Ghosts of 2008 Haunt Texas
There are plenty of numbers which define No. 3 Texas' undefeated season, but one number resonates the loudest: 0.018. It's the slim margin that kept last year's Longhorns out of the Bowl Championship Series title game.
As this year's team continues its toughest stretch, with trips to Missouri this Saturday and No. 12 Oklahoma State on Oct. 31, the Longhorns think they are better prepared given the lessons learned from 2008.
"We're a more mature team, a more experienced team going through that last year," quarterback Colt McCoy says.
Even though Missouri has lost its last two games, Texas coach Mack Brown says the Tigers have their attention.
"Just about all of these kids played last year, and all we have to say is (0.018) and make sure that they understand that this is the stretch that got us in trouble last year," Brown says.
Last season, Texas defeated Oklahoma to rise to No. 1. Three weeks later, Texas lost at Texas Tech and found itself in a three-way tie in the Big 12 South. The Big 12 tiebreaker went to Oklahoma. The Sooners headed to the BCS title game as Texas finished third in the final BCS standings, 0.018 points behind Florida.
"We are in the same position now as we were in last year," Brown says.
The day after the Longhorns (6-0, 3-0 Big 12) defeated the Sooners last Saturday 16-13, he reiterated that message to his team.
"We controlled our own destiny last year being No. 1 in the country after this game and we let one second take it away from us and put it back in the system," says Brown, referring to the Red Raiders' game-winning touchdown with one second remaining. "We would rather continue to control our own destiny."
If the Longhorns slip, their national title chances probably will tumble. Three unbeaten teams lurk just behind Texas in the BCS rankings: Boise State, Cincinnati and Iowa.
If No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama win out, they will meet in the Southeastern Conference championship game. The SEC winner would advance to the BCS title game, against Texas, if the Longhorns finish undefeated.
Under second-year coordinator Will Muschamp, this year's unit is better defensively, Brown says. The Longhorns are ranked first nationally in rush defense (35.8 yards a game) and have allowed 29 rushing yards on 99 carries during the last four games. They rank fifth nationally in forced turnovers with 19 - already three better than last year.
Their performance on offense, particularly against the Sooners, has been uneven especially when compared to the defense's dominance.
When asked if there's concern about the offense, defensive end-linebacker Sergio Kindle says, "Not at all. Colt is the man."
Ups and downs
McCoy entered the season as a Heisman Trophy favorite, but his status has dipped in recent tracking polls. Against Oklahoma, he threw for 127 yards, his fewest since his freshman year, as the Sooners confounded him with blitzes, forcing the run.
The senior has thrown for 1,537 yards and 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions. (He had eight interceptions in 2008.)
His rushing numbers are down from last year, by intent. The Longhorns have relied on their passing game, particularly wide receiver Jordan Shipley and four wide receiver sets to ease the wear on McCoy, the leading rusher last year. They also turned to the air because it was effective: Texas has the top scoring offense in the country (42 points a game).
"We got so good at just throwing the ball and it was so easy to run up the field and score, but we lost some of the ability to run because of the four-wides," Brown says.
McCoy hasn't been himself in part because he played with flu against Texas Tech and a lingering cold against Oklahoma. He also bruised the right thumb of his throwing hand in the second quarter against the Sooners but is expected to be fine, he says. Though frustrated by those setbacks, he isn't disappointed with his statistics when compared with last season's otherworldly numbers.
"There's been a lot of ups and downs, but I'm very thankful for the way I have been able to respond," McCoy says. "When I set my goals at the beginning of the year, at this point I wanted to be 6-0 and we are, so I can't be more proud or more happy."
If the Longhorns continue to win, McCoy's Heisman stock will rise. With a 38-7 career record, he is five wins from becoming the NCAA's career wins leader, a mark held by David Greene at Georgia (2001-04). With a victory against Missouri (4-2, 0-2), McCoy would move into a second-place tie with Peyton Manning on the all-time list.
More balanced attack
The Longhorns were missing an effective ground game and an additional big-play receiver until both emerged against the Sooners. Behind speedy Fozzy Whittaker and bruising Cody Johnson, the running game seems to be headed in the right direction. Texas rushed for 142 yards against Oklahoma.
Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin proved that he can be a deep threat when opponents shut down Shipley, as the Sooners did. Goodwin had four catches for 36 yards Saturday and scored his first career TD, which earned him a spot in the starting lineup vs. Missouri. Goodwin made his mark as a track and field star - he's a two-time world junior champion (long jump, 4x100 meters) - which is why performing on the big stage is no great leap.
Before the season, offensive coordinator Greg Davis asked Goodwin if he would be nervous playing in front of more than 100,000 fans.
Goodwin's response: "Coach, I've jumped all over the world, competed in track in front of 70,000 people. This won't be big to me at all."
Since Goodwin joined the team just before fall practice, his biography isn't even in the Texas media guide. Longhorns fans know about the 5-9, 170-pound freshman now.
If Texas has indeed found what it was missing on offense, the Longhorns should be well positioned for their stretch run. After Oklahoma State, one ranked team remains, at home against No. 21 Kansas. If they win out, recent criticism after a lackluster win against Colorado and a somewhat ugly affair against OU (eight total turnovers and 21 combined penalties) won't matter.
"Everybody loves style points," Brown says. "Style points die when you're undefeated. . . . What you've got to do is win, survive, move on. It's not going to be pretty all the time. . . . You never know when pretty is going to show up, but when pretty shows up, hug it and enjoy it. . . . But when ugly shows up, you still have to win too. You've got to hug ugly and hang in there and fight."
A pretty comfortable win against Missouri is expected. History is on Texas' side: the Longhorns are 11-0 under Brown in weeks after the Red River Rivalry. Mizzou would like to mar that unblemished record.
"Playing when you're an underdog in a game like this, it's the biggest chance you have to turn your season around," Missouri cornerback Kevin Rutland says.
Texas must walk a tricky tightrope. As the Longhorns learned last year, if they fall, there's no safety net. They know they must win them all but must be focused singularly on winning the next one.
"If we can just stay away from ghosts and stay away from talking about the end and talk about today and talk about the now," Brown says.
But the ghosts are there: a 6-0 record after beating Oklahoma, tough road games in the final stretch and no margin for error. Now it's up to the Longhorns to outrun them.