After midnight in a stairwell of the Horseshoe, as Ohio Stadium is known, Texas freshman tailback Jamaal Charles sat ticking off his big games from last year to a reporter. "Well, there was Humble High," he said, "and Tyler Lee...." And then he was interrupted by Vince Young, who was coming down the stairs.
"I'm so proud of this guy," said Young, the Texas quarterback, putting a hand on Charles's shoulder. In his second game as a collegian, the 18-year-old Charles, from Port Arthur, Texas, had made several key plays in the Longhorns' most important regular-season vic- tory in years--if not decades. "Now you've been through it," Young said of big-time college football. "Now you know what it takes."
If you're a Texas fan, you also know what it takes. It takes Maalox. The second-ranked Longhorns' 25-22 victory over No. 4 Ohio State last Saturday night was vintage Vincent: come-from-behind and ulcer-inducing. Trailing by six points with five minutes to play, Young drove the Longhorns 67 yards for the game-winning score, capped by a perfectly placed, 24-yard touchdown pass to his second read, wideout Limas Sweed, who made a leaping catch while falling backward into the end zone.
Young's other two completions on that drive were to Charles, who led all Texas receivers with six catches, but Charles seemed more eager to talk about a play on which he didn't make a reception. "Did you see the hit I put on the guy who made the pick?"
"That was you?" said Young. "I couldn't get up--they were lying on top of me. All I heard was the crowd go, 'Ooooh!'"
With the score tied at 10 in the second quarter, Young made his worst decision of the night. Wrapped up by defensive end Mike Kudla, he foolishly flung a pass that was intercepted by A.J. Hawk, the Buckeyes' sensational senior linebacker. Hawk returned the ball 24 yards before Charles slammed a shoulder into Hawk and leveled him. That sequence, as well as any other, typified this first meeting of tradition-rich and richly talented programs. Momentum swung often. Established stars were as good as advertised, new stars emerged.
Such early-season, interconference marquee matchups have become increasingly rare in the BCS era. Coaches and athletic directors figure, Why should a program with national championship aspirations take the risk? While there was much brave talk from both teams before this game about how a loss would not put their primary goal out of reach, there was no getting around the downside. Yes, in four of the last seven seasons, one-loss teams have made it to the national title game. Last year, on the other hand, Auburn, Utah and Boise State were undefeated and excluded.
Like Big Ten brethren Michigan and Iowa, who also lost on Saturday (box, page 112), Ohio State must now be considered a long shot to play in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4. Also, the Buckeyes moved no closer to resolving the question of who their quarterback is--Justin Zwick or Troy Smith, who took 32 snaps coming off the bench. The only certainty, it seemed, was that coach Jim Tressel had put the wrong guy on the field for Ohio State's last-chance drive, which started at the Ohio State 31 with 2:31 to play. Pulling the ball down and scrambling--a Smith specialty--on the first play, Zwick fumbled and Texas recovered. Game over.
The Longhorns, for their part, took a huge step toward their first national championship since 1969. While several danger games remain--Oklahoma in Dallas, home against Texas Tech, at Texas A&M, the Big 12 title game--there was little doubt, as the final seconds bled off the clock in Columbus, that the Horns had just beaten the toughest team on their schedule.
Too often marquee games we circle on the calendar months ahead of time ultimately fizzle and disappoint. (Exhibit A: Florida State's Gong Show-like Sept. 5 win over Miami in a game that set offensive football back two decades.) This collision of venerable football cultures, however, exceeded expectations. Not only did the outcome remain in doubt until the final 19 seconds, but also the players were terrific ambassadors for their schools and conferences. "I was on the bottom of the pile, laughing and saying, 'Y'all are hitting,'" said Young, "and they were laughing and helping me up."
As Texas coach Mack Brown said on the Monday before the game, both sides "have storied programs with coaches who have won all the games." Indeed, the late Woody Hayes was honored at halftime. Hoping for at least a stalemate in the Legendary Coach Mojo Dept., the Horns brought Darrell Royal, 81, with them from Austin. "Coach, you know we won't get back till four in the morning," Brown had warned Royal.
