Special teams lift unbeaten Horns past Aggies
Texas didn't play near its usual high standard in a win over Texas A&M, but sparkling special teams play ensured that the Horns could still end up in the penthouse, writes Ivan Maisel.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In the end, with the first 11-0 record in 22 years safely tucked away, and a confirmed date to play for a trip to the BCS Championship Game, it would have been easy for No. 2 Texas to defend the quality of the 40-29 victory at Texas A&M.
You've heard all the clichés before: you have to play hard every week. The Aggies give scholarships, too. It's a rivalry game.
"We have to play to a standard," coach Mack Brown said. "We didn't do that."
The standard isn't defined in the BCS Manual. It is pretty much the way that the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography. You know it when you see it. Texas didn't show it Friday, and neither did quarterback Vince Young, who came nowhere near the standard he has set in his Heisman Trophy battle with USC tailback Reggie Bush.
It's a good thing that the Longhorns are not in a beauty contest with the one-loss wannabes at Penn State and LSU. Texas has the insurance provided by an 11-0 record, which is as it should be.
However, it's a good thing that, unlike last season, there's no unbeaten Auburn waiting at No. 3 for one of the top two to find its inner banana peel.
"We're going to have to get in the film room," senior defensive end Rodrique Wright said. "That is just something that is unacceptable for our defense. We want to be a championship team. We're going to play better next week. We'll get it fixed."
When free safety Michael Griffin makes 21 tackles, six more than the previous high game by a Texas defender, that's a good sign that the Longhorns struggled. So, too, were the Aggies' pair of freshmen who rushed for 100 yards.
Texas A&M redshirt freshman quarterback Stephen McGee, who came to College Station heralded for his arm, ran the option like a Wishbone savant. McGee rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman tailback Jorvorskie Lane rushed for 104 yards, most of them after contact. The Aggies finished with 277 rushing yards.
Where has that offense been all season? On the bench -- four-year starter Reggie McNeal didn't even dress out, because of a high ankle sprain. Starting tailback Courtney Lewis left the game in the first quarter with a thigh injury and didn't return.
Yet the Aggies held the ball for 35:17. They drove the ball 65 yards or more on four different possessions. They got beat in the kicking game, especially the blocked punt that Cedric Griffin returned 11 yards for a touchdown to give Texas a 34-22 lead with 5:45 left in the third quarter.
"Obviously, we didn't play well," Texas defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. "The character always comes out in rivalry games like this. We talked about holding off a surge. It was a fourth-quarter surge. In the end, there were a couple of big plays. This is an eye-opening experience and I'm O.K. with that."
The Longhorns forced three turnovers, the most important one coming with 9:42 to play. Texas A&M, trailing, 37-29, reached the Texas 10-yard-line. Wright blew past tackle Corey Clark, reached around and knocked the ball out of McGee's hand. Brian Orakpo recovered at the Aggie 14.
It's a good thing that Texas forced three turnovers, because that got them back to even for the game. The Longhorns fumbled four times, losing two of them. Young lost one of the fumbles, threw an interception, and the Aggies converted both into touchdowns. Not only that, Texas finished with 336 total yards, its lowest output of the season.
"We didn't play as good as we've been playing," said Young, who completed 13-of-24 passes for 162 yards and rushed for a net of 19, thanks to being sacked three times. "A&M came in hard and gave us all they got."
Texas scored two quick touchdowns to take a 14-0 lead. But unlike the Longhorns' routed opponents, Texas A&M didn't collapse into the fetal position.
Young's interception came in the first quarter, when he threw to tight end David Thomas despite the two Aggies near him. Meanwhile, over in the left flat, fullback Ahmard Hall had no one within 10 yards of him.
Free safety Jaxson Appel deflected Young's pass to strong safety Melvin Bullitt, who returned it to the Texas 35. On the next play, Lane took a pitch from McGee and threw a perfect touchdown pass to Jason Carter. The Aggies trailed 14-9, with :04 to play in the opening quarter.
Young got on the headphones and talked to offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who pointed Hall out to him. Late in the second quarter, with the ball on the Aggie 14, Davis called the same play, and Young threw to Hall, who could have stopped and made a sandwich before he ran into the end zone.
Brown celebrated the victory. He hugged Young and reminded his quarterback that he is 28-2 as a starter. The 28 wins tie Young with the late, beloved Bobby Layne for the most victories by a Longhorn quarterback.
"And now you get to go home and kick somebody's ass," Brown told him. "We don't know who yet."
Brown referred to the Big 12 Championship Game next Saturday at Reliant Stadium in Young's hometown of Houston, against either Colorado or Iowa State.
As Brown walked out of the interview area, his wife Sally at his side, he rattled off all the obstacles, self-imposed and otherwise, that faced Texas on Friday. Before the hand-wringing got too far out of control, the coach pointed out something else that shouldn't be forgotten.
"Most teams would have lost," Brown said. "This team had the confidence to win."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.