As the play began, it had seemed so promising. Jammal Lord was down to perhaps the final play of regulation in what had been a spectacular night of football when he took the snap in the shotgun formation with only 16 seconds remaining. With Texas clinging to a 27-24 lead, the ball was on the Longhorns 16-yard line. How ironic — 16 seconds and 16 yards. A yard a second and Nebraska would come away with a stunning come-from-behind victory to preserve its national-best active home winning streak.
From the cavern of red and amidst the roar of the biggest crowd in Nebraska history, this is what Lord saw as he took the snap and set up to play.
To his left, Longhorns senior LB Lee Jackson, who played for UT when it beat the Huskers in 1998 (Nebraska's only loss since 1991), was blitzing. To his right, senior DE Cory Redding was beating his blocker. A sack was not an option. With no timeouts left, a sack would, in essence, end the game.
At that moment, Lord saw it. To his right, SE Mark LeFlore had just made a cut toward the pylon on the goal line at the northeast corner of the field. Redshirt freshman DB Cedric Griffin had slipped when LeFlore cut and was desperately trying to recover. Lord saw the open receiver and threw the ball.
There are moments in life when it seems everything goes into slow motion. In a state of suspended animation, the mind's eye sees the world, frame by frame.
We will never really know what Lord saw as the ball floated toward LeFlore., but he had every right and reason to believe that he had just achieved what had seemed impossible only minutes earlier. Three minutes before, Lord and the Huskers had been down 27-17 and Texas seemingly had the game totally under control.
However, football games can be weird science and this one certainly was that. On a night radiating fierce pride and determination from both teams, the game was in doubt because of an offensive pass interference call on a play where Texas appeared to have salted the game away with a completed pass to junior WR Roy Williams. The catch would have gone for a first down that would have allowed UT to run out the clock.
With new life, Nebraska was scratching and clawing its way toward redemption for a season that had seen an uncharacteristic three losses. However, those defeats were in places like Happy Valley, Pa.; Ames, Iowa; and Stillwater, Okla. For the last decade, it was common knowledge in the college football world that nobody wins in Lincoln but Nebraska.
Nobody, that is, except Texas.
All of that Lord knew as he threw and watched.
Then it happened.
It is a basic premise of the game, in fact of any game — great players make great plays and junior CB Nathan Vasher is one of those players.
As Lord had gathered his offense together for the final play, Redding and the Texas defense had a moment together.
"All I remember is that we all kept saying 'we're not going to let them score, we are not going to let them score, we are NOT going to let them score!‚" he said. "And somebody added, 'and if they kick a field goal, we are going to block it.'"
So it was that shortly before 9:33 on the evening of Nov. 2 in Memorial Stadium, Vasher made the play. He saw Lord throw, knowing he had to go for the end zone and he released his underneath coverage and drifted back into the corner. As LeFlore waited for the anticipated game-winning TD pass, Vasher leaped, caught the ball with both hands, landed with one foot in bounds at the 1-yard line and clinched the game for the No. 7 Longhorns.
It was a great play from a defense that had been riddled with injuries and had practically been held together with bailing wire and surgical tape. Gone were two of the stalwarts of the line, junior DT Marcus Tubbs and junior DE Kalen Thornton. True freshman DT Rodrique Wright played valiantly with a hurt leg and Redding would discover on Sunday a bruise he didn't even know that he had. Vasher had twisted his ankle and others were feeling the effects of as physical a game as had been played in a long time.
With his option running and some precision passing, Lord had accounted for a net of 332 yards (234 rush/98 pass), but on this night, the hero would not be the hometown guy.
For it was this night, with a national television audience watching, senior QB Chris Simms had the best game of his career. He threw for a UT-record 419 yards and led an offense that dominated the time of possession battle, particularly in the second half. In the fourth quarter, Texas held the ball for more than 11 minutes of the 15-minute period. Simms connected regularly and effectively to junior FB Ivan Williams and Roy Williams, completing a career-high 29 of a school-record-tying 47 pass attempts.
Walking off the field when the game was over, Simms traversed the long distance to the dressing room between the ropes separating legions of red-clad Huskers fans. Most were polite and complimentary, just as they had been for Mack Brown and Ricky Williams in the UT victory in 1998 that ended a 47-game home winning streak.
The polite young man, who has taken much more than his share of abuse during his career had just had his finest moment in the spotlight, right there at center stage on the plains of Nebraska.
The victory completed one of the toughest four-game stretches in school history. One in which the Longhorns played four teams that were at one time ranked in the nation's Top 10 this season. They had led No. 2 Oklahoma going into the fourth quarter before suffering their only loss and then won on the road at the tremendously tough venues of Manhattan, Kan. and Lincoln, Neb., with a home win against No. 17 Iowa State sandwiched in between.
In the locker room after the game, Brown had talked about a victory of the heart and he was quick to give credit to the Longhorns' opponent because both teams fought their guts out to win that football game. It was a game that spoke mightily to the character, talent and resolve of both teams. There were so many different plays and so many different heroes.
Saturday night was about good things happening to good guys. Simms had the kind of showcase night he deserved. He has had great games before, but this time, everybody noticed.
Redding and his bruised and bandaged group of defensive warriors were right. They did not let them score.
As a tired band of Longhorns piled on the Continental jet as the freezing rain began falling in the upper Midwest and the pilot turned his compass toward home in Texas, the overwhelming feeling was one of being immensely proud. That is why grown men cry and women jump up and scream for joy at a picture on a TV screen.
In that moment in time, life is in slow motion. There is an emotion of being part of something wonderful that transcends miles and TV screens. Whether it is in the game or in the game of life, what it comes down to is that you have to give it your best shot.
That is what that football game was all about Saturday, and when it was over, Texas had won.