Bill Little commentary: Visions of the fall
It was, to borrow a phrase from the great sports writer Blackie Sherrod, "Rather impossible -- like stuffing a pound of butter in a tiger's ear with a hot ice pick...."
Mack Brown had, in the duration of the afternoon, been -- by his own account -- mad at his team, mad at his coaches and mad at himself.
So now, here was Texas staring at the backside of a 21-point Oklahoma State lead, with only 14:17 remaining in the game. Its offense had floundered, rushing for 141 yards and passing for 137, with three interceptions and 12 completions. The defense had been worse. In the first half alone, the high-powered Cowboy offense had run an amazing 54 plays and by the end of the third quarter it had accumulated 494 yards.
By everything logical, this thing was over.
But football games are not played in logic.
When it comes to the variables that control what happens when young men battle on fields of dreams, it is emotion that wins. And let us be very clear here: there are many different types of emotion.
Oklahoma State had begun the game with fierce emotion. Determined to keep their hopes of playing for the Big 12 South title for the first time alive, they had blasted forth like a skyrocket on the Fourth of July. First, the Cowboys took a 21-0 lead. Then, when Texas fought back, they had taken advantage of a fortuitous timing issue to score just before the half, and by the middle of the third quarter they had the 21-point lead back again.
History tells us many stories of the conflict of styles in energy. The one of the tortoise and the hare comes to mind. Skyrockets, by their nature, are a burst that flares, and then is gone. The rabbit raced out in front and then rested, and here came the steady, take-one-step after the other, turtle.
Let me hasten to say that is strictly metaphorical. There is nothing slow about Jamaal Charles, Jordan Shipley, Jermichael Finley or Colt McCoy, and they would be the ringleaders in the offensive explosion that was about to happen on that perfect afternoon in Stillwater.
The defense had been Texas' version of "the gang that couldn't shoot straight." Missed tackles, uncharacteristic blown assignments, all had contributed to Oklahoma State's success.
But let me stop here for a minute to recall history. Thirty years ago I learned a valuable lesson from Abe Lemons, the late former Longhorns basketball coach who had the innate ability to cut through everything and call "a spade a spade," rather than simply a shovel. I once said that a team had "blown" a 16-point lead. "What about that other team?" asked Abe. "Weren't they playing, too? How do you know that it wasn't their good play that made the difference, and that nobody 'blew' anything?"
I've said this before, but coaching football is like raising kids. They will do things that frustrate you, even anger you, and then amaze you and thrill you. It is the nature of the world of those, coaches and professors, parents and friends, who deal with the world on its way to growing up.
And so it was that, leading 35-14, facing a fourth down and three at the Texas 35, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy decided to ride his high-powered offense into the sunset. He distained the pass, faked the run, and brought his superb receiver Adarius Bowman on an end around. And there, standing for the Texas defense was Deon Beasley, who dropped Bowman for a six-yard loss. Texas had the ball at its own 41.
The bright orange crowd really never saw this one coming. They had suffered in the past from monumental Texas comebacks, but that was with Vince Young and Michael Huff and all those guys. This Cowboy team had emerged as one of the truly outstanding offenses in college football in 2007. They had already answered that specter of Texas comebacks, squashing the Longhorns in the first half.
There was no reason for alarm when McCoy was charged with intentional grounding on the second play of the drive. McCoy made up for that with a 17-yard run, and Charles, who had carried the ball nine times for 55 yards, gained six. Passes to Finley and Quan Cosby and a key first down two-yard run from Chris Ogbonnaya moved the ball to the 18, and with a fake and a twist, Charles broke free for 18 yards. The clock showed 11:40 remaining. Still, it was 35-21. And when Zac Robinson completed a 26-yard pass on a 3rd-and-6 on the next drive, it appeared nothing had changed dramatically. But gradually, the UT defense was coming to life. A Cowboys team that had converted 9-of-13 third downs through three quarters would be limited to only 1-of-5 on their final possessions.
Beasley broke up a pass on third down, and in a game where both punters were superb, Oklahoma State's Matt Fodge's punt was downed at the 1-yard line. Texas was 99 yards away, down by 14 points, and nine minutes and one second remained in the game.
Visions of their South Division showdown with Oklahoma in a few weeks had to be dancing in the heads of the faithful in Stillwater, where T. Boone Pickens' millions of dollars are being put to great use in facility construction.
