Bill Little commentary: The challenge
Oct. 17, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
LINCOLN, NE - The joyous locker room was behind him; the heartfelt call to his wife and soul mate had been made, even before he had visited with the media. Now, Mack Brown headed back to the field at the base of the cavernous Memorial Stadium.
It was quiet now. The wind which had whipped its north breeze throughout most of the brilliant, sun splashed afternoon was dying, even as the empty stadium's floor was engulfed in shadows. On the field where it all had happened, maybe a hundred or so red-clad Nebraska fans played their own version of a dozen or so games of touch football.
When they saw Brown headed up the sideline to the ESPN Road Bus for an interview, they stopped their games and came and shook his hand, and asked him to pose for pictures with them.
That was the last time Brown, or any other Texas coach in the foreseeable future, will ever step on that sideline. In its own way, it was the end of an era as Nebraska leaves the Big 12 to join the Big Ten Conference next year. Oh, it doesn't have the long history of the Cornhuskers' series with some of their long-time Big Eight brothers, but in the 15 years of the league as we knew it, the two schools epitomized the stature of the league. First, it was the Nebraska of the `90s, whose dominance of that decade was matched only by Florida State.
Brown's arrival at Texas changed the landscape completely, as his Longhorns in the first decade of the 21st century have been America's most consistent winner.
In its own way, all of that seemed on the line as Texas came to middle America on a day that only God could have made. As some of the Texas staff and a lot of Longhorn fans made the 45 mile journey from Omaha to Lincoln, the harvest and the preparing of the miles and miles of corn fields for the winter was underway. The guy driving his tractor through the corn probably wasn't going to be among the 85,000 who would represent the tenth largest crowd in Lincoln's Memorial Stadium history, but you can darn sure bet he was glued to his TV set when the shredding was done.
For ten months, Nebraska fans had waited for this meeting. Even before it became apparent that it would be the last between the two great institutions, Cornhusker fans circled the date as a rematch between the two schools after last December's Big 12 Championship game ended 13-12 on a last second field goal.
Truth is, both teams--Nebraska and Texas--finished 2009 with an eternal hole in their hearts because of a season that ended with dashed dreams. The versions of what happened Saturday in Lincoln will vary, depending on your perspective. Mack Brown talks often about "pressure" really being "passion," and in Nebraska's case, almost a year of waiting and a nation of state-prideful fans yearned for victory from a team that had jumped out to a 5-0 start and was ranked in the nation's top five. And, as we've said before, the old cartoon says (in its G-rated version) that "when you are up your elbows in alligators, it is important to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp." In other words, before you can crush, you first have to win.
Texas, on the other hand, had its own issues. The winningest program year in and year out since 2001, the Longhorns came into this game with two straight losses. The media and portions of the immense fan base had ducked for cover. A team once considered a candidate for national honors had dropped out of the top 25 for the first time in this century.
For a program where a ten-win year is now considered the very minimum of success, a victory was a necessity to maintain any hopes of great success in 2010.
All of that was the backdrop as Nebraska rolled over Kansas State in Manhattan ten days before, and Texas retreated to its laboratory with its coaching staff, led by coordinators Greg Davis and Will Muschamp. If you Google the phrase "I'm calling you out" on the web, you will find over a million links, but no clear definition. So let me help you with that. It is a challenge.
Jason Peter, who played defensive tackle for Nebraska in the middle 1990s, wasn't the only critic to hammer the Longhorns, but he was one whose voice resonated the loudest.
"The Texas offensive line is garbage," he said on a local TV interview in Nebraska. "In fact, the Texas offense is garbage."
"Them," as we say in Texas, "is fightin' words."
Armed with well-planned attacks on both sides of the ball, a young Texas team that has been waiting all season for that spark of confidence which comes from something good happening to you, may have won the game in the coin toss. With a strong north wind behind them, Texas won the toss and deferred, Nebraska took the ball, to place it in the hands of their high powered offense. Texas had the wind in the first, and with the choice at half coming, would have it in the fourth quarter.
