Bill Little commentary: The reckoning
December 30, 2007
In the "Magnificent Seven," Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen and their gallant band have come to defend a poor Mexican village from the bad guys, led by the evil Eli Wallach. They first are successful, and then are tricked and captured. Order restored, as far as the renegades are concerned, they take the seven soldiers of fortune to a hill outside of the village, and tell them to "ride on."
It is then that James Coburn, a man of few words, utters the statement of ultimate resolve when he says that no one tells him to run.
And so it was that Texas came to the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl on Thursday determined to fight back. From the beginning, it was a contrast of styles. Arizona State under first-year coach Dennis Erickson had come into the game as the No. 12 team in the country, the co-champs with Southern Cal of the Pac-10, and only just barely removed from earning a bid to a BCS bowl. The Sun Devils came with confidence, and they came with an attitude.
The story goes that Erickson had even gone back 17 years to his last meeting against Texas, when his Miami team crushed the Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl game, 46-3. Playing with reckless abandon that day, Miami had opened the game by knocking out the Longhorns' kick returner, getting 45 yards in penalties for unsportsman like conduct and still scoring on their first drive.
Hit Texas in the mouth, and they will cower, was the message. Whether or not that was the purpose or the intent, that was the image that ASU portrayed. At the Navy and Marine Corps Luncheon on the first day the teams were together, the Marine Brigadier General who was the commandant of the Marine Recruiting Depot in San Diego, spoke of her Texas roots and referred to Arizona State as the "Sea Devils, or whatever kind of Devil they are." Coming from a Marine, whose proud nickname is the "Devil Dogs," it meant no harm.
The ASU athletics director, also a Texan and a former volleyball player at Texas Tech, took issue, explaining that a "Sun Devil" is a phenomenon of nature that is so vicious it wipes out anything in its path.
History will tell us however, that for 1,000 years, Longhorn cattle walked through those very storms, never fazed by all of the turmoil.
All of which brings us to Thursday night at Qualcomm Stadium.
Two of Mack Brown's great coaching friends, Darrell Royal and Gene Stallings, both said it, and ASU would have done well to heed it: "The less you say, the less you have to take back."
For a month, Texas had revisited the term which came with Dick Tomey and Greg Robinson when they joined the Longhorn staff in 2004: N. O. S. "Not Our Standard."
A season that had been successful, though troubled with injuries and inconsistency had ended badly in a loss to arch rival Texas A&M in a performance that Brown had called "unacceptable." The players knew it. The coaches knew it. Brown himself knew it. Fans and media may judge it, but those in the arena are the ones who have to live with it. And in football, as in life, when things go badly, your best option is go back to work.
You can celebrate the past, or wallow in it. But it is the present which leads you to the future.
Maligned for not starting quickly, Texas took the opening kickoff and scored faster than any team in the 30 year history of the Holiday Bowl. And then they did it again and again and it was 21-0. They would give Colt McCoy the game's trophy for the Most Valuable Offensive Player, but you could have carved the bronze up into a bunch of little pieces and given one to a whole bunch of Longhorns. Following in the footsteps of former Longhorn hero Major Applewhite, who earned the trophy in 2001, McCoy proved the perfect quarterback to enter the fray against ASU.
Both the offensive and defensive staffs had graded every practice play for a month, and the result of that was a shuffling of the offensive line to account for the losses to injury of two captains, all-America tackle Tony Hills and center Dallas Griffin. In football, the offensive left tackle is the most important blocker on pass plays for a right-handed quarterback. So Texas moved the more experienced Adam Ulatoski from the right tackle spot to the left side and started the versatile Chris Hall at center and true freshman Kyle Hix at right tackle.
The offensive staff also came with some new plays and returned to a game format which included the insertion of the speedy John Chiles at quarterback every third series as a change of pace. It also featured the run, netting 300 yards, with Jamaal Charles rushing for 161 of them. McCoy threw for an efficient 174 yards, connecting on 21-of-32 passes. The result, aided by some excellent field position created by an opportunistic defense, netted the most points ever scored in a bowl game by a Longhorn team in the 52-34 victory.