"I don't care," Royal replied. "I'm going." While Texas entered the game as the higher-ranked team, Ohio State was a one-point favorite. Such was the home field advantage enjoyed by a team that had won 36 nonconference home games in a row and six consecutive night games. What's more, the Longhorns were losers of eight straight games against top 10 teams and had built a reputation for being a talented squad that tended to wilt under the brightest lights.
Time to bury that rep. This Texas team is nothing like the one that collapsed in the second half of a 65-13 loss to Oklahoma in 2003. These Longhorns are far tougher, far more resilient. They've learned, as Brown says, "that you can't let one bad play lead to a bunch" of them, which is what happened in that ugly loss to the Sooners. "We let a bad play become a bad series, then a bad game," Brown says. "You can't do that."
And in the Horseshoe his players didn't.
Before Young could lead his team to a come-from-behind win, he first had to put it in a hole. After the Hawk interception there was a fumble by tailback Selvin Young and then another Young pickoff. Even though the Buckeyes started those three possessions at the Texas 18, 30 and 37, they came away with only three field goals and a 19-13 lead early in the third quarter.
Suffocating defense hadn't been a hallmark of Brown's recent teams at Texas. Then he hired former NFL defensive coordinator Greg Robinson after the '03 season. Robinson made the Longhorns better right away, only to take the Syracuse head coaching job after last season. Brown replaced him with Gene Chizik, whose Auburn unit led the nation in scoring defense in '04. Chizik is a disciple of Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who is known for his attacking, zone-blitz schemes, and he immediately ratcheted up the intensity of the Texas defense.
All week Chizik and co-defensive coordinator Duane Akina told their charges that the Buckeyes were bound to break big plays and not to worry when they did. Taking that advice to heart was Cedric Griffin, the cornerback toasted in the second quarter on Smith's 36-yard touchdown strike to wideout Santonio Holmes that evened the score at 10. In the third quarter Griffin got even. Zwick threw a bullet that tight end Ryan Hamby bobbled in the end zone; Hamby was about to gather the ball in when Griffin lit him up like a Roman candle. The Buckeyes settled for Josh Huston's fifth field goal and a 22-16 lead.
Midway through the fourth quarter Zwick had Ohio State on the move again, but Vince Young was working the sideline. "We've been through this," he reminded the offense. "Defense is going to get us the ball, and we'll take it play by play." Sure enough, the defense held, Huston was plenty long but a shade right on a 50-yard attempt, and Young took Texas on the decisive drive.
Trailing late in the game is not a novel sensation for these Longhorns, who engineered outrageous comeback wins last season over Kansas, Oklahoma State and, in the Rose Bowl, Michigan. While an ornery defense has made this team tougher, Young has done more than any other player to give it a backbone.
The turning point came after Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis met with Young at midseason; following a 4-0 start Young had a bad game in another ugly loss to Oklahoma, completing 8 of 23 attempts. He looked worse in a win over Missouri, going 3 of 9 with a two interceptions before leaving with a bruised sternum. Brown and Davis had tried to correct his unorthodox throwing motion and turn Young into a sprint-out, bootleg quarterback--"things," Brown says now, "that probably weren't best for him." At that meeting Young made a request. "Basically," he recalls, "I asked [Brown] to have more trust in me." A free spirit and music lover, Young sought more latitude to joke and clown around, to play loud music in the locker room. On the field he would go back to delivering the ball the way he always had, slinging it halfway between overhand and sidearm.
Brown agreed. "We said, 'Let's let Vince be Vince,'" he recalls, going so far as to download several songs by 50 Cent onto his iPod, at Young's request. "It's pronounced Fitty Cent," said a grinning Brown after the game, taking immense pleasure in correcting a reporter. "I can't discuss it with you if you can't pronounce it the right way."
Young has been on a tear since that meeting, though it came to a temporary halt against Ohio State. Burned early on by Young's scrambling (58 yards on his first four carries), the Buckeyes took away the run with blitzes up the middle and by occasionally spying him. When he walked on the field with 5:00 left, Young had generated only six points in his previous nine possessions. If he was going to beat Ohio State, it would have to be with his arm. To the surprise of no one on the Texas sideline--We've been through this!--he pulled it off.
Afterward the victors gathered in front of the Texas band to sing The Eyes of Texas in the closed end of the Horseshoe--a first in what could be, for these Longhorns, a season of firsts.