Bill Little commentary: An early winter's day dream
As the door to the Continental jet opened, and the occupants spilled onto the tarmac at Austin Bergstrom International Airport and headed toward their buses, you had to wonder if it had been only a dream, or an episode from "The Twilight Zone."
Still bundled in their winter gear, the juxtaposition of 85-degree heat, a gentle breeze and a perfect sunset seemed surreal as the cast of characters strolled from the big plane into the Texas evening.
Had they, only a couple of hours before, really been on the floor of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, with a record crowd of over 85,000? Had the freezing cold suddenly been accompanied by swirling snow, just as it appeared their Big 12 record winning streak was gone with the bitter north wind?
And just when all appeared lost, had they really made the plays to win the game?
In the final act of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," William Shakespeare drives home a point about theater, making it very clear that the ending of his play could just as easily have been tragedy, rather than comedy.
In the end, the actors all gather, telling a story that blends fantasy with reality.
So as they walked to their buses, like a movie crowd exiting into the sunlight from a gripping story in a darkened theater, it was sometimes hard to distinguish between the environmental conditions distanced by 800 miles. In a real life football story that had predicaments and heroes, perils and punctuation marks, Texas had won a classic.
The day had begun early, with the team and its coaches rising before the sun. Which, incidentally, didn't make an appearance in Nebraska's heartland until late in the afternoon, long after the battle was over.
The bus ride from Omaha came in the dark, with a cold rain pelting the buses, and the lights of the police escort eerily reflecting off of the dampened road way. Being a weather forecaster in Nebraska is just like the job in Texas. Usually, it's "wait five minutes, and things will change."
This time, however, the prognosticators nailed it. A storm system rolling east from the Rocky Mountains would first bring a cold rain, and at midday in Lincoln, just as the Texas Longhorns and the Nebraska Cornhuskers were settling into the business of a huge nationally telecast college football game, the snow would come.
What we knew this day on the plains of the Heartland was that Texas was No. 5, Nebraska was No. 17. But in the most important ranking of the day, the relentless north wind was Number One. Winter was coming early in Nebraska.
Games where the forces of nature combine with the collision of kindred human spirits are part of history's fiber in football. When the Big 12 was formed, one of the great contrasts of interest was the cold of the North Division versus the heat in the South. All week, Nebraska had been buoyed by the notion that the elements would be on their side.
In Austin, Texas retreated to its indoor facility to avoid heat that reached into the 90s. But when Mack Brown told the team the forecast was for cold weather, Kasey Studdard, the big offensive guard from Colorado, pounded on his chest and screamed, "Yeah!"
By the time the captains walked to mid-field for the coin flip, the rain had stopped, but not the wind. As the Nebraska band played the National Anthem, the kids in the flag line were having to hang on to keep their banners from blowing down the field. At the top of Memorial Stadium, high above the largest crowd in school history, the flags looked starched, dead toward the south.
When Nebraska won the coin toss and deferred, Texas took the football, and the Huskers had the wind. But sometimes, you get what you wanted, and lose what you had. The wind was so strong, Nebraska had to employ one of its players as a holder, and the opening kickoff, which under normal windy conditions likely would have sailed far beyond the end zone, was shortened because the kick had to be held.
Quan Cosby caught it on the run and 78 yards later, he was tackled at the Huskers' nine-yard line. The tenor of the game was set when the Nebraska defense stiffened and held, and the Longhorns had to settle for a Greg Johnson 22-yard field goal that gave Texas a 3-0 lead.
Cosby had turned the field around, but Johnson's kick would later prove to be the key to the game...but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
It was clear from the beginning that this was to be a defensive game, and the Longhorns' defense, despite continuing to be plagued by injuries, proved worthy. Two defenders collided, knocking each other off of a receiver, and Nebraska netted a 63-yard scoring pass. Later in the first half, the Huskers connected on a 28-yarder. Take away those two plays, and the Longhorn defense held Nebraska to a remarkable 10.5 inches, less than a foot on the average, of their other 24 first half plays.
With the wind in the second quarter, Texas scored two touchdowns, and held a 16-7 lead. But as Johnson's leg began to tighten, he was short on a 39-yard field goal attempt that could have given the Horns a bigger cushion.
As the second half began, the streets stretching east beyond the big stadium were now dry, the result of the ever-present wind. And Nebraska exercised its option, and received the football as Texas rode the wind on its kickoff and Hunter Lawrence nailed it out of the end zone.
Texas missed a chance to score late in the third quarter, when a 67-yard drive ended as Johnson pulled a 31-yard field goal attempt to the right, and it was 16-7 when the third quarter ended. The Cornhuskers now had the favoring wind at their backs with the ball at midfield.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, quarterback Zac Taylor flipped a shovel pass to running back Brandon Jackson, who broke a couple of tackles and raced for a touchdown, and it was 16-14.
