With Pasadena in Sight, Horns Can't Close Deal

Yeah, it was a tremendous football game Saturday, if you love college football. But if you also love the Longhorns, it was a tremendous letdown.

Texas, ahead 7-0 early, appeared to be on the verge of running Colorado out of Texas Stadium and up I-35 to Boulder with Ralphie in snorting pursuit. Instead, the Buffs wound up shocking Texas by preying on Chris Simms, who again failed to seize the opportunity to prove he and his team are big game hunters.

How do you sugar-coat this one? Simms, who has mostly had an excellent year for the Horns, had a horrible game when everything was sitting there on a Pasadena platter.

This loss cannot be laid entirely at Simms’ feet -- the defense failed to make some key stops when the team desperately needed it to step up -- but Simms’ three first-half INTs and a fumble deep in Texas territory killed all of UT’s momentum and put the team in too deep a hole to climb out of.

Moments before the Longhorns entered the field for the start of the game, the PA announcer spread the news -- BCS-number two Florida had fallen to Tennessee. The road to the Roses lay as wide open as many of the holes the Buff backs raced through much of the night. The hugely partisan Texas crowd sent a burst of noise up through the hole in the roof which could’ve been heard in Austin. It carried over through the Horns’ first offensive series.

Behind the running of Cedric Benson and the passing of Simms, the Horns marched 85 yards to a TD the first time they touched the ball. It looked easy. The very next series, more of the same, as Texas mixed the run and the pass beautifully to move deep into CU territory. It appeared Texas was on the way to crushing Colorado for the second time this season.

Then, as we have seen all too painfully many times, Simms drilled a short toss right into the chest of CU linebacker Aaron Killian, from Kingwood, naturally, who raced it 73 yards to the Horn 12. Two plays later, CU tied the game on a Chris Brown TD run. The deflation of the team and its fans was tangible.The Buffs had burst the UT bubble.

All of a sudden, a confident, sharp Simms looked harried and unsure. His second pick looked as bad as the first, going straight to LB Joey Johnson, of San Antonio, naturally. The Buffs drove for a FG to make it 10-7. On the very next series, Simms, on a slow scramble in which he looked to be running in waist-deep water, had the ball knocked loose by DeAndre Fluellen, from Houston, naturally. Then Simms served up the coup de gras, a 64-yard INT for six to Medford Moorer. All the turnovers resulted in points, the last one pushing the Buffs to a 29-10 lead.

That is not a hole, that is an excavation site.

To the credit of the team and its coaches, the Horns fought back, hard. Behind Major Applewhite’s smooth guidance, UT closed to within 36-23 in the third quarter. Then, inexplicably, Gary Barnett tried his best to gift-wrap the game for the Horns, with as dumb a call as you will see in football, a fake punt on fourth down leading by 13. Rod Babers’ TD pick returned for a TD closed the gap to 36-30.

But when Texas needed to make a stop to give the ball back to Major to win the game, it failed. Colorado drove down into Texas territory where it stalled. The defense bent this time but it didn’t break, forcing a CU punt. What broke was the composure of whoever called for the Horns to try to block it.

With four and a half minutes to play, Major and the O were poised to receive the ball. What Texas didn’t have to have was a blocked punt. It would have been great, sure, but the risk of getting a roughing call far outweighed the off-chance they could get a good piece of the kick. No, they needed the ball in Major’s capable hands. Instead, Phillip Geiggar went blasting into the Buff punter, sending the yellow hankie flying.

The decision to rush this punt was way too huge a gamble, in my opinion, as it cost Texas a chance to win, and a chance to play for it all. I believe in going all out for victory, and for playing aggressively, but there are times to play it conservatively to give yourself a chance to win. The coaches had done that at A&M with the offensive game plan, which I agreed with because of the snake-pit conditions at Kyle Field. The Horns didn’t need style points there, they needed a ‘W’, and they got it. With nearly five minutes to play Saturday, down by only six, a couple of time-outs and Major looking in championship form, what they needed was the ball; whether it was on the five-, ten- or 20-yard line didn’t really matter. What they got, a roughing call, they couldn’t afford.

Am I Monday-morning quarterbacking here? Maybe, but I had these same thoughts moments before the play - - please do not not do something crazy here, like call for a dangerous rush. But the Horns did, and they botched it. Moments later, CU’s Jeremy Flores bailed Barnett out with a 43-yard FG to make it 39-30.

That was it. A feeble performance by Simms, the inability of the defense to make big stops, and a highly questionable decision to rush the punter when Texas still had a chance to win, cost Texas its shot.

But all of this points out once more a painful fact: it is tremendously difficult to win a national championship, let alone get to the game, especially for a team coming out of the Big 12. If you win it these days, brother, you’ve earned it. Of course, that Texas had the Rose Bowl chance within its grasp makes the loss all the more difficult to accept. Teams don’t get such a shot often, particularly the Horns, who haven’t come close in decades.

So what do you take out of the game? First, give Barnett and Colorado credit. I didn’t think they could play with Texas, and they came close to notching a blow out. Barnett has got the Buffs on a sizzling streak, and they deserve their conference crown. This CU squad didn’t remotely resemble the team Texas strummed by 34 in October. And of course, the Horns showed plenty of character, fighting to the last tick, which is something we didn’t see against OU last year, or against UCLA or Miami on past lopsided occasions.

Mack Brown has built a classy program, and his team plays with a lot of pride. The coach has got the Horns in position; they must simply keep playing, learning and believing their day will come. They came tantalizingly close this season. In the meantime, recruiting continues to be excellent, as the commitment of the state’s top linebacker Saturday, Aaron Harris, attests. Brown is getting the program to the re-load level, so I feel good that the Horns are going to be back, knocking on the door plenty in the coming years.

To keep the momentum going, a bowl victory is imperative. An 11-2 record with an almost certain top-10 finish would be a big step forward -- not as big as the step that was there for the taking, but a pretty good consolation prize nonetheless. If the Horns can get that done, this season, after the shock of Saturday wears off, will have to be considered pretty strong. Otherwise, it’s gonna be a long off-season scratchin’ heads over what might have been.

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