What? Too soon?
The crushing whipping dished out by TAMU on Friday is as bitter and demoralizing as rivalry losses come. The Farmers moved the ball up and down the field with near impunity, outwitting and out-maneuvering UT's perpetually confused defensive backs and linebackers. But what galls is the way the Aggies did it, delegating their power running game to secondary status. Instead, the Gomers play-action passed their way to 366 yards with a throwing game maligned by the Big XII's worst defenses, a QB maligned by the student body, and wide receivers maligned by the ex-head coach's ill-advised "insider" newsletter. It's like we were in an arm-wrestling contest with atonal "American Idol" flop William Hung, he suddenly challenged us to a singing contest instead, and we couldn't remember the opening lyric to "The Eyes of Texas."
Where the heck was our defense? I though this was the season we were releasing our safeties from run support to better stop the pass. Our heavily-recruited cornerbacks gave A&M's un-heavily recruited receivers ten yard cushions -- meaning the seven yard hitch was open all night. Seams between zones -- crossing patterns between short LBs and deep DBs, the middle and sideline vertical seams against cover two -- were reliably, could-have-thrown-there-wearing-a-blindfold open. LBs (first and second set) were perpetually a step behind, permitting two yard dump passes in the flat to turn into seven yard gains. Aggie receivers were more alone than Steven Segal on Oscar night.
As Bill Murray said in "Stripes," "And then depression set in." The irrepressibly sad moments in life that really rip out your innards: the time we had to put the family dog down due to Parvo, holding my breath as the vet gave the final shot and the disease-ravaged pet's body went limp in my arms. The cute little curly-haired redhead with the sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheeks who broke my high school heart with no more thought than she gave to stomping on an ant. Sitting all the way through the abysmal, soul-draining Mariah Carey movie "Glitter." Losing to the Goose-Steppers two years in a row when we have more athletic players, much better coaches (make a snide joke if you want, but sadly its true), and more reasons to want to win the game.
It feels like a small, angry animal crawled inside my gut and died trying to claw its way out. I could make a chalky-faced, dog-collar-wearing, black-clad, death metal, dadaist goth teenager seem like she was skipping down the street, smiling while whistling Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine." I could make a Shakespearian tragedy where everybody swordfights, drinks poison, and dies in the end look like a Jim Carey comedy full of poo-poo and pee-pee jokes. I could make an orphanage that burns to the ground on Christmas Eve with the tragic waifs standing barefoot in the snow, shivering, breath misting in the cold, watching their Christmas gifts go up in flames seem like the warm group hug at the front of a Baptist Church after a lost soul comes forward during altar call to give his heart to Jesus.
My sweet wife, noting my dour demeanor, did her best to console me: "Sweetie, it's just a football game." Liar! Blasphemer! Heretic! Tech grad! Aggie-Monger!
No, the A&M game is not just a football game, any more than a Cormac McCarthy novel is a bunch of words randomly strewn together, any more than a Mozart concerto is a collection of stray notes, any more than an Ansel Adams photograph is a "point and click." This was one of our rivalry games. In the perennial lists of "greatest college football rivalries," my beloved, mighty, fighting Texas Longhorns are the only team on the list twice, once for Oklahoma and once for the Aggies. We lost both games this year, so don't pretend it doesn't matter because we weren't going to a B.C.S. bowl anyway, don't pretend this was an aberration or the Aggies just got lucky, and don't pretend it doesn't hurt.
You know the absolute worst part? The most painful twist of the knife in the wound? I actually thought we could come back and win. Those who have read my writings this season know I'm nothing if not a shamefully silly optimist. Despite playing horrific defense, giving up not one but two long, head-scratching TD passes in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, we were moving the ball well and pulled within one TD with time remaining. But at the end of the game on third and seven, when we knew almost to a certainty A&M would run the ball, we let Mike Goodson bounce outside and narrowly make the first down that enabled the Farmers to run out the clock.
I know there's plenty of blame to go around, but from my point of view, this loss is squarely on the shoulders of the defense. Playing from behind the entire game changes the offensive playcalling. Colt tried to force things in the fourth quarter, which made him fumble and look like he was struggling more than he really was. Plus, even with the limitations of our triaged offensive line, we moved the ball when we had to, answering A&M's scores tit for tat until we couldn't get our offense back on the field. 30 points should have been enough to win this game.
But it wasn't. And as we kept winning games despite giving up season-record-setting passing yards to the likes of Baylor, Tech, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, and, heaven help us, Arkansas State and Rice, I kept thinking we would hit the bottom defensively. In my heart of hearts, I knew we had the hitters and quickness to turn things around and have a decent defense. A bad drunk loses his family, job, and self-respect on the long, slow, sad spiral out of control, eventually waking up in the gutter alone, filthy, covered in vomit, terrified into finally admitting he has a problem. It's at that point healing can begin.
But our defense hasn't hit the bottom yet. In college football's Twelve Step Program, Texas has not yet arrived as Step One: admitting we are powerless to have a decent defense and that as a result our season has become unmanageable. "We're Texas. Our defense doesn't have a problem. We can stop the other team any time we want to, it's just that we don't want to."
But saying it doesn't make it so. When I get back to Lubbock, I'll wander over to the basement of the Presbyterian Church a little before 7:00 p.m. I'll have bad coffee in a Styrofoam cup and a two-day-old donut. I'll put on my name tag, sit in a folding chair, and when it's my turn, I'll stand and calmly say, "Hi. I'm Jeff, and I'm a homer."
Jeff Conner's political and pop culture-infused Longhorn commentary appears regularly in the Inside Texas magazine and at InsideTexas.com.