"When the No. 1 team is playing the No. 7 team," Brown said, "I don't call it a scare. I call it a close game."
Call it a typical Texas-Oklahoma State shootout. Four of the past five in the series were not decided until the fourth quarter. Three of the past four required historic comebacks from the Burnt Orange. But this is not your grandfather's Okie State team.
To be sure: Cowboys sugar-daddy T. Boone Pickens is getting his money's worth from this year's version of Oklahoma State football. The Pokes rode into town loaded with skill players, including the league's top runner, top receiver and one of college football's most accurate QBs. OSU's defense is on the rise, twice turning Texas away inside the 10-yard line late in the fourth quarter when one TD would have sealed the deal.
That's why the argument, here, is that offensive coordinator Greg Davis' decision to go for the jugular on 4th-and-goal from the one on Texas' last possession was the right choice. A Texas TD slams the door on this one. Sure, a TD clinches it for the visitors after McCoy's hurried attempt skipped off the turf in front of intended receiver Chris Ogbonnaya. It's better to force Okie State to drive 99 yards in 33 seconds with no time outs than risk a blocked FG return for score or, heaven help us, another Texas kickoff.
Mack Brown has been wringing his hands all season (really, ever since the 2005 Rose Bowl game against Michigan) about his porous kickoff coverage. He reminded reporters midweek that coverage remained one of the few problematic areas that could keep top-ranked Texas from running the table. Saturday, it was no small part of what kept Oklahoma State in the ball game. The Cowboys raced to 135 yards on five returns, considerably shortening the field against a shorthanded Texas defense. In fact, the average starting field position for the Cowboys during the first half was their own 42-yard line.
"Our kickoff coverage wasn't just bad," Brown conceded. "It was awful. Just awful."
Fortunately for Texas, QB Colt McCoy remains awesome, just awesome. Receivers dropped three balls that hit them in the numbers, and McCoy was still good for 38-of-45 passing for 391 yards. Records fall every time he takes the field. On Saturday, he extended his own school record (set just last week) with 18 straight completions. The Heisman front-runner set a new school single-game record for completions while breaking Vince Young's mark for total offense in a career (9,232). His 432 total yards Saturday was a personal best.
One-third of McCoy's attempts landed safely in the hands of roommate Jordan Shipley. His school record 15 catches broke SE Roy Williams' single-game mark by a couple of grabs, resulting in a career-best 168 receiving yards.
"Colt is delivering the ball right where it needs to be every time," Shipley said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence and with a lot of faith right now."
These days, it's newsworthy only if McCoy suffers a rare INT or fumbles -- he would do both Saturday -- rather than completing nearly 85 percent of his passes (he did that, too). McCoy's latest heroics prompted this statement from Mack Brown:
"I've become a Texas fan."
"My standards are way too high for Colt McCoy," Brown explained.
The standards have also been raised for a Texas defense that was summoned to save the day after McCoy was stripped of the ball at the Cowboy 10 with 5:37 remaining.
RB Kendall Hunter rumbled for 21 yards on three carries before DE Henry Melton tackled QB Zac Robinson for a two-yard loss. DE Brian Orakpo's third-down stop of Robinson set up the most critical fourth-down conversion attempt of the season. But Robinson's completion to WR Dez Bryant on the inside screen resulted in a three-yard loss -- credit DT Lamarr Houston with the hit -- and the Horns took over on downs.
"They ran some screens early in the game and had some success," Houston said. "They tried to go back to it. We knew they needed about four yards."
That late afternoon southerly gust was the collective sigh of relief from the Burnt Orange partisans who were part of school record 98,518 in attendance, which was also the largest crowd ever to see a football game in the state of Texas and southwestern U.S. Attribute some of that heavy breathing to backup cornerback Curtis Brown, assigned to Bryant after starter Chykie Brown was sidelined with a leg injury (CB Ryan Palmer was also limited by a hyperextended left elbow).
"Honestly, I was nervous at the beginning," Brown said, "but after the first kickoff I calmed down. I wasn't too worried. I practiced all week. I practiced hard and I was ready."
Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp opted to double-up on Bryant while dropping into a three-deep coverage to limit his big play-ability. It often left CB Deon Beasley on an island with formidable TE Brandon Pettigrew, projected as an NFL First Rounder in April's Draft. At the end of the day, Pettigrew accounted for 83 yards on eight grabs while Bryant tallied six receptions for 74 yards.
"I just had to play my technique," Beasley said. "It allowed me to have a better edge. I just played technique, and technique wins...The defensive line was getting pressure so I held up my half."
Texas recorded five sacks and turned in a respectable day at the office (given its pass coverage woes the past three years) by limiting Robinson to 17-of-26 passing for 199 yards.
The Horns can take solace in that they won't see another running back like Hunter (161 yards on 18 totes) all season. Texas' best defense, however, was an offense that converted 11-of-14 third down conversions and held the ball for nearly 34 minutes.
It was tough sledding for Texas' rushing offense, held to 113 yards on 32 carries. Okie State shuffled its defensive fronts between three- and-four down linemen. It also brought a variety of blitz packages, unleashing in-your-facemask pressure up the middle.
"They had more safeties than we usually face," said RB Vondrel McGee. "They had more secondary people in the game and were playing with three down linemen."
Both squads reached midfield on their opening drives; both defenses stiffened to force punts. But a pair of TD drives covering 90+ yards ensured that Oklahoma State would not jump to the kind of double-digit lead characteristic of the series.
