The commas explained everything Saturday.
The walls of the Texas team meeting room are covered with lists of glorious years gone by, but one little nugget of punctuation on each list points to the future. With the exception of the list of Southwest Conference titles -- which ends in a period after the Longhorns claimed the final crown before that league folded following the 1995 season -- every list ends in a comma. Big 12 titles: 1996, 2005,; Undefeated regular seasons: ... 1969, 1970, 1977, 1983, 2005,; national titles: 1963, 1969, 1970, 2005,.
The commas imply that more titles and more undefeated seasons are forthcoming.
It's unlikely any of the top-ranked Longhorns thought about those commas during Saturday's fourth quarter as No. 7 Oklahoma State lined up with a chance to wreck Texas's dream season, but hours spent in that meeting room must have burned those commas into the Longhorns' collective subconscious. Because only teams that expect to win, that expect to add their year behind that last set of commas, can survive days like Saturday.
Oklahoma State should take no shame in losing, 28-24, at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy is trying to build a program that requires punctuation, but that doesn't happen without a few heartbreakers along the way. Despite facing a quarterback with maddening precision and a defense that always seemed to stiffen at a crucial moment, Oklahoma State had 5:27 remaining and 90 yards to go to beat the No. 1 team in the nation on its home field, to control its destiny in a national title race that suddenly seemed very real. But the 'Horns stopped the Cowboys because while Oklahoma State players thought they could win, while Texas knew it would win.
Next week, Texas will have to take that attitude to Lubbock, where, for the third time in four weeks, the Longhorns will face an undefeated division foe ranked in the top 10. But Texas Tech, despite all its aerial firepower, will have to work to make Texas sweat the way the Cowboys did Saturday.
"We kind of let them off the hook," Cowboys quarterback Zac Robinson said. "We were just a few plays short. We turned the ball over and didn't execute on third down. We were right there. We definitely want this one back."
Trailing by four, Oklahoma State seemed ready to shock the world after linebacker Orie Lemon ripped the ball from the arms of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and defensive tackle Jeray Chatham recovered, ending the Longhorns' nail-in-the-coffin drive after 15 plays and 7:31. Oklahoma State had the ball on the 10. The Cowboys had a long way to travel, but the Longhorns had left themselves vulnerable to the run all day after selling out to stop receiver Dez Bryant.
But after a quick Kendall Hunter first-down run, the Cowboys hit a snag. Suddenly, they faced fourth-and-6 from their own 30. On the other side of the ball, Texas defensive tackle Roy Miller scanned the eyes of his teammates. "I looked around at all the guys, and I could just tell," Miller said. "They all had a sense of urgency. They all knew they were on a mission." Miller thought back to something defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said recently. Someday, the offense will need you, Muschamp told his players. Someday came Saturday on fourth-and-6.
Gundy called for a screen to Bryant. No Longhorn was fooled. While getting blocked, defensive tackle Lamarr Houston reached up and dragged down Bryant. The Cowboys would get the ball back and fling an unsuccessful Hail Mary, but for all intents and purposes, that play clinched the Longhorns' victory.
For three quarters, it didn't seem Texas would need to draw on its tradition or championship attitude that seeped into this team sometime after a loss to Texas A&M to close the 2007 regular season. After 45 minutes, McCoy had completed 31-of-35 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns. Texas had faced 10 third downs, and McCoy had converted seven of them by throwing and one by running. And just to prove how charmed the junior was, he converted a ninth by throwing an interception that was negated by a roughing the passer penalty.
Still, the Downtown Athletic Club hasn't inscribed McCoy's name on the Heisman Trophy just yet. He is fallible, though only slightly. He ended the third quarter by throwing an interception to Jacob Lacey. For a few moments, it seemed Hunter, Robinson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew would ram the ball down the Longhorns' throats and tie the score at 28. Instead, Texas linebacker Sergio Kindle sacked Robinson on a third-down play, and Oklahoma State settled for a field goal.
The timing of the defense's awakening pleased Muschamp, who has spilled his own blood on the sideline this season for these Longhorns. "In a special season," Muschamp said, "you've got to win games like this."
You also have to take chances.
Knowing Team Rasputin wouldn't simply lie down, Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis went for the jugular. Not long after the Longhorns stuffed the Bryant screen, McCoy and Co. faced third-and-9 at the Cowboys' 26. Instead of running up the middle to set up a field goal, Davis told McCoy to fake a screen and hit Jordan Shipley (15 catches, 168 yards, one touchdown) down the left sideline. Shipley wasn't surprised when he saw the play signaled in from the sideline. "I'm never surprised anymore," Shipley said.
Shipley faked a block and sprung open for a 20-yard completion. Texas coach Mack Brown never doubted the call. "You can take more chances with your quarterback when there's great trust there," Brown said. "There's great trust there between Colt and Greg."
How great? "I trust him with my paycheck," Davis cracked. "How much trust is that?"
That trust will have to carry the Longhorns through another week of a stretch that has the survive-and-advance feel of the NCAA basketball tournament. "They've got us in a situation where we're all kind of in the playoffs," Brown said. "When you're at the top of the BCS and it's moving around, you can't afford to lose this time of the year. So it is survival."
In the fight for survival, a team needs something extra to set it apart. Against the teams remaining on their schedule (Texas Tech, Baylor, Kansas, Texas A&M), the Longhorns should have a mental edge. They'll have the commas, which remind them every day of why they came to Austin.
"We have really high goals at this place, starting with a Big 12 championship and winning our rivalry games," Texas receiver Quan Cosby said. "After that, things will take care of themselves. ... Those commas, they definitely mean something."