God bless Chris Jessie.
For all the touchdowns, turnovers and emotion of Texas' 52-34 shootout win over the Arizona State Sun Devils, the name that will be remembered most from the game will be Jessie's.
The Texas Longhorns, suffering a recent rash of slow starts, immediately took control of the 2007 Holiday Bowl, running up a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. It was the most points scored by any team in the opening quarter of a Holiday Bowl, a game known for its offensive displays.
Running back Jamaal Charles had already run for 83 yards, passing Chris Gilbert for fourth place on the all-time UT rushing list (3,328 yards), quarterback Colt McCoy had already thrown for 95 yards on 8-of-11 passing and the Texas Longhorns had all of the momentum possible.
Then Chris Jessie, Texas head coach Mack Brown's stepson and a member of the Texas support staff, stepped off that sideline and into UT history.
The Sun Devils were driving early in the second quarter, had the ball on the Texas 15-yard-line and looked ready to put their first points on the board. But Texas linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy hit ASU quarterback Rudy Carpenter as he was throwing and the ball went backward, tumbling towards the sideline. As the players bared down on the bouncing ball, so did Jessie.
“I thought it was a forward pass, an incomplete pass,” said Jessie, after the game.
Jessie was simply trying to pick up what he thought was a dead ball. He stepped onto the field and reached out, but as the pigskin was about the graze his fingers, he yanked his hands backward in sudden realization of what was happening. Texas defensive end Aaron Lewis blazed past the bewildered staff member, picked up the ball and returned it to the Arizona State 44.
All hell broke lose as Arizona State coaches and players screamed that Jessie had interfered with the play while Texas coaches and players screamed the opposite. After a long delay as the confusion was sorted out, officials went to the replay and ruled that he did touch the ball and interfered with the play, but Jessie maintains he did not touch the ball.
“No I didn't. I did not touch that ball,” said Jessie, confidently.
It was the difference between Texas ball on the ASU 44 and Arizona State ball at the UT 7. Quite a momentum shift, especially considering that the Sun Devils scored a touchdown on the next play.
But, the Texas offense did what might be considered unexpected given the massive swings in momentum this team has gone through during the entire 2007 season. It did what it was supposed to do. Texas didn't go away and kept plugging away.
Because the Horns did not let the momentum turn on them, as it had before, Jessie went from the next Steve Bartman to the another amusing anecdote in the long history of Texas football. Things seemed to come so much easier for a Texas team that was at times marred with inconsistency and poor fundamentals
“Tonight things clicked for us,” said McCoy. “This season, we've had to work for everything and tonight it fell our way. We executed.”
McCoy did it with his arm and his legs, churning up 84 yards and a TD on the ground to go with his 174 yards and a TD through the air on his way to Offensive MVP honors. Charles added 161 yards and two touchdowns as the team totaled 300 yards rushing, which stands in stark contrast to ASU's 22 total rushing yards. Charles said that he stood up before the team and told them that all he wanted for his 21st birthday was a win.
“I wanted this win. I wanted it. I mean, it was my birthday after all,” said an elated Charles, who turned 21 on Thursday.
The defense did have its struggles, surrendering 34 points and 305 yards passing, but the defense did something that it hadn't been able to do with consistency this season: creating turnovers.
“I felt like we did a good job of forcing turnovers,” said Brown, whose Longhorns took the ball away four times on the night. “I'm so proud of these guys. These kids have worked as hard as any in the country and we were aggressive.”
The aggression was just one of many notable changes to the team. It looked like a different football team, but not just in tone. It looked like a different football team because there were different players on the field.
The mantra of “all positions are open” was apparently not just a public relations move as several new starters stepped in, most notably on the offensive line and in the linebackers, two positions that have occasionally struggled this season.
On the O-line, freshman, Kyle Hix, got the start at right tackle, Cedric Dockery started at right guard, Chris Hall moved back to center and Adam Ulatoski move from right to left tackle, and Charlie Tanner filled in the final spot at left guard.
In the linebacking corps, Scott Derry kept his starting spot, but the other two starters did not. Muckelroy and Jared Norton both stepped into the starting lineup and back-up Sergio Kindle also saw significant time until he was forced to leave with a leg injury in the first half. Kindle came back to the Texas sideline in the second half, but was in street clothes and had a noticeable limp.
The star of the defense, though, was Brian Orakpo, who took home the Defensive MVP Award after racking up five tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Texas sacked Carpenter four times, but Longhorns were in his face all night, disrupting passes. But Orakpo said the way Texas stuffed the run made the difference.
“We were able to shut down the run and we were able to make them one dimensional,” said Orakpo. “The coaches were calling a great game and we were able to execute all game.”
Orakpo's great individual performance was one of many. Among the players that stepped up, senior safety Marcus Griffin had a pair of picks in his final game in Burnt Orange and senior Brandon Foster put up seven tackles, two picks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
“After the Texas A&M loss, we made a pact to play on all cylinders and we did that tonight,” said DT Derek Lokey, who scored the game's first TD on a 2-yard pass out of the fullback position. “When everybody plays on the same cylinder, we can get a lot accomplished.
Texas finally clicked and the talent finally showed. Although this game could represent what the Longhorns could have been in 2007, Texas fans are hoping it will represent what the Horns will be in 2008.