Bill Little commentary: While you were sleeping
Sept. 7, 2008
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
EL PASO, Texas -- It had been a typical beginning, and every Mack Brown team since he came to Texas has learned to prepare for it. Regardless of how a team has looked on video, regardless of the pundits impressions, they will play Texas with a different fervor -- a different scheme and attitude -- than they have played others.
It is called "the surge."
And so it was that the Texas Longhorns came to El Paso to play the University of Texas at El Paso Miners. Not since 1933, when Clyde Littlefield was still coaching football at Texas -- before Jack Chevigny's 1934 team beat Notre Dame and Dana Bible became a legend and Darrell Royal a treasure...well, you get the point. It had been 75 years since the Longhorns had played what was then called "Texas College of Mines."
Now, as part of the extensive University of Texas System, the two schools are part of the same family of educational institutions. And as far as the college football world is concerned, Big Brother had come to town.
Since the game was announced a couple of years ago, the city that hugs the border between New Mexico and Texas, as well as the international juxtaposition of the United States and the Republic of Mexico, had looked forward to this night.
And at the end of two spectacular sun-splashed days, the Sun Bowl Stadium was packed with the bright orange of UTEP and the burnt orange of the flagship university of the System from Austin.
Conference television packages are tremendously important, and ratings dictate their success. So when a non-BCS league like Conference USA gets a chance to enhance a television partner like ESPN2, they'll play the thing at midnight if they have to, and they darned near did. That is why the start time -- 10:30 p.m. on the east coast -- kept fans who watched the game to conclusion up almost as late as some of the Olympic events from Bejiing.
To frustrate the TV viewers who wanted to see the game even more, ESPN2 got caught with an overtime game with South Florida and Central Florida which prevented joining the party in El Paso until 26 minutes had expired.
That was a shame, because the set-the-scene pre-game had to be ditched, along with most of the first quarter. And if you missed that, you missed the surge. The Miners, who had been embarrassed in their season opener at Buffalo, started the game with two crisp drives and a defensive three-and-out stop. But to the Longhorns' credit, both drives were limited to field goals, giving UTEP a 6-0 lead.
But before the quarter had ended, cooler heads had prevailed. Texas took off on the first of three 80-yard touchdown drives, and Colt McCoy led the Longhorns to touchdowns on their next four possessions, taking the score to 28-6 before a late Miner TD cut it to 28-13 at half.
McCoy would finish the night by throwing four touchdown passes, connecting on 20-of-29 tosses for 286 yards. Fozzy Whitaker made an effective debut at running back, finishing the game with 72 yards on 12 carries.
Roddrick Muckelroy would be spectacular in leading the defense, collecting 14 tackles and returning a fumble for a touchdown that put the game away at 42-13 - the eventual final score.
But you could make a case that the star of the game was veteran wide receiver and kick returner Quan Cosby. First of all, Cosby had eight pass receptions for 154 yards, including a long gain of 39 yards and a touchdown reception of 16. It was Cosby who caught the Longhorns' TD that overcame the 6-0 lead near the end of the first quarter.
The turning part of the game came, however, on successive drives in the second quarter with the Longhorns leading, 14-6.
Jose Martinez, the UTEP kicker, has one of the strongest legs in America. So strong, for example, that his coach, Mike Price, had let him try a 66-yard field goal at the end of the half in Buffalo. That is only one yard shy of the NCAA record, achieved in the late 70s when a kicker could use a different ball, and the rules allowed teams to take long shots at field goals because the ball would automatically be a touchback and a subsequent drive would start from the 20...so a field goal then was just as effective as a punt.
Now, of course, the ball on a missed kick is returned to the line of scrimmage.
All of that Quan Cosby knew as he watched Martinez line up for a 65-yard field goal attempt with the ball at the UT 48-yard line. And, he had been well taught. Typically, on a long field goal attempt, Texas will send Cosby -- the usual punt returner -- into the game. That way, if the other team fakes, or chooses to punt, the Longhorns have a safety on the field.
Cosby had watched the video of the Buffalo game, and he also had seen NFL games, particularly one where former Longhorn Nathan Vasher claimed an NFL record for a 108-yard return for a touchdown.
So when Cosby went on the field, he remembered that Duane Akina and Brown had told him it was within the rules for him to run it out.
"We had told him, 'We will get the ball at the 48 if he misses,'" Brown remembered. "'If you think you can go farther than that, go for it.'"
And that is exactly what Cosby did.
As Martinez's kick nestled just short of the goal posts at the back of the end zone, Cosby caught it, carefully making sure not to step on the end line that would put him out of bounds. Then he looked up, and saw enough real estate in front of him to run almost to Juarez, El Paso's sister city across the border.
"I thought, 'Man, I can have some fun with this,'" Cosby remembered.
With a couple of blocks near midfield, Cosby returned the ball 65 official yards to the Miner 35-yard line. (NCAA rules do not count yardage beyond the goal line.)
Texas, running on every down, slammed in its third touchdown to make it 21-6. On the next series, Cosby added an exclamation point to his sensational half, catching a 39-yard pass from McCoy to ignite an 86-yard touchdown drive to take the score to 28-6.
Cosby's effort on the rare play underscored what may be a sign of this 2008 version of Mack Brown's Longhorns. First, the veteran coaching staff put him in position to make a play, and second, he had the maturity and ability to act on the chance.
In many ways, this was what is commonly referred to as a "trap" game -- an easily overlooked opponent with better than advertised talent, on the road in a really late game, and coming after they've looked bad and you've played well. After the game, Brown remembered some tough times a year ago, when a different Longhorn team had trouble responding to adversity. In a couple of games early in 2007, opponents surged, and Texas didn't answer. He would say after the game that this trip to El Paso was positive, in that it showed a really young Texas team what kind of pressure they will face in places like Colorado, Kansas, and Lubbock.
Game two was far from perfect. The statistics even favored the Miners. What was effective, however, was the efficiency. The Longhorns were on the short side of time of possession (36:41-22:33) and plays run (77-60). To be sure, there were growing pains on defense. But early in the morning at the end of the game in El Paso, the offense, the defense and the kicking game had done their jobs.
Suddenly, after two games, a team everybody thought would take a while to develop, and a team ranked fifth among its Big 12 counterparts in the early national polls, has moved to No. 8 in the country. It is a long way from flawless. But you have to love the excitement, and the energy.
And you have to celebrate its promise.