Greg Davis preferred a description of smart to conservative in describing his O's effort against the Aggie defense. The Horns gained just 235 yards on the day, punting 11 times, but the offense also did not make the catastrophic mistake that could have turned this one into an A&M upset.
"We knew that if we didn't make any fatal mistakes we'd be fine," Chris Simms said. The junior QB finished 16 of 33 with 138 yards, but the difference between his performance today and that of Oct. 6 in Dallas -- another close, defense-dominated game -- is the number zero in the INT column. In turn, that mistake-free day on the part of Simms can be attributed to something else almost polar opposite from what took place in the Cotton Bowl: the Horns stuck with the run.
Through three quarters, Texas had a whoppin' 30 yards on 22 carries. In his quest for Ricky's freshman rushing record and a 1,000-yard season, Cedric Benson had just 12 yards on 14 attempts heading into the final 15 minutes. "The longer the game goes in a one possession scenario, the smarter you have to be," Davis said. And Davis and Brown played it smart, sticking with what put the Horns coming in to Friday on the cusp of win No. 10: the churning legs of their frosh running back.
"Cedric gives us that safety net where we don't have to abandon the run," the offensive coordinator said. "We knew he would eventually pop one and he did."
That "one" came early in the fourth quarter when Benson, following his own five-yard gain on first down, burst over the right side and up the sideline for 24 yards. The play moved the Horns across midfield, where they would be forced to punt just five plays later, but the long run flipped field position in favor of UT, an advantage it would turn into the go ahead score one possession later.
After a great angled, pooch punt by Brian Bradford pinned the Aggie O at the eight, the Longhorn D forced a quick three-and-out, setting up the Texas O 35 yards from the end zone. Benson accounted for 24 of those 35 yards on four runs, including the five-yard TD plunge that gave the Horns the lead for good at the 7:22 mark of the fourth quarter. He followed that up with a powerful, tackle-breaking 11-yarder for UT's final score with just over a minute left after Everick Rawls picked off Aggie QB Mark Farris deep in A&M territory.
"We had a sense going into the fourth quarter that they were wearing down," Simms said. "It was just a matter of time."
"Their main focal point was to stop the run," said Benson, who made the most of his late time, finishing with 79 yards on 27 carries and pushing his season total to 974 yards, a mere 16 yards short of Ricky's record. "Their players were continuously telling me, You're not gonna get your 100," the freshman said. "I just tried to stay relaxed and tell myself, You're gonna break one."
The ever calm and collected Benson didn't seem at all distressed about falling just short of both the freshman rushing record and the 1,000-yard mark, walking off the field with his arms spread wide and with an ear-to-ear smile to match. That demeanor carried over in post-game interviews. "Of course I wish I had broken the record but we got the win," he said. "And hey, I did get two TDs but more importantly, we got the victory at their house. It feels great. And the records will come. There's more to break."
The now 10-1 Horns finally broke through the 10-win glass ceiling that they had bounced off of four times in four attempts over the last two seasons, the first of those failed attempts coming on this very field two years ago. "I thought this game was like the one two years ago," Brown said pointing to that 20-16 late-game loss, "except we won this one in the fourth."
The fourth quarter win was set up way back in the first quarter when Rod Babers burst through the A&M punt block protection and smothered a Cody Scates punt, sending the ball bounding toward the Aggie end zone where Tony Jeffery scooped it and took the final 23 yards for the Horns' first TD.
"We felt maybe there was something there," punt block coach Duane Akina said of the left side of the A&M protection unit (or the right side of the Texas rush unit). Jeffery rushed hard on the outside, forcing Aggie blocker Everett Smith outside and allowing Babers to slip through the hole in the protection virtually untouched for the block.
Babers, noting that Jeffery drew the man outside, said, "If I wasn't able to beat (Smith), I'd be a wasted scholarship."
Babers certainly isn't a wasted 'ship, earning it also on defense where he played an instrumental role in shutting down the Aggie offense, helping the Horns limit the hosts to a mere 165 yards of total offense and just 117 through the air.
"I think this was by far our best defensive game," the junior corner said. "So many guys stepped up when they had to. I think this was our best defensive effort of the year."
Brown and Carl Reese echoed Babers' comments.
"Our defense played as good as it has played all year against a good opponent," the head coach said. The defensive coordinator called it "probably (our) best game of the year."
The Aggies did score their first offensive TD since the Iowa State game, driving 33 yards early in the third quarter for the tying score, but Brown thought facing a tight game, in a hostile environment, probably helped his team mature and prove its toughness.
"I like the way we won today better than beating Kansas 59-0," Brown said. "Today, we played a very good football team and came out victorious. They should have a lot of confidence going into the bowl game."
Ah, the bowl game. Did today help or harm the Horns' BCS hopes?
Even though the game may not have been quite as easy as some expected, the final of 21-7, on the road vs. a quality opponent, will look good to the computer polls, but even more importantly, with Nebraska losing Friday to Colorado, the Horns' six-game win streak and probable No. 4 national ranking may be too much for a BCS bowl to pass up. There's still too much football left to be played around the country to know for sure, though.
Whichever bowl selects the Horns in two weeks, BCS or no, Texas now has an opportunity for an 11-win, top five season. Mike Williams said the UT seniors would like to do just that, leaving the underclassman like Simms and Roy Williams, who led the Horns in receiving with eight catches for 56 yards, and B.J. Johnson what he called a "nice little gift." Essentially, a challenge saying, "Top this," the All-American OL said.
It'll be tough this season to top this win in College Station. But Sugar sure sounds sweet, doesn't it?
Notes: The Orange, Cotton, Alamo and Holiday sent reps to the game. Interestingly, no Sugar Bowl reps were scheduled to be in attendance. Of the above bowls, the only two that the Horns could land in are, of course, the Orange and the Cotton. The Ags on the other hand, may be spending the holidays in Houston at the galleryfurniture.com bowl. Not such a happy holiday for the folks in maroon.