Major Leaves Us With One More Gem

Interviewed by ESPN between the end of the third and the start of the fourth quarter Friday night, <B>Rick Neuheisel</B> exuded confidence. With his team leading 36-20, he liked what he&#146;d seen from his Huskies. His offense had executed two surgical third quarter TD drives and his defense had held Texas to only a pair of answering field goals.

Yet, maybe to avoid a jinx - if the UW coach had had some wood handy I swear he'd have whacked it -- Neuheisel sounded a note of warning; he knew a full quarter is an eternity in football, especially against an offensive machine with the horsepower of Texas.

Indeed, it was.

As the minutes wound down and as UT suddenly became unstoppable, Rick Neuheisel’s cool melted. His eyes appeared glassy and his movements became erratic. He snapped at assistants and paced the sideline like a caged tiger. He felt the game getting away, and he must have sensed, like I did and as everyone else watching must have, that this game was destined to belong to Major Applewhite.

Down 43-40 with 1:49 on the clock and three timeouts left, 80 yards stood between Texas and a storybook victory led by one of the most beloved players in Longhorn history. The ending was playing out so perfectly, so much like a film-school script, that what unfolded over the next couple of minutes seemed preordained.

Applewhite, the record-setting, former Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, the starter benched in favor of cover boy Chris Simms who had kept his gripes to himself all season, found the stage set. Major’s storied career had come down to this: eighty yards. 1:49.

Turns out he needed only 1:11.

With No. 11 pulling the trigger, Texas moved inexorably downfield on the running and catching of a couple of other Horns who had their own tales of redemption to write. Bo Scaife, who earlier had bobbled an Applewhite pass resulting in a Husky INT and field goal, got things going with a 12-yard catch. Then Major found BJ Johnson for 25 yards, Scaife for another six, and BJ again with the strike that spelled doom for the Huskies, a 32-yarder that set UT up on the UW five. Johnson, who had dropped two sure TD passes at the end of the game last year, held on to everything this night. None of his grabs, though, counted more than his two back-breakers on Texas’ final drive.

Then it was Ivan Williams’ turn to rewrite the story of his season. Williams started ‘01 as Texas leading tailback, punishing defenses with his power inside running and surprising burst of speed. But against OU he stumbled, looking tentative and slow against the Sooners. If you play for Texas under Mack Brown and you trip, you may not see the field again ‘cause there will be two hosses behind you ready to roll. The next week at OSU, Cedric Benson took over and held the position the rest of the season. Ivan was seldom seen.

Until Friday. Out of nowhere, the I-Train got back on track. With Benson out with the bad shoulder and replacement Victor Ike stymied, Ivan made the most of his shot, putting up 59 yards on 14 carries with two TDs, the last coming from three yards out with only 38 ticks left. As his teammates mobbed him, Ivan peeled out of the pile and slowly walked back towards the huddle, shoulders down and head lowered, looking emotionally and physically spent. It was that kind of night.

But more than anything, it was Major’s night. Didn’t you just feel in your bones that he would get the team in the end zone one last time to win? There is something about number 11, some inner strength, some deep confidence, call it what you will, that enables him to elevate both himself and his teammates.

He is not a god, to be sure. Applewhite has had his bad performances. Kansas State in ‘99 was not pretty. At Kyle Field in ‘99 he came on, weak from a stomach flu but with a chance to guide Texas to another huge ‘W’, and took a game-ending sack instead. In the Big 12 title game against Nebraska that same year he got shelled, and he recently described his own performance that day as cowardly, (though of course it was anything but). And Major played most of the game in ‘00 against OU when Texas got routed. So no, we are not talking infallibility.

But man, when the pressure is on and a game winning drive is needed, Applewhite has no equal, certainly none wearing burnt orange. We saw him do it in ‘98 against Nebraska in Lincoln and against A&M in Austin. We saw him do it again against the Huskers the next year in Austin. I remember a cold, windy day in Ames, Iowa in ‘99 when Texas stared an embarrassing, season- ruining defeat in the face, only to have 11 march the team to a win as time expired. Time and again we’ve seen Major inspire the Horns to victory with the hot breath of defeat on their necks.

He almost pulled it off against Colorado in a game that cost Texas the Roses. And Friday night’s performance, on the heels of the Big 12 title game effort, only reinforces for me what I felt after that game, that the Texas coaches should not have gone for the costly punt-block, but should have put the ball in Major’s hands for a title-winning drive. I said it then and I believe it even more now. Is there really much doubt that he would have delivered?

No matter; that game, and this season, is now history and can’t be replayed. Texas lost two huge games, to OU and Colorado. In both contests, Chris Simms had sub par outings. We would all love now, in retrospect, to know how Major would have performed if given the ball from the get-go. Texas might be 12-0 and squared up with Miami in the game of the New Century. It’s certainly fun, if agonizing, to think about. Still, Simms played good, sometimes great, football for Texas this year, and was very unlucky not to beat Oregon last season despite being picked off four times. If BJ and Roy hang on, Texas may well have won, and Simms would have a bowl win to his credit and an aura of victory surrounding him.

As it is, Simms, who has played in Major’s shadow for three seasons, will play in the shadow of a now legendary Applewhite for one more year. It should be a year that Texas, on the heels of its first top-10 finish in almost two decades and a rare 11-win season, enters ranked first on some ballots, and most certainly in the top 10 on all. Simms will have a chance to carve out his own Longhorn legacy. Texas tackles a grueling schedule in ‘02 that features trips to Lincoln, Manhattan, Lubbock and Chapel Hill, to go along with that little affair at the State Fair against OU. He will get the chance to guide the Horns to headline-grabbing victories almost every week. If he gets the job done, he could well win the Heisman, and memories of a nightmarish night at Texas Stadium will fade away.

But what will never fade from the memories of Texas fans is what Major Applewhite gave them in four seasons of sparkling play -- excitement, thrills, and joy. And it should give those fans joy knowing that after a difficult senior year riding the pine, Applewhite will leave UT with a lasting memory of a final, triumphant win in a crucial test for the Texas program.

Rick Neuheisel summed it up when asked about Applewhite’s performance post-Holiday Bowl: "he was everything advertised." That, and a whole lot more.

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