Oct. 26, 2008
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
All week, you could feel the apprehension.
It was as if the stars were aligned for trouble in what was the third week of a historical voyage through treacherous waters of ranked teams for the Texas Longhorns.
The first tip is that in so many ways, it seems a very long time since the excitement of the State Fair. Then, Texas - not too far removed from a national collegiate top 10 after thought - beat No. 1 Oklahoma and suddenly found itself ranked as the nation's No. 1 team for the first time during the regular season since 1984.
The euphoria over that victory, and that quantum leap, carried over to a showdown with Missouri. That game marked the first time that Texas had played as the No. 1 team in its stadium since 1977. The clue to the puzzle which got its final, dramatic pieces in place in the closing seconds of UT's 28-24 victory over Oklahoma State came as Mack Brown prepared for the Missouri game.
Ranked in the top five and hopeful of moving to number one when Texas knocked off Oklahoma, Missouri lost, 28-23, to unbeaten Oklahoma State. When some folks called the game a surprise upset, Mack Brown did not. He knew the week after Missouri visited Austin, the Cowboys were coming. And he also knew that was no upset that happened in Columbia.
When he invited Lance Armstrong to talk to the team about the pressure of being number one week after week (or year after year in Lance's case), the result was effective. Texas knew it had to be steady, and to not let down.
All of that the Longhorns were able to accomplish. The measure of the day, however, was being able to do that and win against a determined, very good opponent.
Oklahoma State hadn't won in Austin since 1944, when it was known as Oklahoma A&M, and was part of the conference that eventually became the Big 8. When they came to town two years later, Bobby Layne and his teammates took an injured Bob Fenimore (arguably the best player in OSU history) to the woodshed for a 54-6 thrashing.
Since the coming of the Big 12, Oklahoma State has had a most interesting relationship with Texas. For awhile, the two schools shared a bit of a kinship, since neither liked their common foe, Oklahoma. But the team that came into Austin on Saturday was not your grandfather's Oklahoma A&M Aggies, nor was it the frustrated team of yesterday whose hopes to beat the big school in Austin had been dashed time and again.
For 10 seasons, it had almost been as if the Cowboys were cursed by a victory over Texas in 1997. The year before, Texas had crushed OSU, 71-14 in Austin. So when Oklahoma State caught John Mackovic's final version of the Longhorns down, they went for two points after their second touchdown, won 42-16, and tore the goal posts down in Stillwater - after beating a team that would finish the season at 4-7.
The most recent string of heartbreak, of course, had come in the years since 2004, when three times OSU held significant leads, only to have them yanked away.
But what Mack Brown, his coaches and players saw on the video as they watched Mike Gundy's 2008 version of the Cowboys was an excellent football team, with 57 players from the state of Texas. The balanced offensive attack featured great players, and a young Longhorns defense had to adapt to playing a good quarterback surrounded by a first-class running back, a great wide receiver, and one of the best tight ends in America.
The defense brought great athletes as well, and the kicking game had been dynamite.
So as Lance talked about how to play at the highest level day after day, the upper classmen were working hard to tell the young players on the Texas team what they were facing.
Given the more traditional conference game with Texas Tech coming up the next week, it would have been easy to overlook Oklahoma State. The truth is, to have done so would have been fatal. It is a credit to the team and the coaches that they maintained their intensity, right in the face of a determined effort from a quality foe.
No Texas team in history had had to play four straight ranked foes, and certainly none has had to do it ranked No. 1, or at least in the top five. A couple faced three in a row, but none had beaten all three.
All of that set the stage for something akin to a tennis match.
In tennis, as in several other sports, it is important to win your serve. Breaking serve - stopping your opponent, keeping them from scoring - gives you the edge. That was why the 14-0 lead the Longhorns put on the board with two long drives became so important. In the Oklahoma game in Dallas, the Longhorns always seemed to counter when playing from behind, keeping within range of the Sooners until finally putting them away. This time, they were playing from ahead.
In close games like this, you can generally fall back on the tried and true axiom that the game will be decided by "turnovers and the kicking game." This one would be no exception; but it would not be because of an inordinate number. It would have to do with momentum. The Texas defense rose to the occasion early when Earl Thomas caused a fumble and Sergio Kindle recovered it, just when it appeared the Cowboys were driving to match the Longhorns' 7-0 lead.
Then, after kickoff coverage had been a real problem in the first half, the Longhorns' opened the second by turning the field around, nailing the Cowboy kickoff return man at the OSU 5.
But the consistency of the Texas offense and the tenacity of the defense would carry this day. In the game where it was imperative to "hold serve" (as they say in tennis), Texas was superb. The Longhorns' touchdown drives were for 93, 91, 80 and 84 yards, and they ran 77 plays to 64 for Oklahoma State. Texas held the ball for 34 minutes compared to 26 for OSU, and converted an amazing 11 of 14 third down attempts.
Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley were the leaders of an offense which totaled 504 yards, with McCoy hitting 38-of-45 passes (including a record 18 straight completions) for 391 yards and two touchdowns, and Shipley hauling in a Texas record 15 catches for 168 yards.
Henry Melton joined Brian Orakpo and Roy Miller as defensive leaders.
At the end of the day, the eighth victory of the season reflected a "team" victory. The third leg of the four-game stretch against ranked teams had proved to be the hardest. There were moments when Texas could have put the game away and failed, and there were times when Oklahoma State simply won the serve-and-volley nature of the game.
In the locker room, McCoy thanked the defense for stepping up when the offense needed some help, and the coaches - as they have after every game - reminded the players that there are lots of things that need to be corrected.
That, it seems, is the story of this 2008 Longhorn football team. Saturday was a workman kind of victory, earned against a formidable foe. The operative word there is "earned."
For some time now, Texas had lived with the challenge of "earn the right."
In a lot of ways, it does seem a long time since this team earned the mantel of the nation's No. 1 team just two weeks ago. And what we have seen is, they do not give style points in football.
In the end, this deal is pretty simple - the offense, the defense and the special teams must produce more points than the other guys.
And when that happens, you call that a win.