Bill Little commentary: In search of the next hero
Sept. 28, 2012
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
The bird was the mascot of the Air Force Academy, and the Oklahoma State home crowd sat spellbound as the Falcon soared through the azure blue heavens as the half-time show of the afternoon game between the two schools. At that precise moment, what appeared to be an aged pigeon chose to leave its perch in Gallagher Hall, the gym at the east end of the football field.
Taking its commands from the whistle of the Cadet falconer, the USAF bird seemed to stop in mid-flight. While the pigeon was taking its version of an afternoon stroll, the falcon saw one thing: dinner. Ignoring its keeper's commands, the falcon hit the pigeon in mid-flight over the field. Feathers flew everywhere, and the falcon raced away. It returned two days later.
That was a different, quieter time in Stillwater. Now, the feathers have turned to frenzy. The stands are full of bright-orange clad fans, and the program has restored the respect it once had over 50 years ago.
Ever since Mack Brown's Longhorns rode Hodges Mitchell's 80-yard TD run on the opening play of the 1999 game to a comfortable 34-21 victory, Texas has needed more escapes to get out of Stillwater alive than the gal who used to be chained to the railroad tracks in the old Saturday afternoon movie serials. And in each win, it seems a Longhorn legend had to rise to the occasion and play a part. They used to say that the Texas-Oklahoma game in Dallas "makes" heroes. The Texas-OSU series in Stillwater has "revealed" them.
Prior to Oklahoma State's emergence as a power in the Big 12 in recent years, the Longhorns came into Stillwater as heavy favorites in almost all of the six victories here in the Mack Brown era. The 21st Century began with the emergence of Cedric Benson as a star in 2001. Benson got his first start in Stillwater that season, and after falling behind early, Texas would go on to claim a 45-17 victory. From there, things would get more interesting.
In 2003, the Longhorns were ranked No. 11 nationally, but trailed, 16-14 to Oklahoma State at halftime. The defense and special teams became huge factors in the second half, but the Longhorns got inspiration from wide receiver Roy Williams, who caught a short pass and dragged five Cowboy defenders ten yards before finally coming to a stop. Texas went on to win, 55-16.
The next visit - 2005 - produced perhaps the most improbable scene of all of them. Texas was on a mission during its quest to play in the BCS National Championship game. Oklahoma State was winless in the Big 12. Even given the `Horns' slow starts of the past in Stillwater, the crowd at what was now known as T. Boone Pickens Stadium and a national television audience, watched in disbelief as OSU took a 19-point lead in the first half. The deficit marked the second-largest UT had ever faced where the Longhorns had come back to win. As the first half ended, it was 28-12.
There was no panic in the Longhorn locker room. The `Horns' offensive coordinator told his junior quarterback Vince Young, "Keep them focused." To which Young replied, "We're fine, baby." When the two teams left their respective locker rooms in the renovated Gallagher-Iba Hall, the Longhorns were far from the loping pigeon waiting to be attacked by the falcon. Instead, Oklahoma State was surprised to find the Texas team was singing.
Three plays into the second half, the frenzied crowd learned why. Texas was at its own 20-yard line when Young brought his team to the line of scrimmage. He dropped back, headed to his right, pump-faked a Cowboy defender off his feet, and took off down the sideline.
In the Texas bench area, Mack Brown looked at the down-and-distance marker. When he saw Young break past the line of scrimmage, he remarked in the headset to Davis: "He's going to get the first down." Davis, who had a full view of the play from the press box, replied, "Oh, he's gonna get a lot more than that."
Young covered the eighty yards in just thirty-six steps, an amazing average of six-feet, eight-inches per stride. That's like stepping cleanly over a prone basketball power forward with each stride. The run set the tempo for the second half, which would result in a Longhorn landslide of thirty-five unanswered points and a 47-28 victory.
Texas, of course, went on to win the National Championship that season.
Two years later, Young and most of his cohorts were gone. But that didn't lessen the drama any. In 2007, Texas - ranked 14th nationally at the time - found itself trailing the Cowboys, 14-0 in the first quarter. And things didn't get any better. Think "dire" and "disaster" and you can get a feel for how things were. The third quarter was just ending, and Texas - which had trailed by three touchdowns most of the game - was looking at the wrong end of a 35-14 score. Colt McCoy was the quarterback, and he was paired with a junior running back who was also a track star.
Oh, the Horns were down by 21 points in that fourth quarter, true enough...but the cavalry was about to arrive. The week before, Jamaal Charles had rushed for 216 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter in a come-from-behind win over Nebraska. Now, on the road in Stillwater, he was saddling up his pony again.
And Texas was about to steal the game from the frustrated Cowboys. Charles would score on touchdown runs of 18 and 75 yards, and run for 125 yards on just seven carries over the final 15 minutes. The stunned crowd in Boone Pickens Stadium watched helpless as Colt McCoy - who went 8-of-9 in the fourth quarter (including eight straight at one point) for 145 yards and a TD - completed a 60-yard strike to Jordan Shipley to set up Vondrell McGee's one-yard TD run that tied the game at 35-all with 3:22 left. On the game's final play, Ryan Bailey kicked a game winning, 40-yard field goal to complete 24 unanswered points in the 38-35 victory. Texas dominated the frame, scoring on drives of 59, 99, 91 and 57 yards.
Defensively, the Horns stood tall down the stretch as well. After allowing TD drives on four of the first seven drives of the game, UT held the Cowboys scoreless over the final 21:20 of the game (five drives). Marcus Griffin (12 tackles) led a group of four Longhorns that recorded double-digit tackles. Roddrick Muckelroy posted 11 tackles and a forced fumble, while Rashad Bobino and Ishie Oduegwu each notched 10 stops.
So as the Longhorns prepared for their trip here last weekend, it came as no surprise to learn that Charles - now a star running back for the Kansas City Chiefs - had overcome a leg injury from last season and was back to his old form. The former Longhorn joined Pro Hall of Famer Jim Brown as the only men to ever rush for 225 yards (he had 233), and catch passes for 50 yards (he had 55) in the same game.
The next trip, during the 2009 campaign to the BCS Championship game, found the No. 2 ranked `Horns prevailing over the No. 13 Cowboys, 41-14. With the revamping of the Big 12 after the departures of Nebraska and Colorado, the two teams have since played back to back games in Austin.
This time, this young Texas team is in the process of sorting out its stars. There are no proven "go-to" guys such as Roy Williams, Vince Young, Jamaal Charles, Colt McCoy or Jordan Shipley. After each practice, as Mack Brown gathers his team around him, he constantly reminds them that each player needs to be ready to do whatever they can do to help Texas win.
One of the great things about college football is not the known - but the unknown. The surprises which turn a pleasant day in Oklahoma into feathers, or frenzy.