"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
24 Oct 2005
by Russell Levine
How quickly reputations change.
At the start of the college football season, Texas coach Mack Brown was known as a great recruiter who couldn't win the big game, thanks mostly to an 0â€“5 record against arch rival Oklahoma since 2000.
The best comparison for Brown's career at Texas seemed to be John Cooper's tenure at Ohio State, during which he compiled a 111â€“43â€“4 record from 1988â€“2000. Cooper routinely churned out 10-win seasons and first-round NFL draft picks, but an inability to beat the school's chief rival eventually spelled doom for him in Columbus. Cooper was a maddening 2â€“10â€“1 against Michigan, often losing with better teams when the Wolverines were having down years. It's not clear whether his replacement, Jim Tressel, is more loved by the Buckeye faithful for winning the 2002 national championship or for his 3â€“1 record against the Wolverines; such is the nature of college football, where a 10â€“1 season can be a considered a failure if the "1" comes against the wrong team.
Brown's big-game reputation has been put to the test three times already this season, and he has passed each exam with flying colors. There was the Week 2 encounter with, oddly enough, Ohio State, when Texas came from behind to beat the Buckeyes 25â€“22 on the road before a stunned sellout crowd. Then, on October 8 in Dallas, Brown and the Longhorns exorcised five years of demons in a 45â€“12 thrashing of the unusually weak Sooners.
Texas's third test came Saturday against the undefeated Texas Tech Red Raiders, who arrived in Austin with a supposedly unstoppable aerial attack, but with shaky credentials as a national power thanks to a pathetic non-conference schedule. Still, when Tech moved the ball early and took a 7â€“3 lead thanks in part to two interceptions of passes by Texas quarterback Vince Young, there was no panic from Brown or his team.
The coach had Young continue throwing and he stuck with his defensive game plan, one that pressured Tech quarterback Cody Hodges, allowing plenty of yardage between the 20s on screens and check-downs, but which locked down in the red zone. The result was Longhorn touchdowns on six straight possessions that turned a 7â€“3 deficit into a 45â€“17 laugher; the final was 52â€“17.
The handling of adversity is a reflection of the maturity of Brown's team, and of Brown as a coach. Cooper frequently came undone against Michigan because he couldn't manage to treat it as just another game, and when things began to go wrong, his team adopted his own nervous character and fell apart.
That was certainly the case for Brown in past years against Oklahoma. But he and the Longhorns didn't fall apart facing a late deficit at Ohio State, and they shook off early turnovers that could have kept this year's Oklahoma game close going into the second half.
With Texas firmly entrenched at no.2 in the BCS standings, and with no ranked teams remaining on the regular-season schedule and no dominant team awaiting in the Big 12 championship game, it appears that Brown won't have to go to the same lengths as last year to secure a spot in Pasadena. He was heavily criticized last season for publicly lobbying voters to move his team up into position to receive a BCS bid. At the time, it appeared to be the desperate pleadings of a desperate coach, one who was destined to see another 10-win season culminate in a second-tier bowl game. But a funny thing happened on the way to Cooper-dom. Enough voters listened that Texas was able to claim what had been assumed to be Cal's spot in the Rose Bowl. The criticism was largely forgotten (except in Berkeley) when Texas staged a late comeback to beat Michigan, 38â€“37, giving Brown what most would consider the first "big" win of his Texas tenure.
It doesn't appear that Brown will need to resort to pleading this season -- although no. 3 Virginia Tech may have something to say about that -- but just in case, he's warming up the stump speech. After dusting off Texas Tech, Brown said of his team, "I thought at the first of the year, nobody deservers to be no. 2. I thought USC deserved to be no.1 and nobody else had done enough to deserve anything past that. Now, I think this team definitely deserves to be no. 2 in the country."
Brown may not be lobbying for the top spot, but he doesn't have to. The computers will still have their say, but Texas has the ability to post lopsided wins the rest of the way, and with human elements accounting for two-thirds of the BCS standings, that should be enough to keep them ahead of even an undefeated Virginia Tech, and possibly even to challenge USC for the top spot.