McCoy hit Nate Jones for three yards on the first play, as a scrambling Cowboy tackler effectively stuffed the play. But then he connected with Quan Cosby for 15 and rushed for six. It was second down, four yards to go, with the ball at the Longhorn 25. Less than eight minutes remained in the game.
And then it happened. Charles broke through excellent line blocking, cut to the left side and was gone. Seventy-five yards later, with 7:30 remaining in the game, he crossed the goal line and it was 35-28. The hangman's noose was loosening from around the Longhorns' neck, and suddenly there was a feel in the still air over Stillwater that hadn't been there before this day.
Again, the Cowboys moved the ball. But when Marcus Griffin cut down Robinson on a third-down play, Fodge nailed Texas at its own nine with another fine punt. McCoy ran for 16 yards. Charles for 14. Jacob Lacey had intercepted three McCoy passes on the afternoon -- one for a touchdown, and another of which he literally took away from Nate Jones.
If there is a shining example of perseverance on this Longhorns team it may be Jordan Shipley. Heralded on his arrival, but stymied in two seasons with injuries, Shipley had been the best example of the guy who just kept working. Now, here was Shipley, one-on-one with Lacey. And through the valley, through the time of fear and doubt, suddenly Jordan Shipley was back to being Jordan Shipley. He broke by Lacey, and McCoy, who was 8-of-9 in the fourth quarter, hit him in stride. Lacey pulled him down right at the goal line, and Vondrell McGee would get the touchdown on a one-yard run. Three minutes and 22 seconds remained.
In the space of barely under 11 minutes, Texas had scored 21 points, including on drives of 99 and 91 yards, and the game was tied, 35-35.
Faith is a strong and powerful thing, and when the Longhorns embarked on their trip to Stillwater, they had carried with them a folded cardboard itinerary with the words "We believe" on the front. On Thursday, in a touching team meeting, they had recognized World War II veteran Frank Denius, who became one of the 10 most decorated U.S. soldiers of the European theater when he charged the beach at Normandy on D-Day more than 60 years ago at age 19. p>
The team had promised to give Denius the game ball in the locker room in Stillwater. Now, for the first time all afternoon, it looked as though Denius was going to have to find his way from his seat in the west end to the locker room by Iba Gallagher Hall at the east end of the stadium.
But still the Cowboys would not quit. Whatever energy was left in the tank, Gundy's crowd summoned it and drove to the Texas 15, where usually reliable kicker Jason Ricks' field goal went wide. Now, with 1:13 left, Texas had a chance to win the game.
It was up to McCoy and Finley and Charles and all of the other receivers and blockers, and from the 20-yard line, they went to work. Finley would have catches of eight and 30 yards, and finally McCoy would run for 14, flashing the Hook 'em, Horns sign as he ran out of bounds with 23 second left. Charles ran for four, and Texas called time out with two seconds remaining.
A little more than a year ago, Longhorns kicker Greg Johnson was suffering from muscle problems in his leg prior to Texas' game with Baylor. Searching for a kicker among the young men who practice by themselves every day, Mack Brown noticed a tall youngster who repeatedly kicked long and straight.
"Why don't we give him a try?" he said.
And so it was that a young man named Ryan Bailey would get his chance. A week later, he would step into the world of college football with a game-winning field goal in the snow at Nebraska. Now, established as one of the best kickers in the country, Ryan Bailey walked onto the field in Stillwater.
Greg Smith snapped the ball, Shipley deftly put it down, and from 40 yards away, Bailey got Frank Denius his game ball. It was 38-35.
The numbers, in the end, would defy imagination. The Texas offense would amass 311 yards in the final quarter, finishing the game with 589 total yards. Charles would rush for 180 total yards, 125 of them in the last stanza. McCoy would finish the game with his first 100-yard rushing game, and would throw for 282 more. The defense would hold the Cowboys to a total of 100 yards in the fourth quarter.
The remarkable win continued a phenomenal road record for Texas, which has lost only two Big 12 games on an opponent's home field in the 21st century.
Do not trouble yourself to search for reasons, or to try to understand. It is the nature of the game. It is the character of this team. Believing, I believe, is a powerful force.
And that is the way it happened, on a perfect day in the red-clay country of Oklahoma.