Bill Little commentary: The Alamo Bowl chronicles -- Vol. 3
SAN ANTONIO -- In the "School of Hard Knocks," the Texas Longhorns learned a lot about the year as defending National Champions.
They learned that it is an incredible feeling, a tremendous ride of pride to stand as only one team in the country can. From January 4 throughout 2006, that was their legacy.
They learned that the era of good feeling would permeate the entire Longhorns nation, and they learned that they wore a big target on their chest, even bigger than the usual one a Texas team has.
They learned that all good things do end, and some days, you tip your hat to the team that played better that day. Ohio State showed them that.
They learned that they, too, just as their predecessors over the last years, could fight back, and they did, rebounding from that loss to pull back into contention for another shot at a title, and five times coming from behind to win.
They learned that you had to play through the pain, through the injuries, and still take your opponents' best shot.
They learned how to carry the mantel of the champion, to win, even in spaces and places where victory seemed remote.
They even had to learn how to lose, painfully, yet gracefully, as the regular season came to a close.
But they never learned how to quit.
There were a lot of doubters as this 2006 Texas Longhorns team headed south to San Antonio for the Alamo Bowl match with Iowa. Folks questioned their health, others their zeal. There were those who even questioned their fight.
Old timers, particularly those in the media in Iowa, conjured images of the ill-fated Freedom Bowl in 1984, when Iowa stormed past a disinterested Longhorn contingent.
At a Thursday pep rally on the River Walk two days before the game, Iowa fans even outnumbered those in burnt orange, giving the visitors a false sense of Saturday security.
Those who thought that would be an inidication of a fair fight were wrong. Because, as we say in Texas, "Hang on, boys, the cavalry is coming."
And Saturday in San Antonio, they arrived.
There were grown men and women and little boys and girls. They lined the street outside the Longhorns' hotel; and more than 55,000 of them filled the Alamodome to the rafters, as no crowd in history, all dressed in burnt orange. Thursday may have belonged to the visitors, but Saturday belonged to the people.
This crowd, this very special crowd, wasn't about being a member of the Longhorn Foundation or a season ticket holder, though those valuable friends are very important. This was a crowd of the people of the Horns, the masses in San Antonio and south Texas who had one chance to see their heroes.
As the Longhorns band did its "wall to wall" thing and Darrell Royal was introduced along with former Iowa coach Hayden Fry, it all began. As the two coaches were recognized over the public address, Fry was first, and tipped his cowboy hat.
"I wasn't sure what to do," said Royal. "I never heard them say my name."
That was because the crowd exploded in cheers as soon as they heard it.
The goal of 10 victories, making Texas the only team in the country to do that for the last six years, was big. But most of all, this was about playing a game, the game of football. And when you play, you play to have fun, and you play to win.
Texas had come to this day in a season of irony. It had beaten both Nebraska and Oklahoma, the two teams that played in the Big 12 Championship game. It had lost to Kansas State and Texas A&M, two teams which had been badly beaten in their bowl games.
Now, here was an Iowa team that had won five of its first six games and then lost five of its next six. In its 6-6 season, it had lost to unbeaten Ohio State, and once-beaten Michigan and Wisconsin, all of whom finished in the top ten.
In Drew Tate, they had a senior quarterback who had been one of the best high school signal callers ever in Texas. And as he returned home, he did it with guns blazing.
Tate and his teammates fought with pride -- the pride of a team that did not want to finish with a losing season. They opened quickly, jumping to a 14-0 lead.
Colt McCoy had been the subject of much speculation prior to the game. A pinched nerve in his neck had knocked him out of the Kansas State game, and rendered him less than 100 percent in the loss to Texas A&M. Two ugly blows at the end of the Aggies game had sent him to the locker room on a stretcher.
Trainer Kenny Boyd and the rehabilitation and medical staff had worked constantly with McCoy since that Thanksgiving weekend, and just before the Horns had left for a Christmas break, they cleared him to play. And now, here he and his Longhorns were, down by 14 points in the first quarter.
On the other side of the ball, Duane Akina had assumed control of the play calling for a defense that had been stunned by the quickness of Tate and his receivers.
McCoy started slowly, shaking off the month's layoff from competition with a drive for a field goal. Ryan Bailey, the walk-on who kicked his way into history in the win over Nebraska, booted a field goal, and it was 14-3.
But Iowa would answer with a drive to the Longhorns goal. The Hawkeyes even got in the end zone, but the play was ruled illegal because the man who caught the ball was not an eligible receiver. And on the next play, Aaron Ross showed why he was the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's outstanding defensive back as he intercepted Tate in the end zone.
In retrospect, it was the kind of turnaround that typified the game and the season. Ross had come from his cornerback position to make the catch after the receiver had just broken away from safety Marcus Griffin. But we will hear more from Marcus later in our program.
Now, it was the real McCoy who entered the field.
Driving for a touchdown, he lofted a perfect 20-yard ball to a perfect catch from Limas Sweed in the end zone to end the half with Iowa leading, 14-10. The bands played, the coaches and players met for the last time during the intermission. Akina made adjustments. McCoy just wanted another chance.
And so it was that Texas drove to a 43-yard field goal, as Bailey kicked a career long three-pointer to shave the lead to 14-13.
The defense held, but the Horns fumbled the punt and once again it appeared Iowa had retained momentum. But again Akina's troops stepped up, and when the Hawkeyes missed a field goal, the Longhorns offense took the field at their own 28-yard line.
