Johnson. They totaled 193 yards on 40 carries, with touchdowns on runs of 11, 21 and 22 yards.
Jackson was also Auburn's top receiver. He scored on a 73-yard screen pass (almost half of the Tigers' 154 total passing yards) that demonstrated why he's a one and only.
Here, too, he was outmanned. The Aggies came with receivers like tight end Rod Bernstine. He'd caught nine passes for 97 yards all year. Then up he pops to catch six for 108 yards. Sophomore Woodside and junior wide-out Shea Walker had totaled 12 for 236 until, today, Woodside caught three for 88 yards and Walker three for 40.
The Aggies also had a distinct man-on-man edge at quarterback. That was just as big a factor in winning the Cotton Bowl as was stopping Jackson three times short of first downs at the A&M 11, 6 and 27.
Pat Dye, Auburn's courtly coach, conceded the point. He tapped a sheet of statistics with his forefinger, drawing attention to Auburn's passing totals: seven completions in 17 passes, two interceptions and four sacks.
"Coach," he told himself, "that's the difference. We can't throw. It's been that way all year. And if you can't pass, you better have a helluva defense."
Auburn was simply one-dimensional. It was Jackson or bust. Senior quarterback Pat Washington was a 45.9 percentage passer coming in and looked worse. Other than slipping the screen to Jackson, he threw high and outside -- perhaps because of pressure or a thigh bruise, whatever caused Dye to play the second half with sophomore Jeff Burger, who was no improvement.
At quarterback lay A&M's pivotal edge, Kevin Murray. He completed 16 of 26 for 292 yards. Or was he simply the instrument of an aggressive game called by offensive coordinator Lynn Amedee?
The Aggies used every resource wisely and well. Vick on dive plays. Toney, Woodside and Johnson on pitchouts. Bernstine uncovering short to catch passes. A gorgeous slip-screen to Woodside in the flat for 38 yards on third and 20 in the fourth quarter.
That was the lock-up call. Texas A&M led, 21-16, with 3:24 left. Woodside carried to Auburn's four and later, from the nine, Murray passed to Woodside for a touchdown.
The Tigers, by comparison, didn't appear to settle into a comfortable offensive rhythm until the third quarter. They spent too many first-half possessions playing to their weakness -- Washington passing incomplete on first down.
The third quarter was Auburn at its best. Pitch left to Jackson. Pitch right to Bo. The Tigers ran 30 plays to A&M's nine during that period but wound up outscored, 6-3, and still behind, 21-16. Twice thereafter, the Aggies stopped Jackson with the outcome teetering: four times from their six without scoring; once for a loss on fourth down from their 27 in the fourth quarter.
The Aggies' defensive play reminded observers of a pregame remark by Aggies linebacker Larry Kelm. He had been asked if media emphasis on Jackson had riled the Aggies. Not so, he shrugged.
"If someone wants to make this game Bo Jackson versus us, that's fine," he said. "We have a big challenge. They don't do anything fancy. They come right at you. We have to stand up, face the music and do something about it."
The Aggies did to the extent that Dye offered a flowery compliment: "I think this is the strongest and best team we've played. Their offensive line is unquestionably the strongest and best. Defensively, they compare with Florida, Alabama and Georgia. They're by far the best offensively."
Jackie Sherrill's Aggies beat Auburn straight up and head on, as Dye said. They didn't even need the mythical 12th man. Bo Jackson did.