Posted: Wednesday September 7, 2005 12:52PM; Updated: Wednesday September 7, 2005 1:56PM
1. Texas at Ohio State, Saturday night at the 'Shoe. Discuss.
Saturday's result could make or break Vince Young's season.
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This game deserves the hype. Smart college football gurus like to point out it's better to lose early than late for teams trying to stay in the national-championship race. That's true, but it's far more sensible to not lose at all, and especially so this year when USC looks like a strong candidate to run the table and leave the rest of the nation clawing for the other sideline at the Rose Bowl. The team that wins this game becomes the Trojans' most likely opponent. You can talk until you're scarlet and gray in the face about Ohio State quarterback Justin Zwick and the job he did replacing Troy Smith in the win over Miami (Ohio) last Saturday. You can sing the praises of the Buckeyes' versatile and gifted Ted Ginn Jr or running back Antonio Pittman or wideout Santonio Holmes or central casting linebacker A.J. Hawk. They're all good, but the truth is this game belongs to Texas quarterback Vince Young -- making himself a superstar or just another great athlete.
2. Fair enough. But is Young up to the task?
The task, you say? Here's the task: Quarterback a team with national-championship aspirations on the road in an intensely hostile environment against an opponent with the same aspirations. Ohio Stadium, the Horseshoe, will be rocking and well-lubricated by Saturday at 8 p.m. Do this with inexperienced wide receivers and with still-developing talents of your own, while trying to carry a program whose own fans and many college football experts feel should have at least played for a national championship by now? That's all.
I spent three days with Young in late June, reporting the feature story that appeared in Sports Illustrated's college football preview issue. Here's what I knew going in: Young was one of the hottest recruits in Texas -- maybe college football history -- when he signed with the Longhorns in February of 2002. I went to Austin in the fall of '03 to write a story about Texas All-America wideout Roy Williams, but the buzz around the program surrounded Young, who was pressuring Chance Mock for the starting job. He got on the field that year and became the full-time starter last fall as a third-year sophomore. He took his game nationwide with a five-touchdown performance in Texas's Rose Bowl victory over Michigan.
I expected to find a young man whose personality was as kinetic as his freewheeling game. Texas coach Mack Brown told me that's not what I would find, and he was right. Make no mistake, Young has incredible physical gifts, the rare combination of size on top of quick feet (6-foot-5, 233 pounds with the quickness to make cornerbacks miss in the open field or run over linebackers). Yet he is not a finished product, and he knows it. His throwing motion is a Danny Wuerffel-esque shot put off the front of his shoulder. After three years of tinkering, he and Texas coaches (and mentor Steve McNair) have decided to stop trying to turn him into John Elway and let him throw the way he learned. "He didn't go to quarterback camps when he was younger," Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis told me. "He taught himself to throw.''
I found Young to be a humble, mature cat. Don't get me wrong, he knows he's got the wheels to make plays. But with the prospect of another Rose Bowl run facing Texas, Young amped up his preparation during the offseason. He watched hours of tape and worked endlessly with his new receivers (and his old ones, like Limas Sweed and tight end David Thomas, the security blanket Young calls "the best athlete on our team.'') Has a strong arm but not an accurate one, so he has tried to learn where and when to take chances.
In Columbus, Young will have to make plays with his feet and avoid making mistakes with his arm. He will need a cool head in a pressurized game. He already has that. One afternoon, Young and I sat in a film room at Texas and he talked about his childhood and absentee father who I later visited in a Texas penitentiary. He has two older sisters, yet he protected them from overzealous suitors. As a child, he was strong and smart. I would expect nothing less on Saturday night. Young will make sure this is the game of the early season.