So what if Pac-10 was absent? Texas-Michigan Rose turned into classic
Posted: Saturday January 1, 2005 10:34PM; Updated: Saturday January 1, 2005 10:59PM
In the end, the burnt orange end zone didn't look that out of place. It was kind of cool, actually. So was the sea of hook 'em signs in the stands.
And, let's face it, few Big Ten-Pac-10 Rose Bowl games ever have produced quite as thrilling a contest as the one Texas contributed to Saturday.
By the time Vince Young squirted free for his third or fourth eye-popping touchdown run, Braylon Edwards soared for another catch in the end zone or Steve Breaston broke another long return, it was hard to remember there was ever a controversy over the Longhorns' presence in Pasadena. And by the time Dusty Mangum's 37-yard field goal went through the uprights to give Texas a 38-37 victory over Michigan with no time remaining, millions of fans across the country knew they'd just witnessed one of the all-time great Rose Bowls, tradition be damned.
"That has to be as good a college football game as there could be," jubilant and suddenly vindicated Texas coach Mack Brown said afterward. "Texas and Michigan should come down to the last two seconds."
It's no secret Rose Bowl officials have not been thrilled by their association with the BCS, which in 2002 ended their sacred 55-year string of consecutive Big Ten-Pac-10 matchups and stuck them with a pair of stinkers in Miami-Nebraska and Oklahoma-Washington State. This year, losing Cal, which was pining for its first Rose trip since 1959, due to some 11th-hour voting changes was the most infuriating insult yet to Pasadena traditionalists.
As it turned out, though, the sun still rose over the Arroyo Seco on game day, albeit after a little rain, and the picturesque nightfall set in the second half just as always. The fans still came. TV viewers still tuned in. And lo and behold, they ended up getting their most exciting game since Ohio State's last-second win over Arizona State in 1997.
That game, unlike this one, had national-championship implications. But this one also had a whole lot more than just a frantic finish. The 'Horns and Wolverines traded punches for four hours in a seemingly never-ending exchange of big plays and masterful individual performances.
On his biggest stage to date, the oft-maligned Young was nothing short of dominant, running 21 times for 193 yards and four touchdowns and, with the exception of one third-quarter interception, controlling the tempo with efficient short passing. Michigan was so helpless to stop him that Texas relied almost entirely on Young's feet on its final, game-winning field goal drive, calling designed runs for its sophomore QB on five of its first seven plays. He gained positive yardage on every single one, often dragging his defender for several yards even after getting wrapped up.
Earlier in the game, he was barely even touched on touchdown runs of 60, 23 and 20 yards.
"I've never seen an athletic performance from a quarterback like Vince Young did tonight," Brown said.
Similarly, Texas' defenders had no answer for Edwards, who capped a legendary career with another remarkable performance. A year earlier on the same field against USC, Edwards took flak for dropping what would have been a touchdown bomb on Michigan's first drive of the game, a blunder that, at the time, epitomized his up-and-down career. There was nothing to nit-pick about his final season, though, when Edwards became the undisputed top receiver in the country, a fact that never was more evident than Saturday when he caught 10 balls for 118 yards and three touchdowns. The third TD was a leaping grab in the back of the end zone, a la the Michigan State game earlier in the season, that could best be described as Larry Fitzgerald-esque.
And not to be overlooked was Breaston, the sophomore special teams-player extraordinaire who racked up 217 yards on six kickoff returns. When Young's touchdown with 4:56 left erased Michigan's once 10-point lead, putting the 'Horns up 35-34, Breaston broke a magnificent 52-yard return on the ensuing kickoff to put Michigan in position to go back ahead.
The Wolverines, who rebounded from an embarrassing early-season loss to Notre Dame to win the Big Ten, have nothing to hang their heads about despite losing their last two games. Their one disappointment was the disappearance of star running back Michael Hart for long stretches of both this and the Ohio State game. But with both Hart and QB Chad Henne just freshmen and talented players like Breaston, Jason Avant and Gabe Watson all returning, Michigan's 2005 prospects are bright.
That said, there's no understating the importance of this win for Texas. Brown has taken no shortage of criticism during his seven years in Austin, most recently for his controversial BCS lobbying efforts. A Rose Bowl loss to the underdog Wolverines just days after receiving a mammoth 10-year, $25 million extension would have been another blow to his credibility. Not only did he get the win, he showed the nation he has a bona fide star in Young who will return along with most of the team's nucleus next season.
"I don't think we'll ever answer all the critics in sports," said Brown. "The BCS should be answering those questions, not me."
Certainly the victory didn't carry quite the same importance as beating Oklahoma. But it may have been just as exciting.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.