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The UTEP backup who briefly couldn’t stop throwing TDs

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With the help of a truly atrocious New Mexico defense

This is not Tom Selleck, though UTEP should change its mascot to the Fightin’ Tom Sellecks. (Toms Selleck?)
Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration

The NCAA’s FBS record book contains unusual achievements and statistical marks that are unlikely to be bested, and one entry I recently stumbled upon straddles both of these categories nicely:

Without any other context, several aspects of this record may surprise you. It’s held by a quarterback you’ve probably never heard of, playing at a program you might not think of as aerially proficient (mining is literally a ground game), in a season played well before offenses really started throwing it a ton. For contrast: The 1967 Heisman winner, UCLA’s Gary Beban, threw eight touchdowns all season.

That these scores were Dawson’s first six completions of the game must have been particularly demoralizing for New Mexico, but that still only tells you a tiny bit about this record-setting performance. I did some digging through archived newspapers from the time, and I have found the following seven pieces of essential information about this record, which I will present to you from least-surprising to most-shocking.

  • New Mexico stunk. The Lobos finished 1-9, and while this game (a 75-12 loss) was their worst outing of the year, all but one of the other losses featured the defense giving up at least 42 points. They were the most scored-upon team in 1967, ten points behind the second-worst scoring defense. No team was better suited to help set this record.
  • Four of the touchdowns didn’t require a ton out of Dawson. Fumbles gave UTEP short fields that led to the first two scores – way to help your terrible defense, Lobos – and two others started as short passes that the receivers turned into long touchdowns.

(Various newspaper sources don’t entirely agree on how long the touchdowns were. The best approximation I can give you: 25 yards, 10 yards, 83 yards, 74 yards, 84 yards, and 52 yards.)

  • Dawson was the backup quarterback. UTEP’s starter in 1967 was Billy Stevens, who would end up holding the NCAA’s career passing yardage title when he graduated at the end of the season. The week before this game, Stevens had set a school record with six passing touchdowns against BYU. But he’d spent a couple days in the hospital with an infection, so Dawson got this start while Stevens watched* his new record get matched.

*Mostly. We’ll come back to this.

  • Dawson would finish his college career only averaging one touchdown pass per game outside of this historic outing. This day would ultimately account for 17.6% of his passing touchdowns at UTEP.
  • Dawson’s first five passes of the day fell incomplete. His final stat line was complete nonsense: 9/20, 376 yards, and six touchdowns. There are two basic ways to throw a bunch of TDs in one game. The first requires pinpoint accuracy, like Matt Barkley’s six-touchdown game against Colorado in 2012, where he completed 19 of 20 passes for 298 yards. The second path relies on volume. Jared Goff threw seven TDs against Colorado (if helps, Buffs fans, these were both road games) in 2014 on 42 passes, only completing 24 of them.

Yet somehow Dawson holds this record thanks to a game where his completion percentage wasn’t impressive and his offensive coaches didn’t decide to test the endurance limits of his arm.

  • For reasons I absolutely cannot ascertain, Dawson also got benched in the middle of setting this record. His first three touchdowns all came in the opening quarter, as UTEP jumped out to a 28-0 lead. But then Dawson took a break from the action; the newspapers don’t indicate whether this was due to injury or attempted sportsmanship or accusations of warlockery. He got back in the game a few minutes before halftime, threw touchdowns four and five, and added number six in the middle of the third quarter.
  • Who was he benched for? Billy Stevens! THE STARTER WHO’D SPENT TWO DAYS IN THE HOSPITAL. I cannot fathom the decision process where the coaches decided in the first half to sit the dude who literally could not stop throwing touchdowns in favor of the dude who had recently been physically unable to play football. Galaxy brain has always had a home in this sport, as it turns out.