Bill Little commentary: The chess game
"When earth's last picture is painted, and the tubes are twisted and dried," wrote Rudyard Kipling, "when the oldest colors have faded, and the youngest critic has died...."
He goes on to tell a spectacular tale of the future life of an artist who will paint for the joy of the painting. Somewhere high above Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium Saturday, ole Rudyard must have smiled.
On a sun-splashed canvas before more than 85,000 people and a national television audience, the match of the famed helmets -- the Longhorn silhouette of Texas and the "N" of Nebraska -- took place. The 2007 versions of both teams may have been searching for their identities, and the pre-game chatter had been more about other things than a contest between two of the winningest programs in college football history.
But when the two teams kicked off Saturday, a classic college football game broke out, and they played the game for the fun of it.
Football, by its nature, is a lot like chess, which is sport's version of a war battle. The coaches are the architects of the battle, and the players are the warriors who execute. The strategy begins long before the game, as coaches and players view films and check tendencies to plan their attack, or their defense.
And that is why Saturday was, in its own way, a masterpiece.
Nebraska had been criticized on and off the field, and the Cornhuskers entered the game intent on changing that. There is immense pride in playing defense at Nebraska, and there is no fury like a wounded animal fighting for survival.
That is why Nebraska came into Austin intent on disrupting everything Texas had been successful at offensively. Meanwhile, Texas looked at Nebraska's entire season, and even to season's beyond, to see that the Cornhuskers had blitzed on only 19 per cent of their plays.
Texas' success had been by the pass, and by blitzing, the Cornhuskers figured to put more people into the gaps to stop the run -- which they hadn't done in their last games -- as well as disrupt the quarterback.
Greg Davis and the Longhorns offense had anticipated some changes, and had dusted off the "zone read." a play where the quarterback reads the defense and either keeps the ball or hands to his running back. Earlier in the year, the play had not been effective, but with the evolvement of Colt McCoy's running ability, Davis figured it was a viable option to the traditional things Texas had done over the last several games, so he included it in the preparations.
Through three quarters, Texas had explored the run 30 times, compared with 26 passes. But Nebraska had blitzed on almost every play, shutting down the gaps. Determined to stop the run, it had allowed the Horns an average of less than four yards a carry, with one long run of 18 yards. If you take away that Vondrell McGee run, a 10-yard run by Jamaal Charles and a 12-yarder by quarterback Colt McCoy, Texas was averaging just 2.8 yards per rush -- and their continued determined effort at the running game even had the orange-clad crowd restless.
If you are superstitious, the time could have been an omen -- one way or the other. Texas trailed 17-9, and the clock read 13:13 remaining in the fourth quarter. McCoy had the breath knocked out of him on an incomplete pass play. Back to the chess game, that caused Texas to insert freshman quarterback John Chiles into the game. Chiles, a gifted runner, executed the zone read, handing the ball to Charles.
Moves counter moves in chess, as they do in football. Nebraska was aware of Chiles' reputation as a runner, and for a split second they turned loose the fastest player in college football, who broke for 25 yards. McCoy, frustrated, angered and fired up, returned to the game on the next play and repeated the zone read, this time keeping it himself for 24 yards.
Charles broke for 25 yards and a touchdown on the next play. It was 17-15.
Mack Brown, long a disciple of the running game, has always had a premise about it: You need to run the ball in the "red zone" going in to score from the 20 and coming off of your goal line, and you need to run the ball in the fourth quarter.
Brown and his offensive coordinator Greg Davis were in the process of winning their 100th game together at Texas. And as he dug deep in his basket of principles, working hard to keep this 2007 football team on a roll, it would be the run that would carry his team.
"Football," he would tell his team after the game, "is about groups working together. You just kept fighting."
Another fundamental premise of football is that if you keep pounding at a team long enough, eventually, even the Nebraska defense -- which was playing in the fashion that earned the "Blackshirts" national respect through the 1990s -- will wear down. When you pass, said Darrell Royal, three things can happen and two are bad.
When you blitz -- when you "bring the house" as they say, three things can happen, and one is really bad. You can disrupt the opponent's offense, you can get cause a turnover, or -- and this is the danger - you can get burned badly.
And so it was that after the Longhorns' defense had held after Nebraska had blasted McCoy into a fluttering pass that was intercepted, the Cornhuskers punted Texas down to its own 2-yard line. Now, 8:52 seconds remained in the game, and Texas was 98 yards away and trailing, 17-15.
An old sage once told me "speed don't have a bad day," and that would prove the undoing of Nebraska's gallant upset effort. They had had an answer for Texas' productive passing game. They had matched UT in the kicking game. They had blitzed Texas effectively, disrupting any consistent running game. But they had no answer for speed.
On the first play, Charles fought for four yards. It was second and six. McCoy executed the zone read and took it eight yards for a first down at the 14. There were less than eight minutes left when McCoy brought his team out of the huddle. Nebraska blitzed as he gave the ball to Charles, who swept outside. Maybe it was the result of the long day, and maybe it was just that an antelope will outrun a deer, but when Charles made it to the corner and got a downfield block from Quan Cosby, speed had just arrived at the party. Eighty-six yards later, in one of the longest touchdowns run in Texas history, he scored to put Texas ahead, 21-17.
Even so, the chess game continued. Nebraska moved quickly from its own 25 to the Texas 29. But six plays into the drive, Frank Okam stripped the ball from quarterback Sam Keller and recovered it. The defense, the other part of those collective "groups" of which Mack had spoken, had posted.
"Keep pounding," is the philosophy of those who subscribe to the glories of the run game, and that's what Texas did. But again, Nebraska battled. They stuffed Charles for a loss of three on the same play he'd broken for 86. They stopped McCoy for no gain. Then, in Texas' only pass play since the first play of the period, McCoy connected with Jermichael Finley for a by-inches first down on a 3rd-and-13 play. Charles tried for five, then for two. Time was running out, and Nebraska stopped the clock with 3:41 remaining. And on the next snap of the ball, Charles broke a tackle and went 40 yards for a score that effectively put the game away.
Nebraska would battle back for a late touchdown, Texas would cover an on-sides kick and the Longhorns would run out the clock. When it was over, Charles had rushed for 290 yards on the game, including 216 in the fourth quarter -- just a few yards shy of the best rushing quarter in NCAA history.
The heroes would be many, with Ryan Bailey -- who had kicked the winning field goal the year before against the Cornhuskers -- giving the Longhorns their first nine points on three field goals, and the defense making critical stops when it had to. Texas wound up rushing for 364 yards after the huge fourth quarter, and totaled 545 yards for the game.
With representatives from the Rose, Sugar, Cotton and Gator Bowls watching, the Longhorns kept alive their hopes for a share of the Big 12 South Division championship and a major bowl bid.
All of which brings us back to Rudyard Kipling, one of our most enduringly popular writers, who took a pointed dig at his critics when he wrote about the artist and the real reason for those who paint, and those who play.
Walton Greene, writing in the Harvard Monthly, said it this way: "So let us for a time forget the analytically disposed critics. Let us take Mr. Kipling for what he is, and not for what others pretend they think he is. Let us take the best he has to give us, and let us look upon what is not so good with a tolerant eye, mindful of the fact that when 'the youngest critic' has died, Time and Time alone will be the final judge."
And in that space, Texas and Nebraska played a game to remember Saturday.