The calm demeanor Texas has displayed since last year's Rose Bowl will surely come in handy if the Longhorns do indeed end up in Pasadena against USC. Texas certainly appears to have the best combination of offense and defense to challenge the Trojans. Young gets most of the credit for Texas's success, and deservedly so (he's completing 65% of his passes and rushing for 65 yards a game), but he is complemented by dominant offensive and defensive lines, and speed at every position.
If Brown is able to take his team to a national championship this year, he may not have to hear the name John Cooper anymore. Instead, the comparisons may be to another coach who was knocked for years as unable to win the big one -- former Nebraska legend Tom Osborne.
In the second act of his career, Osborne won three national titles in four years before retiring to a position in the U.S. House of Representatives. Brown has already shown political skills; all he needs now is a championship ring.
We're still taking it easy on Mike Martz as he recovers from a serious heart ailment, and if John L.'s teams posts any more stinkers like Saturday's home shellacking by Northwestern, the trophy for the sketchiest coaching call of the week may take up permanent residence in East Lansing.
But just to show I'm not biased against Sparty, Michigan's Lloyd Carr is candidate for the Trophy this week after resorting to the exact same, ultra-conservative strategy trying to protect a three-point lead against Iowa as he had against Penn State the week before. Once again, putting the game in the hands of his defense nearly cost him the win, but this time the Wolverines were bailed out in overtime.
Other candidates include Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who went against his own tendencies in decided to kick what TMQ would label a "fraidy-cat" punt against Texas. The snap was mishandled, Texas scored a quick touchdown, and the rest was history.
But the award goes to Washington State coach Bill Doba, who called for a fake punt with a 10-point lead at Cal midway through the fourth quarter. It was 4th-and-2, and the ball was at the Cal 38, so a fake probably wasn't a huge shock to the Bears, especially after UCLA had pulled one off in a similar situation against them two weeks ago. The run was stuffed, Cal took over and scored two plays later and the comeback was on as Cal went on to win 42-38. If you're going to go for it in that situation, just line up and go for it! Most of the time, you're not going to beat a team by tricking them, especially when the trick comes in an obvious situation.
1.Southern Cal (1): Margin between USC and Texas is getting closer.
2. Texas (2): Mack Brown, big-game coach?
3. Virginia Tech (3): All the ingredients for an upset were there vs. Maryland, but Hokies' D wouldn't let it happen.
4. Notre Dame (7): Yes, they've lost twice. Would you pick Georgia or Alabama against them straight up?
5. Georgia (4): The drop-off from the top three starts here.
6. Alabama (5): Two weeks without Prothro and no offense. Uh oh.
7. Miami (Florida) (6): Revenge date on tap vs. North Carolina.
8. UCLA (8): At home they can beat anybody. Not so sure about the road.
9. LSU (10): Could still have a big say in the SEC race.
10. Penn State (12): So maybe they won't miss Williams that much.
11. Boston College (9): Chance to move up vs. Virginia Tech Thursday.
12. Florida State (11): Duke fills role as get-well medicine.
13. Ohio State (13): Still may be most complete team in Big 10.
14. Oregon (14): Now at QB, Ryan Leaf's little brother.
15. Auburn (16): Moving up after OT loss at LSU.
16. Northwestern (NR): This may be too high, but we'll find out Saturday night.
17. Wisconsin (20): Northwestern loss looks better this week.
18. TCU (22): Rolling right along after bombing Air Force.
19. Florida (19): Catching Georgia without Shockley is a break.
20. West Virginia (23): Big East officials praying they win out.
21. Minnesota (24): On bye week, worked on knowing when to take a safety.
22. Fresno State (25): Will the USC game be interesting? Nah.
23. Michigan (NR): Team is gaining character if nothing else.
24. Cal (NR): Offense could still cause some problems for USC.
25. Texas Tech (15): That's why you need to play somebody in the non-conference season, Mr. Leach.
Dropped out: Michigan State (17), Tennessee (18), Virginia (21).
Games I watched: Virginia Tech-Maryland, Michigan-Iowa, Texas Tech-Texas, Auburn-LSU, parts of Penn State-Illinois, Oregon State-UCLA, Washington State-Cal.
Ed. Note: Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun (um, including the portion about Texas firmly at No. 2 in the BCS, which was written before the new rankings came out).
47 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2005, 4:25pm by Hookem