The Longhorns hammered North Texas, Rice and Baylor as expected but the Arkansas game signaled a new approach to football under Mack Brown and new DC Greg Robinson. It was an old formula that had been used by Darrell Royal, Fred Akers and David McWilliams -- a strong Longhorn defense that keeps the team in every game.
So the Longhorns went to Dallas with a different attitude than existed in the previous four years. Mack Brown turned the October meeting into a war. Oh yes, the Longhorns went down 12-0, but the spark and fight were there. Several times the Longhorn defense held the Sooners off their goalline. Derrick Johnson, Larry Dibbles, Aaron Harris and the entire Texas secondary did not have to walk out of the Cotton Bowl with their heads down.
The problem holding back the Longhorns was their offense. Vince Young was a liability as the Sooners harassed and frustrated his every move. Cedric Benson ran hard but without help from the QB, Texas was absolutely one-dimensional and easily stopped by a top-notch defense. The offensive coaching staff at Texas was forced to start again in its offensive game-planning after being shut out and shut down by Oklahoma.
The question surfaced like a monster from the deep: Could Vince Young handle the Texas offense that existed under coordinator Greg Davis or would Davis add plays to get Young back on track?
The very next week against Missouri, there was no answer to the quarterback dilemma. Texas won without Young -- in fact, Chance Mock finished up the game in place of Vince, who went to the bench with an injury. It was classic Benson running behind a pounding offensive line. Jonathan Scott, Kasey Studdard, Jason Glynn, Will Allen and Justin Blalock won on offense without caring what the Texas quarterback did or did not do.
Mack Brown knew it as well as every Texas football fan: the Texas offense would have to come to life in Lubbock the next Saturday or the Red Raiders would hang another loss on the Longhorns. Texas must match Tech's offensive output!
The game on the South Plains was a masterstroke by Greg Davis in the handling of his talented but in-a-funk quarterback. Instead of asking Young to be another Chris Simms, Davis cut him loose with rollout passes, quarterback sweeps and down-the-line speed options. It unlocked Young and allowed him to again be a threat. In Lubbock, Davis put the round peg in the round hole and it became a runaway. Texas 51, Tech 21. Young carried the ball 25 times for 158 yards and completed 10 passes in 15 attempts for 142 yards. That rejuvenation combined with the punishing running of Cedric Benson put Texas on its way to becoming Mack Brown's very best Longhorn team.
Young would continue to develop as a drop-back passer but he became like an unsaddled horse headed to the barn with Davis's addition of new quarterback running plays.
When the "zone read" got defensed, Greg Davis had to come up with more quarterback running plays. At Lubbock on a clear West Texas night, the Texas Longhorns became a very complete and strong football team.
The best defensive effort of the year came at Boulder, Colorado. For the first time defensive coordinator Greg Robinson turned the "hounds loose". There were Longhorns coming at the Buffs from every angle possible. Dibbles knocked downed two passes dropping back in a zone blitz and Phillip Geiggar almost took the Colorado quarterback's head off with a brilliant safety blitz on a crucial down in the second half. It was a turkey shoot. The home team did not score an offensive point.
But on November 6 a shocked Texas crowd saw Oklahoma State run the Longhorns into utter confusion in the first half. For the first time all season the Texas defense was a step slow to react. The Horns missed tackles and over-pursued. They looked tired, they looked whipped. The crowd was stunned; they didn't leave but their spirits were down.
But just before the half in desperation, Greg Davis called for Young to hit tight end Bo Scaife. It worked as Scaife thrust the ball over the goalline before going out of bounds, giving the Longhorns a touchdown going into the lockerroom. Brown told his team at the half that they would win the game 42-35 despite trailing at the time 35-14. As he later said he apologized to the team for, the head coach underestimated his charges.
Not since David McWilliams' Longhorns clobbered the University of Houston in 1990 was more spirit shown by a Texas team and a Longhorn crowd than in the second half vs. the Cowboys. Six straight touchdowns after the break, and the Longhorn defense came alive. It was a powerful victory and caught the attention of a national audience by means of television and replays on ESPN.