Some call the play a "wheel route," in other times it was a "throw back." But Saturday in the Alamodome, the wheels belonged to the fastest player in college football. McCoy took the snap, and Jamaal Charles wheeled toward the west sidelines. He cut upfield at the sideline, and McCoy hit him in dead stride. Seventy-two yards later, Texas was ahead, courtesy of their longest pass play of the season.
But Tate, who had left the game with cramps, returned to lead the Hawkeyes back to a 21-20 lead. Texas answered, driving to the Iowa 10-yard line. It was fourth down and one. At first, Mack Brown decided to send in Bailey for a shot at what would have been his third field goal of the game. Stinging in his mind were the tough yardages that had come against the last two opponents. But it was worth thinking about. Texas called time out.
If it is a Longhorns bowl game, destiny must decree that it comes to this. After all, it had in the last two Rose Bowls. And so it was that Brown sent McCoy and the offense back on to the field.
McCoy wheeled, rolled to his right, looking first to pass. But when it wasn't open, he ran. All the way to the two-yard line.
Perhaps it was fitting that on the next play senior Selvin Young, who had been part of a frustrated run game over the past three contests, crashed behind the left side of the Longhorns line and into a 26-21 lead. But almost 11 minutes remained in the game. With 6:20 left, Iowa kicked a field goal that cut the margin to 26-24.
When the Hawkeyes held and forced a short punt, Iowa had great field position with a little over three and a half minutes to play.
And then it happened.
Over and over this season, teams had successfully burned the Longhorns with trick plays. Nebraska had done it. Kansas State had done it. So had others. Now, with the 10-game victory season on the line, Iowa tried it.
But Marcus Griffin was ready. Since spraining an ankle in the Ohio State game, Marcus had been limping. But time and rehabilitation had healed that. Now, there he was, one-on-one with perhaps the season on the line. He tackled the would-be passer for an 11-yard loss. Two incomplete passes later, Texas had the ball back.
The final minutes were a blur, literally. A malfunction of the 25 second clock had caused that clock to be kept on the field, and the coaches and players had to guess on the final seconds. But as Iowa exhausted its time outs, the clock kept running, until it finally was stopped with Texas facing fourth down, with only 10 seconds left.
Now, it was up to Greg Johnson, one of the 26 Longhorns seniors. Johnson, too, had faced a season of injuries, but he had boomed a kickoff deep in the end zone earlier in the quarter. He had also had a short punt.
As he prepared to kick one last time, he looked at the Iowa defense.
"They were bringing 10 men. I saw guys creeping up to come from outside. I just thought 'Catch it and kick it,'" he said.
"Just get some hang time," Longhorns on the Texas bench said to themselves. Nobody considered that Johnson would not get the kick off.
It is at times like this that we have become accustomed to the world going in slow motion. We saw it as Dusty Mangum's field goal tumbled toward the victory over Michigan, and again as Vince Young ran for the winning score against Southern Cal.
Now, here was Greg Johnson, an honor student who had transferred from Vanderbilt several years ago for just this kind of challenge. The snap from Tully Janzen was perfect, and Johnson caught and kicked.
The ball rose, higher and higher, and longer and longer, until even the Longhorns fans at the top of the domed stadium thought they had eye contact with the laces. The clock ticked, and when the ball came down to the Iowa return man 56 yards later, Michael Griffin made his final tackle as a special Longhorns special teams player. From the beginning of the play to Griffin's tackle, eight seconds had expired. With only two left, Iowa's final play was futile.
Some would call the victory "Rose Bowl Lite," but out of respect, not ridicule.
For the first time in its history, Texas had won three straight bowl games, and all three were destined to appear on ESPN Classic.
The people who came to cheer did. They got what they wanted. The celebration included fireworks and balloons, and McCoy, who completed 26-of-40 passes for 308 yards and tied an NCAA freshman record with 29 touchdown passes, and Ross, the San Antonio native who was playing in front of 31 of his family members including a first-ever appearance for his dad, were named offensive and defensive players of the game.
Usually once a year, Brown has told his team to have a "Dedication Day," picking one game a year where the players and coaches pick someone special and dedicate their play that day to them. On Thursday, the players and staff called the person to whom they were dedicating the game and told them.
The orange wristbands, which started last year with "Take Dead Aim" and transitioned this year to "Just Do What You Do," had been changed to a new one that simply said, "Team. Dedication."
In the locker room after the game, Brown thanked the seniors for their marvelous record. He told the team to remember this about life -- "All you really have, when all is said and done, are your friends, your family and your faith."
In his nine years at Texas, Brown has taken his team to nine bowl games and won six of them. That puts him within one victory of the man he so admires as a deserved Texas legend, Darrell Royal, whose teams won seven.
As Brown prepared to head back to Austin and the players returned to the stylish Marriott Rivercenter for an overnight stay before departing, the 2006 Alamo Bowl had become history, and it had become historic.
The season was finished at 10-3, a national ranking was insured. The seniors had finished their marvelous run, and the returning team was looking forward to the spring, and hopefully a return to San Antonio, where the Big 12 Championship game will be next year.
The Alamo Bowl had been a wonderful trip for Texas, and it gave skeptical media, as well as a host of happy Longhorns fans, a glimpse of what a special place this city of the Riverwalk can be.
Time will decide the place in history this 2006 Longhorns team shall hold. But what we know is, it stood proudly and performed at times even courageously as defending National Champions.
And Saturday in the Alamo Bowl, it proved once again that it never, ever quit.