Defensive co-coordinators Duane Akina and Larry Mac Duff also made some starting lineup changes, based on the practices, but continued to play a lot of people. The scheme was excellent, and the effort was even better. Suddenly, Texas looked like Texas against a potent ASU attack. They stuffed the run and continually harassed quarterback Rudy Carpenter. The domination included a time of possession edge for the Longhorns of almost thirty-six and a half minutes to just a little over twenty-three and a half.
On their visit to the San Diego zoo on Monday, the Longhorns had been intrigued by the unusual pacing of the big cats in cat canyon. The mountain lion and the lynx were moving constantly in their cages. That's the way that the Texas defense opened the game, and until all was in hand, it didn't let up. Again, the MVP went to Brian Orakpo, but that, too, could have been dissected for a host of teammates.
In the end, it truly would be about playing to a standard. Defensive backs were knocking balls loose and intercepting them, the linemen were crushing the vaunted rushing game of Arizona State, which finished the game with only 22 net yards rushing, averaging 0.8 yards per play.
All day Thursday, Brown had been receiving text messages of support from former Longhorns urging this team to "keep 10 going," referring to the quest for 10 wins, seven seasons in a row. They achieved that again Thursday, the only team in the country to have such a record.
Two final thoughts come to mind about that. First, in cat canyon, the biggest attraction for the players was the sleek, spotted, black jaguar. As the sun glistened its massive head and its black on black spots, it slept. Somehow you knew, you just knew that if it awakened, it would be a powerful force.
It was Grantland Rice, the famous sports writer, who penned the immortal words, "When the great scorer comes again, to write against your name, he'll write not won or lost, but how you played the game." When it comes to things eternal, I am sure that is true.
But in the world of football, we do keep score.
This 2007 Longhorn team came to a crossroads just after Thanksgiving. At 9-3, it had one game left to determine how it would forever be remembered. With the victory over Arizona State on Thursday, all of the statistics that had been offered as possibilities became a reality. The seniors finished with a four year record of 44-7, the second best in the country behind only Southern Cal. USC has lost five games during that period going into the Rose Bowl. Texas lost seven.
Since 2001, Texas has played and beaten in bowl games, Washington, LSU, Michigan, Southern Cal, Iowa and Arizona State, and the Longhorns have done it with four different quarterbacks: Major Applewhite (Washington in the Holiday), Chris Simms (LSU in the Cotton), Vince Young (Michigan and USC in the Rose) and now, Colt McCoy (Iowa in the Alamo and ASU in the Holiday).
As the sun rose on another post card kind of day in San Diego, the Longhorns were heading home. McCoy and his running buddy, wide receiver Jordan Shipley, were headed for the airport. Big Chris Hall was paying his bill for incidentals at the front desk of the Manchester Grand Hyatt. The Texas staff travel party was boarding buses, heading for their Continental 767 charter.
A few miles away, the great cats of cat canyon were stirring, and out on Interstate 8, cleanup crews were readying Qualcomm for the next San Diego Charger game.
The mighty jaguar no longer slept; the Longhorns had conquered the winds of the Devil.
In the movie, Brenner and McQueen meet at the end after they and their comrades have gone back into the little village and defeated all the bad guys, returning the town to its people.
We like that movie because it tells us, not only of heroes, but of heroes who are exceedingly human. They aren't perfect, and they put themselves in harm's way with mistakes. They have initially failed in their mission to save the peasants.
But the story doesn't end there, and here's why:
Life is not about where you have been, but rather where you are going. It is learning from the past, taking command of the present, and propelling yourself into the future. It is walking through the storm, and it is fighting back.
And that is why in this city by the sea, Texas is the champion of the 2007 Pacific Life Holiday Bowl.