Colt McCoy, with his predecessor Vince Young taking advantage of an off weekend for his Tennessee Titans and watching from the sidelines, hooked Texas up on a remarkable drive into the wind. He hit 7-of-8 passes and ran for 10 more yards on two carries on a drive that carried from the Texas 19 to the Nebraska four. But again, the Huskers held, and Johnson kicked another 22-yard field goal for a 19-14 lead.
The ensuing Cornhusker drive appeared going nowhere when two false start penalties found them facing second-and-19 before a personal foul call against Texas gave them new life. And when a halfback pass from Marlon Lucky to Nate Swift netted a 25-yard touchdown, Nebraska had a 20-19 lead after a two-point conversion attempt failed.
Then, the snow began.
Relentlessly, the gusting 28-mile per hour north wind blew the icy flakes sideways, and into the face of Colt McKoy and his Longhorns. With Johnson's leg ailing, Trevor Gerland punted on fourth down. Only two seconds shy of three minutes remained in the game. The Cornhuskers gained six yards on first down and another on second. It was third-and-three when Texas took its last timeout with 2:23 remaining.
The Longhorns had stuffed the Husker running game all day, and Nebraska knew it. Taylor took the snap, rolled a bit, and then hit wide receiver Terrence Nunn in the short right flat in a gain good enough for what appeared to be a game-ending first down.
Mack Brown would talk in an emotional locker room after the game about the secret that changed the game. It wasn't the wind, it wasn't the snow (although a slick ball might have helped). It wasn't about runs or passes or explosive plays...all of those things pundits call the "keys to the game."
"It is about," he would say, "the fact that you just kept playing. You never gave up. And when it comes down to it, as tough as things seem, you gotta just keep playing."
Now, one last time, Colt McCoy and the Texas offense came onto the field, with 2:17 left in the game and the ball at the Nebraska 45. Even on the occasional chilly nights of the Big Country south of Abilene, McCoy had never played a game in the snow. But a kid from West Texas knows about the wind.
The first play is always important in such a drive, and McCoy hit Cosby for eight yards to the 36. The next pass was batted down incomplete. On third down, McCoy and Cosby hooked up again, this time on a play that carried to the Husker 22. But as Cosby fought for yards, the Huskers' Andrew Shanle separated him from the ball.
For a second, Texas' hopes seemed dashed. Just as suddenly however, Kasey Studdard, the big man who had celebrated the chance to play in the snow, corralled the fumble and Texas was not only still alive, the Longhorns had a first down at the Nebraska 22.
Selvin Young had played the game with his best friend, Vince, watching. Selvin broke outside behind a wall of blockers and finally stepped out of bounds 12 yards later at the Huskers 10.
Now, Texas was in field goal range, and the focus remarkably shifted to a walk on sophomore kicker named Ryan Bailey. With Johnson out of the picture, Bailey was about to become a hero. He walked onto the field, and straight into history.
The Longhorns moved the ball to the five. After a time out and a strategic coach's challenge of the previous incomplete pass...a period that seemed an eternity to Longhorn fans, Bailey faced the angle of the kick from the right hash mark.
"It took Dusty Mangum four years to become a hero," Brown joked with Bailey, referring to Mangum's kick that beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. "Now you're gonna be one with one kick."
Jordan Shipley put the ball down, Bailey's right leg swung, and the ball went dead center between the uprights.
It was Texas 22, Nebraska 20.
Seconds later, in the cold and the snow, it was over. The 5,000 Texas fans celebrated, the band played the Eyes of Texas, and the gracious Nebraska fans and personnel, as they had been throughout, congratulated the Longhorns. Their hope, of course, is that the two will meet again in the Big 12 Championship game in Kansas City in December.
All of that seemed so distant as the Longhorns exited their plane back home in Austin. It wasn't yet 7 p. m., but to the players and coaches, who had begun the day with a 5:30 a.m. wake up call, it might as well have been midnight. The only spark of reality left came when they unpacked their bags and found the contents cold, cold from an early winter in the Heartland. Shakespeare was right, there is little difference between the emotions of tragedy and comedy and of losing and winning in the theater of college football.
When it was all over, Brown had said he would hope that this game, and this team, would be remembered as a reflection of their coaches...a staff that led Texas to a respected place in college football because they simply refuse to quit fighting. They have now won 27 of their last 28 games. That's the best Texas record since a span from 1968 through 1971 when Texas won 33 of 34 games. He pretty well capsuled the game with his assessment of "just keep playing." But you could add a note to that.
Legend has it that two mythical warriors once staged a titanic battle, and all of the people thought the one who could ride the wind would be the winner. But the other, just as strong and more tenacious, won became he could tame the wind.
Saturday in Lincoln, the game would be swayed by the wind, and which team could score going into it. All of the touchdowns for both teams came with the wind. But the warriors who won this particular battle were victorious because they scored nine points, on three field goals, going into the wind.
And in a memorable game where heroes were made, it really did happen that way, on a cold day in Nebraska.