Bill Little commentary: Keys to the game
At least once, every season during Darrell Royal's tenure as head coach at Texas, some sports media type would ask the predictable question: "What will be the keys to the game?"
And year after year, time after time, he would give them the same answer. You could put it on a plaque and every coach in America would share it with his team, just as Mack Brown did in the week leading up to last Saturday's loss to Kansas State.
"The game will be decided by turnovers, and the kicking game," Royal would say.
There you have it, and there it was.
On the official NCAA statistics sheet, the chart follows these categories in descending order: first downs, net yards rushing, net yards passing, total offense yards, etc., etc., etc. And it is in the etceteras that Saturday's 41-21 loss was defined.
The first downs were almost even. Kansas State with 19, Texas with 18. The Longhorns held the edge in rushing, 113-95, and in passing yardage, 217-177. They even had a 330-272 margin in total offense, which is even more remarkable considering the Wildcats earned 80 of their 272 on the first drive of the game.
But after those usually significant figures, here is, as they say, the "rest of the story." Kansas State averaged 46.4 yards per punt, Texas averaged 35. And the Wildcats returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns. And finally, Texas turned the ball over four times and Kansas State didn't turn it over at all.
In Mack Brown's years at Texas, Texas has won 50 home games and has now lost six. In the six losses, Texas opponents turned the ball over six times, and the Longhorns turned it over 24 times. In Big 12 competition under Brown, the Longhorns have lost only three home games, and now two of them have been to Kansas State.
In fact, the eerie similarities between the 1999 game which the Longhorns lost, 34-17, are indeed striking. Major Applewhite was in his sophomore season and was actually en route to eventually earning honors as the Big 12 Player of the Year, but eight years ago he and his teammates ran into the same self-destruct syndrome Texas experienced Saturday.
In that game, Texas gave up a punt return and an interception return for a touchdown. The popular Applewhite was branded in a play on words in a Daily Texan headline which read: "Apple Turnover." He had thrown three interceptions and been a part of an offense which also lost three fumbles.
But after that loss, Texas bounced back the next week to beat Bob Stoops' first Oklahoma team, 38-28, and went on to win the Big 12 South.
That is the challenge that faces the Longhorns this week. The goal of winning the Big 12 South is still very much attainable. When the smoke cleared Saturday after Colorado's stunning upset of Oklahoma and the Longhorns defeat by Kansas State, four of the six Big 12 South teams had one loss. The exceptions were Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, which were 1-0.
That is why Brown always says that while the media may dissect and review games, players and coaches have to go back to work. There is no value in "we shudda," without a resolve to do it different, and that's the challenge for Texas this week.
Saturday underscored one more time that the college football playing field is more even than at any time in recent history, and perhaps even beyond that. Five teams in the week's Top 10 went down in defeat, and several of the survivors were seriously challenged before escaping.
Saturday's game underscored the phenomenon Texas seems to have had in their frustrating contests with Kansas State, which has now won four of the six league meetings. The two schools met for the first time in Big 12 play in 1998, and the Wildcats won the first two games. Texas claimed the series in 2002 and 2003, but K-State has now won both the 2006 and 2007 games. With their victory Saturday, the Wildcats joined Oklahoma as the only teams in the Big 12 to hold an edge over Texas.
Going into this coming Red River Rivalry game in Dallas, Oklahoma holds a 6-5 margin over the Longhorns in Big 12 conference games.
The sudden change in dynamic in the upcoming match with the Sooners doesn't change the Longhorns' emphasis at all. In his time at Texas, Brown's teams have lost consecutive games only three times - his first year in 1998, at the end of 1999 and last year. Now, the annual high stakes game could prove crucial for both schools. It is early enough in the season to bounce back, and with the two pre-season favorites each with a loss, there is a lot of football to be played.
And one more time Saturday, and again the next and again the next, the outcome will likely be determined by two factors: turnovers, and the kicking game.