Darrell Royal and his aerial circus have arrived in the Southwest Conference. It fits. The league that has produced a guy running for homecoming queen at TCU, an All-America lineman getting kicked off the squad at Texas A&M, a Baylor team without a passer for the first time in eight million years, and an intersectional record that looks like Vietnam deserves still another surprise. It came last week when the Texas Longhorns put the football in the air intentionally—yeah, right up there where Royal normally would rather see a flying saucer. Texas threw the ball, thrashed the Rice Owls 28-6, and perhaps became the gifted team it was always supposed to be.
The occasion was a game that had suddenly become a big one in the nuttiest conference in the land. Rice, under new Coach Bo Hagan, had developed into a feisty, dedicated upstart that defeated Navy, Northwestern and SMU, and Rice always plays Texas like it's the end of the world. Texas, meanwhile, had been struggling to rescue a season that had begun with marvelous expectations but had suddenly been wrecked by tough opening losses to USC, which should have happened, and Texas Tech, which should not have. In August bumper stickers had proclaimed this the Year of the Horns, but by late September there was a new bumper sticker out that said, "Would you believe '68?" At least some Texans had not lost their sense of humor.
Darrell Royal almost had. The Longhorns, operating the predictable offense of Bill Bradley either keeping the ball or giving it to Chris Gilbert, had finally managed a victory by beating Oklahoma State, but then they went up against the fast Oklahoma Sooners and for one half looked like the most timid team Royal had ever put together. Texas trailed 0-7, but the score might well have been 0-28. That is when things changed, for at half time Royal was livid.
"You're a disgrace to yourselves, your school, your state and your coaches," said Royal, or words close to it. And he mentioned that anyone who did not hit a Sooner as quickly as possible would find a seat on the bench forever. Texas dominated the second half—in one stretch piling up 172 yards to Oklahoma's minus two—and somehow came away with a 9-7 victory. "I'll guarantee you Oklahoma is a good football team," said Royal, "so we must not be too bad." Texas then went into the Ozarks and whipped Arkansas on national television 21-12, and it did so with some of its old familiar aggressiveness.
Through all of this Texas had been relying on an offense that had become more Gilbert-Gilbert than Bradley-Gilbert. The low-driving junior with the good balance had run for more than 600 yards, and Royal was using him almost as often as USC's John McKay runs O. J. Simpson. "He should," said McKay. "I think Gilbert is the second-best runner in the country—second to Simpson—and I mean that as a big compliment."
Rice thought Gilbert was pretty good, too, and fashioned its defense to contain his fast sweeps and acrobatic counter-plays. It was, for all purposes, an eight-man line. There was no reason for Rice to think that Texas would throw the ball. Super Bill Bradley, who had grown superfat in the summer working in Miami—a fact that made Royal want to drop him off the University Tower a few times—was at last getting some quickness back. But he had not passed well. He threw in the dirt against Arkansas, or Texas would have really demolished the Razorbacks. So what a beautiful time for Royal to decide on a passing game.
All week Texas passed. Bradley threw more balls in practice than he had all year. New pass patterns went into the repertoire, especially a thing called the "railroad," which is two receivers sprinting straight at the safety, then flaring, and Bradley finding the right one, hopefully. Texas wanted to fake Gilbert into the line, then pass. Royal, who has always said that three things can happen to a forward pass and two of them are bad, was going to throw—the devil, or Rice, taking the hindmost.
What happened was that Bradley looked like a spunky Bobby Layne down there in the cool, pleasant Austin evening before 65,000 astonished fans. He laid the ball in the arms of his receivers, both long passes and short ones, dropping back and sprinting out, sometimes even throwing on first down. He completed the first five passes he tried and eventually connected on 12 out of 17 for 215 yards and one touchdown. (Texas' passing total of 238 yards was a career high for Royal.) He had three dropped, one of which would have been another six points, and he ran the keeper for two touchdowns. Bradley's throwing was so perfect that Chris Gilbert had what almost amounted to a night off; only 22 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown.
This raised Gilbert's six-game total to 696 yards, or an average of 116 yards per Saturday, a figure which would put him well on the way to All-America were it not for the unreal statistics of O. J. Simpson. Gilbert may prove deserving anyhow, for he remains the soul of the Texas attack. Texas, despite its success in the air last Saturday night, is not likely to continue throwing, except in emergencies, and its four remaining opponents must still consider stopping Gilbert first.
For the first time in a game of importance, Bradley and Gilbert together looked like the Super Bill and Glorious Gil they were supposed to be last year as sophomores. With Bradley both injured and erratic last season, Gilbert carried the offensive burden by himself, churning for 1,080 yards. Bradley had some moments, but he was far from sensational, and Texas wound up with a 7-4 record after beating Mississippi in the Bluebonnet Bowl. The bowl victory was not the best thing that could have happened. It was largely responsible for those Year of the Horns stickers, and Texas sort of celebrated the 1967 National Championship all spring and summer. Against Rice, however, Texas finally looked capable of playing anybody—and maybe winning. Aside from Bradley and Gilbert, some defensive figures were emerging, such as Corby Robertson, who had become a linebacker. End Mike Perrin, Halfback Ronnie Ehrig and Tackle Leo Brooks, a 6'6" 230-pound sophomore. There were five sophomores in Texas' defensive front against Rice, but they were destructive ones.
In short, Texas has become a good team. Its 4-2 record is not imposing, and, crazily, Texas A&M, which lost its first four games, is leading the conference with a 3-1 record. Now A&M vs. Texas, on Thanksgiving Day, may be the game that decides the championship and the host team in the Cotton Bowl. Royal's team may also be slowly struggling to an 8-2 record, which would place it back in the national rankings somewhere.
"This is a team that's getting better all the time," says Royal. "We're very young. We decided we wanted to play football in the second half against Oklahoma. Against Arkansas we turned ball-carriers around for a change; we finally punished somebody. Against Rice we seemed confident. Now we have to see if we're consistent."
There is a theory that there has never been anything wrong with the Long-horns these last two years that they couldn't solve by avoiding Southern California in their opening game. Both times Royal's young team started off with a defeat and a lack of confidence. Ah, those good old days of opening against Tulane.
But then, if that situation still existed, Darrell Royal would not have been forced to discover the forward pass.