COTTON BOWL : Bo Gets the Yards, but Aggies Get the Win

Times Staff Writer

Texas A&M; was not exactly Bo-ed over by Auburn and its Heisman Trophy winner Wednesday, scoring a 36-16 victory over the Tigers and just generally roughing up the man who had been generous enough to lend his name to this year's Cotton Bo.

What had been Bo this and Bo that the week before the Cotton Bowl (its name in the previous 49 games) became Bo flat. This might have been something of a surprise to the 73,137 here on New Year's Day, as they had largely known the star attraction by the pregame advertising, which relentlessly featured the upright profile of Auburn's wonderful Bo Jackson in mid-stride.

Yet, Jackson was perhaps better recognized Wednesday in the supine form. Oh, the best college football player in all the land got his yards--129 in 31 carries and 73 from 2 receptions--but hardly ever when his team needed them. Which is why the Southwest Conference champion is now 10-2 and Auburn, Southeastern Conference also-ran, is 8-4.

Given the 20-point spread, it may be difficult to imagine that the game ever hung in the balance, or that any of Jackson's runs might have mattered. But as late as midway in the fourth quarter, before everything fell apart for the Tigers, Auburn was still within five points of the Aggies.

Recalling Auburn's position--at the two with a little more than 12 minutes to play--Texas A&M;'s Basil Jackson said: "If he scores, I imagine they would have won the game."

But in three tries, Jackson not only failed to score but failed to gain even one yard, this after the Tigers had marched 93 yards and were finally in position to take the lead.

And if that wasn't bad enough, Auburn was given another chance, with Texas A&M;'s lead still at 21-16 and more than five minutes remaining. On fourth-and-two at Texas A&M;'s 27-yard line, Jackson was sent wide, where he was stopped for no gain.

Afterward, everybody agreed that those two fourth-down plays in the fourth quarter were the keys to the game. "It was all our inability to convert those plays," said Auburn Coach Pat Dye, more or less repeating what Texas A&M; Coach Jackie Sherrill had said.

Jackson, who had averaged more than six yards a carry in winning the Heisman, was actually stopped five times in a row for either no gain or a loss of a yard in those two fourth-quarter drives.

Jackson, polite and gracious, said: "They just wanted it more than us."

Jackson repeatedly gave credit to the Texas A&M; fans, more or less the hometown team, who made their allegiance known by whipping white towels in the bright, crisp air and creating all manner of noise. "The difference between the first half and the second half?" said Jackson. "Their fans were more in the game in the second half."

But, in fact, it wasn't so much Texas A&M;'s fabled 12th man as it was its so-called Pony defense, a five-linebacker formation with one of the linebackers in a three-point stance at the line of scrimmage. Since being introduced for the SMU game (hence the name), the Pony defense has been installed for all goal-line situations.

"It's designed to stop them cold," explained Basil Jackson, the linebacker who stopped Jackson with extreme prejudice at the two-yard line. "Jackson stopping Jackson, that's a great thrill."

Although the game seemed to come down to Jackson's no-yard gains, there was plenty more to watch in a game that was more exciting than meaningful.

It's true, nobody was waiting for the score of this game to determine a national champion. Auburn was rated 16th, while Texas A&M;, a team that will lose only four starters next season, was ranked 11th.

Still, it made for a nice little matchup, and Bo Jackson probably gave the fans their money's worth, no matter that he broke down in the clutch. In fact, going back to Auburn's first possession, it appeared he would dominate the game. His five-yard run was the first score.

Then in the second quarter, Jackson had a chance to display his all-around ability. The former track star caught Pat Washington's little swing pass and, cutting across the field, outran the secondary to score on a 73-yard play.

Then in the third quarter, to set up Chris Johnson's 26-yard field goal, he broke free for a 32-yard run. As Texas A&M; nose tackle Sammy O'Brient said: "We thought he'd make a few big plays during the game. You just don't totally shut down a guy like that."

Of course, mostly they did, which pretty much was the end of the Auburn offense, which was not exactly versatile. Washington completed just 2 of 7 passes before giving way to Jeff Burger, who completed 5 of 10 with 2 interceptions.

Texas A&M;, meanwhile, showed it could do it all. Kevin Murray, the sophomore quarterback, passed for 292 yards, hitting the seldom-used Rod Bernstine with 6 completions for 108 yards. And fullbacks Anthony Toney and Roger Vick combined for 139 yards rushing.

Texas A&M;, in fact, did everything but make its conversions. Eric Franklin's kick misfired after the first touchdown, and the Aggies missed two two-point conversions. They finally hit on one when Bernstine rushed for the two yards.

This Cotton Bowl, if nothing else, would seem to suggest a fabulous future for the Aggies. About all that could stop them would be the continued scrutiny of the local media, which allege payoffs to players from boosters, and possible NCAA investigation. But then, that didn't seem to bother them much this year.

"These players allowed me to catch up on other business; they just kept on playing," Sherrill said. "No way I would have made it this year, to have the strength to overcome things people shouldn't have to go through. These players buckled it up better than I did." Just ask Bo Jackson.

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