The rollercoaster ride continued next week in Lawrence. It was a cold, early morning game before a sparse crowd of Kansas fans waiting for basketball season. From the stands where I sat, Texas looked like they wanted to be somewhere else. It was the worst game of the year for the Texas secondary -- they couldn't play the long ball. The Jayhawks outplayed Texas for 58 minutes and had the Horns near dead with a fourth-and-18 from near midfield with under a minute to play.
Vince Young, though, ran toward the Texas bench, looking downfield, but decided instead to run for the marker. Kansas' best linebacker Nick Reid had a chance for the game-winning tackle but Young made him miss. The play covered 22 yards and a first down, but in retrospect it covered a 1,000 miles because without it the Longhorns don't see Pasadena but on TV. Texas earned the win on a brilliant Tony Jeffery catch in the left corner of the Kansas end zone on a well-placed ball by Vince Young.
So here came the resurrected Texas A&M Aggies to Austin. In 2003, they were one of the worst Division I teams in America. Southlake Carroll High School would have given them a game. Not so in 2004. Quarterback Reggie McNeal was on par with Arkansas' Matt Jones as a dual threat and the entire Aggie team stepped forward to improve their performance.
There was no doubt that the Ags had the firepower to challenge Texas, so a national television audience tuned in.
After trailing at the half despite outplaying the Ags in the first half (due to the fluke goalline play and run-back for an A&M TD), the Longhorns physically beat up Texas A&M after the break. The Longhorn offensive line was never better and Cedric Benson ran like a man possessed. It was his second straight outstanding performance vs. the Aggies and one of his best games since his state championship efforts at Midland Lee. He was "the man" and on the end of one of his bruising trips inside the tackles ran over an Aggie defender to the delight of 83,000-plus Texas fans and millions on television. There was nothing "soft" about this UT team!
The Texas defense embarrassed the Aggie forward wall by slamming shut the A&M running game and totaling eight sacks of McNeal.
Texas left an impression on national viewers with its 10-1 mark and solid closing statement. Then, California ended its season with a sloppy win against Southern Mississippi. It wasn't any worse than Texas had played in Lawrence, Kansas but Cal was unlucky because every AP and coaches' poll voter was watching. That, not Mack Brown's plea for help in the BCS catapulted the Horns into the BCS top four and the Rose Bowl.
Texas Tech, which ended the season as the Big 12's fourth best team, ripped California 45-31 in the Holiday Bowl, partially vindicating the BCS, with full vindication awaiting days later in the Rose Bowl.
On January 1, the Longhorns of 2004 became a team to remember as they battled to 38-37 victory over Michigan, a team that had never lost consecutive Rose Bowls. It was the Wolverines' 19th trip and they came with a loaded gun named Braylon Edwards, who was every bit as good as Texas' Roy Williams against LSU in the Cotton Bowl of 2003.
Cedric Benson became a bit player after an injury on Texas' first offensive play and the weight of the offense fell on Vince Young. And he carried it.
Greg Davis used the roll back pass by Young after faking to Benson to stretch the Michigan defense. It was as powerful as the Stealth Bomber that flew over the Rose Bowl. Young's totals: 372 yards of total offense. And Dusty Mangum's 37-yard winning field goal is now Longhorn legend material.
The turn-around that culminated with Mangum's kick in Pasadena started with the off-season hires of Greg Robinson and Dick Tomey, continued with the win in the Ozarks, and then rose again from the ashes of the Cotton Bowl. When Greg Davis adjusted the offense in Lubbock, allowing Vince Young to win games with all of his abilities, the run for the Rose(s) was on track. For January '05, and perhaps even January '06.
Pat Culpepper played for The University from 1960-62 and graduated from UT with a B.A. degree with honors in history. He coached college football for 12 years as an assistant at Texas, Colorado, Tulane, Baylor and Memphis State and was head coach at Northern Illinois from 1976-79. He also spent 16 years as a high school coach in Texas at Midland, Lufkin, Galveston Ball, Westfield and his hometown of Cleburne. He was selected to the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1991. His commentary appears regularly in the Inside Texas magazine and at InsideTexas.com.