THE SCENE: Trinity Street, a few blocks south of Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, 90 minutes before kickoff. From a river of burnt-orange-clad pedestrians arose the voice of a passenger in one of Austin's distinctive bicycle taxis. ¬∂ "The Christians are coming!" he repeatedly shouted. The man was not evangelizing—not with that cigar in his hand and the case of beer in his lap. He was simply a Horned Frog from Texas Christian University. And for the first half of last Saturday night's game between TCU and Texas, he was right: The purple-helmeted Frogs were coming. ¬∂ They were coming through every gap, from every angle. Blitzing on nearly every down, TCU defenders blew up running plays, holding the Longhorns' feature back, Jamaal Charles, to a mere 40 yards rushing at halftime, at which point the visitors led 10-0. Changing coverages on almost every snap, the Frogs also unnerved Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, whose pair of interceptions led directly to TCU's two scores.
McCoy had an inkling that he might be in for a rough outing. At Friday's team Bible study, he later recounted, he learned that he was "going to be blessed," but only after going through a "test."
Had he thumbed back to the Book of Exodus, McCoy might have glimpsed this alarming verse: "I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country."
Texas is 2--0 today because, from the start of the second half, it was the Frogs' turn to be plagued: with dumb penalties (a personal foul and an offensive pass interference call), ill luck (a fumble recovery was overturned when TCU was slow to snap the ball on the ensuing possession, giving officials time to see a replay and call for a review of the play) and butterfingers (a fumbled kickoff set up the Longhorns' go-ahead touchdown).
September 16, 2007
Shut out in the first half, Texas detonated for 27 unanswered points in the second and coasted to a 34--13 win, proving also that the Horned Frogs, a trendy pick to bust the BCS this season, are not quite ready for prime time.
It also made clear that the Longhorns, after an underwhelming 21--13 win over Arkansas State in their opener, are worthy of their No. 6 ranking. In a moment of candor following last Saturday's victory, Texas coach Mack Brown admitted that in training camp "we didn't spend a lot of time working on Arkansas State." That, combined with the fact that the Indians unveiled "some things we didn't expect"— blitzes, for instance, on nearly every down—resulted in a close shave.
Yet he apologized for neither victory. He and his players have come to understand, says the folksy Brown, that "college football is hard anymore"—a point he'd made in his office the day before.
The discussion had turned to Division I-AA Appalachian State, where Brown was the head coach in 1983. (Of the Mountaineers' opening-week upset of Michigan, he wisecracked, "Nice to see the foundation I laid 25 years ago is finally getting results.") He is mildly amused by the shock that registers whenever an underdog from a non-BCS conference beats a ranked opponent or even puts a scare into one. "Look at Louisville last night," he said of the No. 9 Cardinals' 58--42 escape against Middle Tennessee, which had lost the previous week to Florida Atlantic. "We're all shocked. Well, we might as well quit being shocked. Everybody's got some good players. Everybody's got a quarterback, everybody's got a tailback, everybody's got a receiver. The first-line group of players at most schools is pretty good.
"We've been talking about parity for a long time"—since the NCAA cut scholarship limits to 85 in 1994, preventing traditional powers from stockpiling talent. "And it's finally here. Yes, the stars have to align for [the underdogs]. They have to get a fumble, they have to get a missed field goal, things have to happen. But if you're not on your P's and Q's, you're going to lose.
"I think we are going to keep seeing more and more upsets and near upsets in college football."
THE NEXT DAY, Ohio State held a 3--2 halftime lead over Akron at the Horseshoe. West Virginia trailed Marshall at the half 13--6. Florida State fell behind Alabama-Birmingham 17-3; Wisconsin had to score in the last two minutes to avert a loss at UNLV. All of those double-digit favorites came away with victories, but one upset did come to fruition. After turning the ball over five times, 17th-ranked Auburn lost to South Florida 26--23 in overtime.
While the Horned Frogs watched 300 on the three-hour bus ride from Fort Worth to Austin, they were not exactly the Spartans to the Longhorns' Persian army. TCU came into the game ranked 19th. Taking their cue from their √ºberintense coach, Gary Patterson, the defending Mountain West Conference champs have won 11 games in three of the last four seasons. They'd knocked off five straight foes from the Big 12—a league whose teams the Horned Frogs take special pleasure in bringing low.
The trip down I-35 wasn't just a chance to head north in the polls. It was a chance to redress old grievances. When the Southwest Conference merged with what was then the Big Eight in 1995, four of its teams were invited to join the new league. TCU was not among them. Cast into a kind of college football diaspora, the Frogs spent the next 10 years bouncing from the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West, taking the field against conference foes from Hawaii to East Carolina.
