After Saturday, Texas no longer needs a telescope to see the national championship picture. Binoculars still, but six weeks ago, after a 48-7 dismantling by the Wildcats, the Hubble Space Telescope seemed ill-equipped for the job. And that speck of radiation called the UT DEE, lost among the background noise of interstellar space, has of late become a supernova in the great constellation Longhorn. [I apologize, I think all the John Glenn hype and an acute lack of sleep got to me this week.]
Driving in to downtown Lincoln, two buildings dominate the skyline -- the state capitol and Memorial Stadium. As the freeway winds toward the stadium gates, another landmark catches one's eye. No building or monument this. A simple billboard with these words: WELCOME TO THE CENTER OF THE FOOTBALL UNIVERSE. The Longhorns' journey to that universe started seemingly light years away -- actually those 120 miles south of Lincoln -- in Manhattan the third weekend of the season. Since leaving the field that day, the Horns have been a different team.
"When we left Kansas State, we were kind of in turmoil," TD-snagging TE Derek Lewis said Saturday night. "(Mad) Dog really got after us that Sunday after the game and we just pulled together as a team. That's where the term 'one heartbeat' came up and we just went out and said, 'It can't happen again. We just can't lose. There's too much at stake. We just have to go out there and take it one game at a time and keep climbing and get back in this thing.'"
Back in this thing they certainly are, winners of five straight and sitting with six wins -- bowl eligible -- through eight games. Balanced on offense. Climbing the charts on defense.
"This thing is so much farther along than I thought," Mack Brown said post-game in the Field House under the north end zone of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium Saturday. "I never dreamed we'd sit here at 6-2 right now and our two losses would be to No. 2 and No. 4. That's beyond my wildest expectations . . . Some of you folks from Nebraska who didn't see us the first three weekends, you'd be impressed if you saw what we've come from. I walked out at halftime at UCLA wondering if we could win a game. I'm serious . . . You know, three or for weeks ago when we played Iowa State, we couldn't even stop a fourth down, so to think we could go out there and hold (Nebraska) when they had four downs to make a first down is a major accomplishment for these kids."
Any hint of complacency? Not from this staff.
"The thing we've got to understand right now, with the type team we are, we have to play well next week to have a chance to win again," Brown added. "We can lose the next three as easily as we can win them."
I have to admit, years of mental conditioning -- a poor UT defense, blown leads and overall disappointment -- have hardened me to the verge of skepticism, but I'm starting to feel better and better about this Longhorn team for one main reason -- the defense. When the entrance of the Texas DEE ceases to bring on a dose of dread, you know progress has been made. But when the defensive coordinator of this team, who struggled through two-a-days and most of September looking for guys who could stop someone, anyone, says, "We'd like to have gone in and played one more time -- get them in a two-minute offense. I think we would have taken care of them," you know this defense may be headin' toward something special.
The players feel it.
"Every week we get better and better," J.J. Kelly said. "Our coaches -- technique-wise, they teach us, they show us what to do, we just go out there and execute it. Every week we get a better grasp of what they're trying to get us to do." Early in the season, I worried that my belief was misguided that simply competent defensive coaching last season would have produced a halfway decent UT group. But with almost exclusively the same players as last season, this defense is showing some stuff, as in stuff the run.
"Coach Reese deserves a lot of that credit," Dusty Renfro told me after the game. "He does a great job game-planning. He's one of the best in the business and I think the staff we've got has really done a great job helping us play our very best. We've improved so much from the first of the season. It's crazy. I've never seen a team improve this much."
Outside the Field House, occasional bursts of cheering wafted through the rickety old building, filtering down to the half-dozen or so players, including Dusty and Major and Derek Lewis, scattered through the gymnasium-type building, each one the center of a huddle of eager reporters. As group after group of Longhorn players worked their way from locker room to limo (actually a bus but, hey, these guys deserved a limo), the din of the UT fans gathered outside the player's exit rose and fell.
It seemed to me the four thousand Texas fans who made the trip to Lincoln wanted to pay one last salute to this team before these guys left the site of their biggest triumph yet. I say yet because this
coaching staff is dedicated to playing championship defense.
"We didn't feel like going in we were good enough to just stay in there," said Carl Reese. "You bring a football team in here and you're not really good enough to stand toe-to-toe with Nebraska. You gotta be like Nebraska, you can rush four guys and pound 'em and be stiff -- Every week, if we don't come out and play hard and play over our heads and get in the right gaps and those kind of things -- we're still not where we want to be of course and it will take us a couple of recruiting years to get there, but we're gonna get there. I've got confidence that we'll get there before it's over with. Another recruiting year or two, maybe we can. Coach Mack does a great job of recruiting."
Even before those next two recruiting years, we are seeing the beginnings of a rebuilt defensive dynasty. That obviously is a ways off. But after the Kansas State game six weeks ago -- it seems more like six months to me -- I sat in the same Kansas City hotel where I now type these words. That day, this phrase sprang forth: "I anticipated better through game three." Today, let me revise that: The anticipation after game eight, I never could have imagined.