Operating from its own own seven, Texas' 11-play scoring drive became the Jordan Shipley Show. He followed his 15-yard reception over the middle (splitting the difference against a two-deep zone to move the sticks on 3rd-and-seven) with his 17-yard scamper around right end off the reverse. Shipley collected five more out of the four-wide set and then put the Burnt Orange in prime real estate at the Cowboy 14 with an 18-yard grab. From there, McCoy beat the blitz with his quick lob into the left corner of the south end zone. Shipley's over-the-shoulder grab tied Limas Sweed's school record for consecutive games with a TD reception (seven). It was a 7-0 ballgame with 1:47 remaining in the opening frame.
Victor Johnson's 52-yard return of a Justin Tucker kickoff let Oklahoma State set up shop at the Texas 45. But safety Earl Thomas forced a Kendall Hunter fumble at the end of an 18-yard gain that SLB Sergio Kindle recovered at the Texas nine. McCoy dissected the Cowboy defense liked a skilled surgeon, finding the soft spot in the zone and completing all six of his attempts to move the chains to the Cowboy 14. On first down, McGee started left, and cutting back behind Malcolm Williams' clearing block, scampered into the end zone to make it a 14-0 contest.
But Okie State quickly answered. Bryant's lunging 11-yard reception moved the chains on 3rd-and-10 from the Texas 34. Next play, Hunter darted untouched down the left sideline to trim the Longhorn lead, 14-7, following the nine-play 65-yard drive with 8:41 remaining until halftime.
"They kept bouncing the ball outside," DT Roy Miller said, "and I don't know what was happening. We could have made some better tackles, better angles to the ball, and things like that."
Texas needed a clock-churning response. Shipley was soundly popped at the end of a play-action pass, but the grab was good for 19 yards to the Cowboy 40. McGee accounted for 14 more when McCoy found him over the middle. McCoy's 10-yard scramble set up shop at the Cowboy 15. The Pokes brought the house on the next snap, but that only set the stage for the Cosby Show. The senior SE had a step on LCB Jacob Lacey, but McCoy's hurried toss was to the outside as Cosby turned in. The result was a highlight reel, falling back catch in the right corner of the end zone to cap an 80-yard, nine-play march to make it a 21-7 ballgame.
The Big Mo had swung back to the Texas sideline; it would have stayed there if the Horns could have managed a touchback. Instead, the Cowboys lassoed it back with a second-straight 52-yard return, this time courtesy of Perrish Cox all the way to the Longhorn 29. Pettigrew collected nine yards on second down and then nine more to convert a critical 4th-and-one from the UT 20. Robinson found Bo Bowling on a nine-yard post to complete the seven-play drive.
It was anybody's ballgame, 21-14, at the break despite Texas' sizable advantage in total yards, passing yards, first downs and time of possession. The great equalizer was OSU's 109 return yards and the fact that Pettigrew imposed his will despite double-coverage.
Oklahoma State's average starting field position during the first 30 minutes was its own 42 but operated from its own five after Cox mishandled Tucker's second-half kickoff. Three straight Hunter runs quickly moved the chains to the Texas 44 but an incompletion, followed by a holding penalty, resulted in a 3rd-and-12 from the 46. DE Henry Melton's three-yard sack at midfield ended the Cowboy uprising.
The past two weeks, Texas failed to move the chains on its opening drive of the second half. Not this time. McCoy's three-yard keeper put the finishing touches on an 84-yard march to extend Texas' lead, 28-14. There were two huge plays on this 10-play drive: the first was Shipley's 29-yard catch-and-run that exploited yet another Cowboy blitz. A few plays later, linebacker Andre Sexton's personal foul for roughing the passer negated what would have been just McCoy's fourth INT of the season.
But these Cowboys were not ready to mosey out of town. Robinson's shovel pass to Hunter covered 31 yards to the Texas 47. Hunter followed with a pair of tough runs that netted 25 yards to dictate the pace in a 78-yard, nine play drive. Keith Toston's one-yard plunge trimmed the Longhorn lead, 28-21, with 3:43 remaining in the third.
McCoy had completed 31 of his first 34 attempts, but his 35th was intercepted at the Cowboy 42 when Lacey got his hands on a ball that had too much air under it. Hunter's two-yard dive moved the chains on 4th-and-one at the Texas 35. The Cowboys had a fresh set of downs at the Texas 23 when the final frame began. But Texas' defense put the clamps on this drive, starting with DE Brain Orakpo's heads-up play on second-down. The senior was not duped by the fake end-around, throwing Keith Toston for a one-yard loss on the rocket pitch. Then, DE Aaron Lewis slowed Robinson just long enough for Kindle to register the team's third sack of the afternoon. Okie State settled for a 39-yard field goal, but now there was no comfort zone for Texas at 28-24.
Proponents of a college football playoff are getting a de facto version of it each Saturday this month, courtesy of the Longhorns. Three Game-Of-The-Year tilts in the record books; one Game-Of-The-Year now looms large in Lubbock. Fiesta Bowl officials were in the press box for the second consecutive week but, with each win, the prize remains considerably larger than the BCS bowl tie-in for the Big 12 Conference.
Next up: the biggest Texas-Texas Tech game in series history. Yet, members of a visibly tired Texas team have assumed a 'What? Me, worry?' approach to the current Murder's Row of Big 12 South competition.
"It's what we came here for," said WR Quan Cosby.