Monday, November 3, 2008

Spartans vs Northern Michigan Wildcats, 10/27/73

In the early morning hours of Oct. 27, 1973, a mild tremor rattled the state of Florida that could be felt from Daytona Beach all the way to the Tampa Bay area. That night in a contest lacking earth-shaking importance -- but of significance nonetheless – the University of Tampa football team geared up to play the Northern Michigan Wildcats. With a victory, the Spartans would guarantee a sixth consecutive winning season.

The Spartans, winners in 12 of their previous 14 home games, entered the Family Weekend game with the best record of any college football team in Florida at 5-1. Northern Michigan, on the other hand, arrived in Tampa sporting a 1-5 record and a five-game losing streak against the University of Tampa.

As a sidelight to the game, that evening the university announced its athletic director, Gus Dielens, would resign effective July 31, 1974. In nearly three years at the school, Dielens "elevated the credibility of athletics at Tampa," according to Dr. Bob Owens, university president. The former athletic director at West Point, Dielens helped improve UT's status as a major collegiate team by scheduling games against programs such as Miami, Rutgers and Vanderbilt. Dielens fell out of favor with groups close to the program in 1973, however, when he failed to renew the annual game against Florida A&M, consistently one of the team's biggest draws at the gate.

The hapless Northern Michigan Wildcats proved to be no one's idea of a big draw, as only 14,255 gathered in Tampa Stadium for the evening contest.

Leading up to game, star UT quarterback Freddie Solomon received some less-than-flattering comments from Northern Michigan head coach Rae Drake, who said he did not regard Solomon as a "complete quarterback" or a "sophisticated passer." Drake geared his game plan to make Solomon beat the Wildcats with his arm rather than his legs. Solomon, as it turns out, would have a difficult time doing either.

While the Wildcats didn't do much well, they certainly succeeded in shutting down Solomon. The defense held Solomon to a total of 12 yards rushing on 12 carries. He did not fare much better throwing, completing just 9 of 20 passes for 107 yards, to round out the worst statistical game of his college career. Fortunately for UT, Solomon did not need to play his best for the team to win thanks to their angry defense.

In the previous week against Southern Illinois, the defense squandered a 19-point lead to fall behind 23-22 late in the game. Only a field goal by freshman kicker Kinney
Jordan, to give UT a 25-23 victory, spared the Spartans from a humiliating defeat. The squad spent the week preparing for the Wildcats with a specific goal in mind: posting a shutout.

"All week long linebacker Tom Witmer went around working the team up for a shutout," said head coach Dennis Fryzel. "We got it and he played great."

The Spartans held the Wildcats to 116 total yards and kept them from reaching UT territory until the final play of the first half. By contrast, the Spartans spent the entire first half in Northern Michigan territory with the exception of four plays. Amazingly, however, UT could muster only a 25-yard field goal in the first quarter against the Wildcats for a 3-0 lead at the half.

After an uninspiring half of football, the Tampa offense turned it on in the second half. Alan Pittman, a junior running back from Largo, led the way for UT with 145 all-purpose yards for the game. His 15-yard touchdown dash in the third quarter capped a nine-play, 60-yard drive to give the Spartans a 10-point lead.

UT capitalized on a missed field goal attempt by Northern Michigan to produce its next touchdown. Fullback Ken Moorhead found a hole in the Wildcats line and rumbled 25 yards for a touchdown to give his team a three-score lead. The Spartans would tack on another field by Jordan in the fourth quarter for a 20-0 advantage that would hold until the final whistle.

After the game, Fryzel lamented his team's struggles on offense despite the stellar play of the defense. Too many stalled drives in Northern Michigan territory and a couple of costly turnovers were enough to put a damper on the coach's evening.

"I wasn't satisfied with the night," Fryzel said. "The defense, the shutout, yes. But we should have had more touchdowns."

With a 6-1 record and some momentum on their side, the Spartans had a chance to put together a truly special season. Losses in two of the following four games, including back-to-back defeats against Chattanooga and Vanderbilt by a combined three points, ended UT's hopes of a bowl appearance. The team won its final game against Rutgers to improve to 8-3, but few could have predicted that this would be the last Spartan team to achieve such heights.

Little did anyone know that the upcoming '74 campaign would be the final season of football ever to be played at the University of Tampa.

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