Bill Little commentary: The horse race
Sept. 19, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
LUBBOCK - All week, Mack Brown had quoted his friend Darrell Royal.
"Football doesn't build character," he said. "It reveals it."
And if ever a game fit that premise, it was the Longhorns' 24-14 victory over Texas Tech before a record crowd of 60,454 in AT&T Jones Stadium on Saturday night.
Interesting word, that "character."
Royal also once said that character is, "...what you do when no one else is watching."
Saturday, it was what you did when everybody was watching.
You would have to be on some other planet in the football universe to not understand that Texas' visit to the South Plains this season would be fraught with memories and reminders.
When the Longhorns left Lubbock in 2008 with their dreams of an unbeaten season shattered, every single person--from the players to the coaches to the traveling staff--were left to wonder, "If I had only...."
So without saying it, this weekend's trip for the Texas Longhorns was a psychological combine of the past and the present--remembering and all the while fitting the pieces of a growing legacy of their own. In the space of three hours and eighteen minutes, irony gave each Longhorn of the past a chance for redemption. More important in the moment, however, it gave the Longhorn team of 2010 a shot at defining its identity.
In its own way, football is the ultimate game of momentum. A single player cannot turn the momentum or seize it. But it also has some of the characteristics of other sports. And Saturday night was like a horse race.
The tenor of the game was set early, but it would be defined late. The Longhorns broke from the gate quickly when the defense did not allow Texas Tech a first down in the entire first quarter. Garrett Gilbert, after two games of conservative efficiency, appeared to be finally like the little kid who got to come out and play. The resulting 14-0 lead, and an ensuing 44-yard drive that put the ball at the Texas Tech 20, had all but silenced the Red Raider crowd, which included a student section that was already in place and screaming when the Longhorns arrived at the stadium two hours before the game.
For all the world - a full stadium and a national television audience - it appeared the game was about to go to 21-0, or at least 17-0. However nothing normal, it seems, ever happens in Lubbock. A Texas Tech lineman tipped Gilbert's pass and intercepted it. But on the next play, Blake Gideon intercepted a Tech pass and brought it back to the Raider 20. Again, it looked as though it was about to become a three-score Longhorn lead.
But three plays later, a Tech lineman again tipped Gilbert's pass, and when the defensive back who picked it off at the Red Raider 13 finished running, it was 14-7 and the crowd was back in the game. The remarkable first quarter numbers statistically would, however, set the tone for the game. Texas had the ball for 12 minutes of the 15 minute quarter. Early in the second quarter, Texas Tech would mount its only drive of the game, going 68 yards to tie it at 14-14. That is the way the half ended. Texas Tech had taken advantage of three interceptions on tipped balls and one sustained drive to get back in the game. The horses were even at the turn.
In would be a battle down the stretch, and Texas Tech started the second half with an 11-play drive that moved the ball all the way to the Texas 16. What was it Darrell said that Mack quoted so often...that part about football "revealing" character? Curtis Brown stepped in front of a Red Raider pass and in one defining moment returned it 74 yards--turning the field, and the game, around.
Justin Tucker's 27-yard field goal gave Texas the lead for good at 17-14.
Eight minutes and thirty-nine seconds remained in the third quarter. From that point, Texas Tech would get no closer to the Longhorn goal line than the UT 47. Four of the Raiders' final five drives ended without a first down. In fact, the Raiders picked up only two first downs for the rest of the game.
The team concept of football was underscored in that window of time. In a remarkable drive that actually covered 90 yards following an initial penalty and consumed 22 plays and nine minutes and twenty-five seconds, Garrett Gilbert stepped dramatically into the role of a field general as a young sophomore in only his third start as a Longhorn.
"The drive," as it will be known--at least until the next one--was kept alive by Ryan Roberson's two yard run for a first down on a fourth down fake punt that Mack Brown called from his own 29 yard line. Sensing the need to reclaim that momentum as the horses headed toward the stretch, Brown's gutsy call came five plays into the victory-sealing drive.
"Ryan's a good runner, and I felt like we needed to keep the ball. I told him if he didn't make it, to just head on west and not back to Austin. I figured I was going to have to go with him at that point," Brown said. "Nobody in his right mind fakes a punt from his own 30."
The drive helped the Longhorns to a time of possession advantage that found them with the ball for almost 38 minutes to just over 22 for Texas Tech. The game's defensive chart showed a stunning 22 players with either tackles or pass break ups for the Longhorn defense and special teams - led by Eddie Jones and Gideon with five tackles, and Jones with two sacks.
Defense and the kicking game wins tight games and championships, and Justin Tucker's superlative effort in placements, punts and kickoffs was a huge factor in the game. The Red Raiders' average starting field position was at their own 24 yard line, compared with Texas' average starting position at the UT 41.
What Gilbert's performance lacked in statistical flamboyance, it more than made up for in leadership. The balanced Longhorn attack mixed a total of eight players with rushing statistics and seven players with receptions, led by James Kirkendoll's 122 yards on six catches.
In the stiflingly steamy opponents' dressing room beside the tunnel where the vocal Tech fans had greeted them several hours before, the Longhorns celebrated their third victory in their last four trips to Lubbock. Mack Brown talked about his team as one which was close to exhaustion in the late summer heat, but one which had met the challenge and withstood it.
Observers, on the other hand, talked about the strange things that always happen in Lubbock. How a game on the brink of a possible runaway had turned into a neck-and-neck race with but thirty minutes to play on a moon-lit night on the South Plains. "Easy," in fact, might have been fun and might have been cool, and there might even have been some hollow payback in that. But the truth is, it is the horse who is challenged and then holds off the challenger, who not only wins the race, but becomes the champion. It is then that the kid in all of us comes out to play, and shows that character is not built, but revealed.