It does not take a genius, as we have said before, to determine that big games are usually determined by turnovers and the kicking game, and the entire tone of the game was set in that first period.
The Texas defense had heard Muschamp talk about "gap responsibility" for the two weeks of preparation for Nebraska, and when it stymied the Cornhuskers on their opening possession and forced a punt, the chess match was on. Curtis Brown returned the punt 24 yards to the Nebraska 47-yard line. Now, it was time for the UT offense to prove Peter and all those like him that they were wrong.
Garrett Gilbert had used his legs effectively as a quarterback at Lake Travis High School, but had only 14 yards rushing in the Longhorns' first five games. On the opening drive, he ran three times for 32 yards, including a 25-yarder that set up Justin Tucker's 27-yard field goal that gave Texas the lead, 3-0. On the next series, the defense--led by defensive end Eddie Jones--forced a turnover at the Cornhusker 21. Five plays later, Gilbert scored his first of two touchdowns, and Texas was ahead, 10-0. The sea of red that represented most of the 85,000 folks in the stadium sat in stunned silence.
And then, Texas just kept doing it.
It was 17-3 when halftime arrived. The kicking game would lead to another Longhorn score, when Tucker used the rugby punt to kick away from Nebraska's dangerous punt returner and the ball was downed at the three. After the defense forced a three-and-out, Curtis Brown returned the punt 11 yards. A personal foul penalty against Nebraska moved the ball to the Cornhusker 32. Tucker hit a 28-yard field goal, and with 8:52 remaining in third quarter, the Longhorns held a 20-3 lead.
From there, it was a matter of the Texas defense grudgingly giving yards, and the Longhorns doing what Mack Brown has always said was the key to any great success in football--you have to be able to run the ball in the fourth quarter. The Longhorns did not throw a pass in the last quarter and a half of the game, and they rushed for 72 yards in the final stanza before twice taking a knee to end the game inside the Cornhusker ten-yard line.
The symbolic ending represented everything that Mack Brown wanted this game, and all college games, to stand for. Ahead 20-13, he chose to depart Lincoln for the final time kneeling to run out the clock. But in his own humble manner, it was a way to show respect to the program, and the fans he has so graciously praised all of these years.
As the Longhorns moved past their fans and the singing of the "Eyes of Texas" after the game, they made their way under the south stands to a solid red locker room, tucked appropriately just beyond the same end zone where it had all ended. Four straight trips to Lincoln, with four victories ending in joy.
In a swell of emotion, his team sang,"ain't no party like a Longhorn party cause a Longhorn party don't stop." Over and over again they sang, jumping as if the floor of the dressing room were a trampoline. When they finished, they sang the school fight song, and they prayed, particularly remembering "Miss Sally," coach Brown's wife whose brother had died Thursday following years of complications after suffering a stroke at 47 years old.
It was Sally that Mack called in the quiet outside the locker room after the game, and it was Sally and her brother whom he remembered as he walked across the field at the end of the game to meet Nebraska coach Bo Pellini.
But he also remembered this.
As he watched his young players jump and sing in their happiness, he knew that at the mid-point of this season of 2010, his team had found something. They had come into this year from divergent directions. Some came proudly as defenders of a flag that they had helped carry all the way to last year's BCS National Championship game. Others had waited as reserves, trying to find their place. Still another important part had come from the high school ranks--freshmen who had never played in a game. Brown thanked them all, and particularly singled out Brock Fitzhenry, a reserve wide receiver who didn't get to play, but all week had run the option against the Texas defense, giving them a picture of the Cornhuskers' Taylor Martinez.
In those moments, where skill and determination blended with desire and commitment, Mack Brown and his staff saw something else. In the singing, in the shouting, in the jumping--right there in Nebraska--they saw a togetherness they had been looking for.
Now, they were a team.