Dennis Franchione restored some luster to the program in the late 1990s, and when he left to take the coaching job at Alabama after the 2000 season, Patterson, his defensive coordinator, was bumped up. His promotion was met with some skepticism among the Frogs faithful, who thought he was too unpolished. But GP, as he is known by his staff, has fared better than his old boss.
In a state in which he is forced to make due with the Longhorns' table scraps, Patterson has built a small empire by recruiting fast players, who are then often asked to change positions. (Five of the Frogs' defensive linemen last season were running backs in high school.) Even as he stokes his players' furnaces by reminding them of all the programs that overlooked them, Patterson is not above griping that his program is overlooked. After his swarming, blitzing Frogs held Texas Tech without a touchdown in a 12--3 win last season, Red Raiders coach Mike Leach lamented that his team had given "the sorriest offensive effort I've ever seen."
The remark galled Patterson, who wondered, Would it kill the guys TCU beats to give some credit to the players who had just beaten them? "People have been underselling our kids for years," he declared before the TV cameras. "All they ever want to do is talk about the Big 12. We're not the Big 12—just a Texas team playing with Texas players."
Then, the money quote:
"I get tired of being treated like the stepchild in this state and in this town."
Gary and the Stepchildren promptly lost their next two games. But he found an unlikely ally in Brown, who concluded, after studying a load of video of the Frogs last spring, that they are underappreciated.
"I don't think the college football world's been fair to 'em," Brown was saying last Friday. That may have been Mack's conscience talking. The Frogs finished last season ranked 21st in the coaches poll—no thanks to Brown, who left 11--2 TCU off his final ballot.
AT 8 P.M. last Friday, Patterson stood behind his defense in a meeting room at the Marriott in Round Rock, Texas, brandishing a laser pointer the way Leonard Bernstein wielded a baton. He alternated between speaking to his players in coded language—"Cobra gate, rip five ... Five Tampa sticks, overset hog"—and making some points in plain English.
On McCoy: "When he's giving the ball on option plays, he hands it off with one hand. If he's going to keep it, he keeps both hands in."
On Charles: "You need to tackle his legs. People who reach for him, he jukes. Make sure you tackle his legs. Do not reach for him and do not try to tackle him high."
Patterson closed with these remarks: "You've come a long way, and I'm not talking about a bus trip. The eyes of Texas are on you, gentlemen. Let's see what we can do."
For 30 minutes they outplayed one of the premier teams in the country. They left Charles with a pair of banged up legs. In addition to the two passes they picked off from McCoy, the first of which cornerback Torrey Stewart returned 45 yards for a touchdown, they pressured the quarterback repeatedly. McCoy appeared to fumble on the Longhorns' third play from scrimmage—TCU recovered and returned the ball to the Texas three-yard line—but the replay official ruled the play an incomplete pass, saying McCoy's arm was going forward.
Unable to spring their tailback or protect their quarterback, the Longhorns veered from their game plan, resorting to a series of bubble screens and slant passes. The idea, Brown later explained, was to "spread them out and get the ball out of Colt's hands fast, then run the ball later."
All of which came to pass. McCoy marched the offense 60 yards for a touchdown on the Longhorns' first possession of the second half. Four minutes later Ryan Bailey's game-tying, 28-yard field goal amped up what had been a fairly meek home crowd of 84,621. The Frogs muffed the ensuing kickoff, and Texas took over at the TCU 26. McCoy scrambled for 23 yards; fullback Vondrell McGee finished the job. The floodgates were open. McCoy's quick-hitting passes created space for Charles, who had already rushed for 95 yards when he lined up on third-and-six at the TCU 39 with just under three minutes to play. It had been 21 games since the proud Frogs defense allowed a 100-yard rusher.
Now, on an isolation play called Zipper, Charles went untouched up the gut for the game's final score. He finished with 134 yards on 22 carries. Asked afterward how his legs felt, he smiled and said, "They're hurtin'."
"We've come a long way," Patterson grimly allowed afterward. "But we've still got a little ways to go."
He'd been walking off the field when the Texas band struck up the school's alma mater. Patterson stopped in his tracks until The Eyes of Texas was over. To get respect, he knows, you've got to give respect.
"We've been TALKING ABOUT PARITY for a long time," Brown said. "And it's finally here. I think we're going to see more and more upsets."
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