Bill Little commentary: A lesson in anatomy
If sport reflects life, then Saturday's Texas-Texas Tech football game was a wonderful example of a educational experience.
First, you learned about psychology. What other way is there to describe all of the mental processes that go into the highs and lows of three-and-a-half hours of a college football game?
Then, the game was about human anatomy: The eyes, the brain, muscles...even the sweat glands.
And when it all was said and done, it came down to a basic fact learned in third-grade math: the simple value of an inch. In a game where two football teams accounted for over 1,000 yards, the game ironically was decided by a couple of inches
The first course to study, in considering the dynamics of the annual Texas visit to the South Plains, is psychology. Friday night before Saturday's game, a Lubbock television station reported that the Longhorns' every-other-year appearance at Jones AT&T Stadium is the city's biggest single economic weekend boost. The only thing close is when Texas A&M appears in the years Texas doesn't.
For almost 50 years, since the Red Raiders joined their older state brothers in the Southwest Conference, nothing causes a greater stir than the opportunity to play and potentially defeat them.
Texas has dominated the series overall, leading the Red Raiders, 34-13 in league games. But nine of those losses came in emotionally charged games in Lubbock.
Such was the scenario the Longhorns faced as they ventured to the South Plains. They hadn't lost a road game on an opponent's home field since Tech beat Texas in 2002. Psychologically, Texas Tech was ready for Texas, and the Red Raiders started the game about as hot as any team ever.
With quarterback Graham Harrell hitting 14-of-19 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns and the Raider defense gaining two turnovers (including a pass interception for a touchdown), Tech held a 21-0 lead at the close of the first quarter.
That was when the Texas psychology began to activate.
Mack Brown simply turned to logic.
"If we think," he said, "that we can't score 21 points in this game, then we shouldn't be here."
In his analysis of games, Brown regularly quotes certain benchmarks as keys to victory. One is, how you perform in the last five minutes of the first half, and the first five minutes of the second half.
You also need to win the turnover ratio.
But on this night in Lubbock when everything was out of sorts for Texas, those would not be the deciding factors. Tech would score a touchdown with 24 seconds remaining in the first half, and take a 31-21 lead into the dressing room.
Throughout the season, Texas had struggled with injuries on the defensive side of the ball. The last time the Longhorns had lost in Lubbock, they were so decimated, they actually finished the game with eight freshmen on the field trying to stop Tech's winning drive.
But as Gene Chizik and Duane Akina talked with their defense, which had surrendered 364 yards and 31 points, they were talking, not about those injuries, but the psychological importance of sweat glands.
Brown had already told his quarterback, Colt McCoy, that it would be important for him to show confidence through his eyes. There he was, less than three hours away from his old high school in Tuscola, south of Abilene, playing in front of a whole bunch of his friends from home - many of whom were now students at Texas Tech.
Now Chizik was telling his defense not to show they were afraid, or tired.
And in the face of Brown's philosophy, Texas went three-and-out on their first series of the second half.
But as Tech tried to recapture its sizzling first half effort, the Texas defense began to come alive. A heavy rush forced an intentional grounding call against Harrell, and a sack forced a punt.
Brown had told his team at halftime, trailing 31-21, "What we have done is to spot them 10 points. Now, we have to go out and outscore them by more than 10."
Colt McCoy was 75 yards away from the Red Raider goal line when he began the first of several critical second-half drives. He ended it with a scramble that carried to the one, from whence Selvin Young punched in a touchdown to cut the 10-point margin down to three, at 31-28.
Now, Tech was still gaining yards, but in smaller chunks. And the Raiders began to shoot themselves in the foot. A delay of game penalty took them out of a fourth-and-two and forced a punt. A clipping penalty on their next series forced another. But the Raiders still led by three as the Longhorns took over at their own 37 with just 49 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The Longhorns mixed the run and the pass, and on third-and-four from the Raider 28, McCoy hit Quan Cosby for a touchdown. With just under 13-and-a-half minutes left in the game, Texas had come all the way back. The Longhorns led, 35-31.
Three times Texas Tech would threaten, and three times Texas would rebuff them. First, with a pass interception by Ryan Palmer, who not only picked off Harrell, he turned the field around with a 28-yard return. But this time, it was the Raider defense that rose to the occasion, and the Longhorns went three-and-out.
Now, from its 18, Tech began to drive. The Raiders moved to the Texas 30, facing third-and-10. And then, in their most critical mistake of the game, Tech didn't get the snap off in time and were charged with delay of game. The five-yard penalty pushed the ball back to the 35. After an incomplete pass, it was fourth-and-15. The Raiders needed to reach the 20-yard line. Harrell's pass was complete to Joel Filani at the 21, but Palmer met him with a solid tackle, and he failed get to the yard stripe.
Officials called for a review. The call stood. It was Texas' ball. But two plays later, Texas fumbled and Tech recovered at the Longhorn 24. Five minutes and 15 seconds remained.
Three plays later, it was fourth-and-one at the Longhorn 15. Texas Tech had run 74 plays in the game and had gained 518 yards. Only about four and a half minutes remained.
The old adage we learned as kids tells us about a horse whose rider could have saved a kingdom, but "for want of a nail" the horse threw a shoe and, well, you know the rest.
Texas Tech get its yards in chunks. The Raiders do not deal in nails. As Harrell moved to an unfamiliar spot under center, the Texas defensive front won the push in the trenches. As he tried to slip to the side of the pile, his foot gave way, and Drew Kelson slammed him down.
When they had measured after the third-down play, the ball was two inches shy of a first down. When the fourth down play was over, it was the length of the football away, and Texas had the ball.
McCoy and the Longhorns finished off the Raiders, with McCoy's 33-yard scramble on a third-down play sealing the victory.
The defense hadn't blinked in the second half, coming up with three remarkable stops in the final period alone. Despite the bumps and the bandages and a valiant Tech effort, the Texas defense had prevailed. Tech finished the game with those 518 yards. It was the final two inches that they had needed.
When the game was over, Texas had run 75 plays and Tech had run 75 plays. McCoy had thrown for four touchdowns and the Longhorn offense had accounted for 483 yards.
After his post-game television interviews, McCoy, his lip busted and still clutching the game ball he had twice taken a knee with to end the game, searched for Graham Harrell, one of the many Tech players with whom he was friends.
Then, he made his way to the north end of the stadium, where the Longhorn Band was playing some more of that anatomy stuff, a song about the "Eyes" of Texas.
The psychology of this Longhorn team has been encapsulated in its 2006 theme, "Just Do What You Do," and in Brown's admonition, "just keep playing."
In the locker room after the game, Brown reflected on that.
"We lost the turnovers and a whole bunch of the stats we feel are important, he said. "But in the end, what it proves is that what matters is that you never gave up. You just kept playing."
McCoy and his coach would also articulate one more factor, one that fits right into that business of human anatomy.
In the book, "One Heartbeat," an acclaimed Austin heart surgeon named Tom Kirksey describes the heart as the most powerful muscle in the human body.
"Even after the rest of the body is trying to shut down," he says, "the heart keeps on trying to beat."
More and more in this remarkable season of 2006, that has been the story of this Texas Longhorn team. They have faced injuries, and tough situations, but they have somehow kept playing.
And in that space, they will tell you, it is all about the heart.