With the Cornhuskers ahead 13-10 late in the third quarter, Applewhite completed passes of 18 and 27 yards to Kwame Cavil, putting the ball on the Nebraska 13. On the next snap Huskers free safety Clint Finley wheeled quickly to his left while Cavil ran a slant toward the end zone against single coverage; Finley was too far gone to help. Watch the safeties spin to one side on this slant pattern. Applewhite put a spiral on Cavil's chest to give the Longhorns the lead.
After Nebraska went back in front 20-17 and with the ball at the Texas 40, Applewhite got instructions to call an 80 Cross—a play in which Cavil runs a shallow cross from the right and wideout Ryan Nunez runs a deep post from the left. The safety ran up on Cavil's pattern, leaving Nunez in single coverage. They'll jump the crossing pattern here, and the post will be open. "As soon as I ran past the safety, I knew Major was coming to me," says Nunez. Applewhite hit Nunez with a 39-yard completion. Three plays later, on third-and-six from the Cornhuskers' 17, Applewhite called an L Pocket 828 Divide, and he watched Nebraska defensive backs line up like twins across from Cavil and tight end Mike Jones on the left side. Nebraska's plan was for each defensive back to take the receiver who ran to his side, even if the receivers crossed. Instead, both Cornhuskers went with Cavil on a slant. We call this banjo coverage, and if they miss the tight end, it's a touchdown. Jones was left alone, Applewhite connected with him, and Jones rumbled home for the winning touchdown.
Long after the game Applewhite, who finished with 17 completions in 30 attempts for 213 yards and two touchdowns, diagrammed the winning play on a white board next to his dressing cubicle. "Just like we saw on tape," he said, dropping the blue grease pencil into the tray. "They didn't do anything special all day."
There was scarcely a hint of emotion in Applewhite's voice. After all, his career exemplifies diligence beating raw talent. "I don't like the term overachiever" says Brown, "but I suspect Major has been told many times that he's too slow, too weak or too something else, and he's set on proving everybody wrong."
Applewhite, who was named by his father, Larry, an Alabama fan, after former Crimson Tide running back Major Oglivie, attended his first football camp, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when he was in third grade. Campers were given a motivational tape by former Alabama All-America safety Tommy Wilcox. Little Major and his dad listened to the tape all the way home to Baton Rouge, where Major spent most of his childhood. "I know I was young, but those messages sunk in," says Applewhite.
At every stage of Applewhite's football career, more talented athletes have tried to beat him out and failed. When Major was in eighth grade, he would awaken Larry at five in the morning and drag him outside to run pass routes. When Major was in high school, he would come home from practice and jump rope to music in the garage, trying to improve his agility. He attended 21 football camps in nine years, including 10 that were designed strictly for quarterbacks and receivers. At Catholic High in Baton Rouge, he was overshadowed by running back Travis Minor, who's now Florida State's leading rusher. He red-shirted as a true freshman at Texas and was elevated to starter a year ago only because senior Richard Walton was injured in the third game of the season.
Yet as Texas went a surprising 9-3 in 1998 and won the Cotton Bowl, Applewhite earned his teammates' respect. "He made no impression on me at first," says Cavil. "I met him on my recruiting visit and didn't even remember him when I got here. He's not gifted, but man, he's a winner."
Nunez likens Applewhite to Purdue quarterback Drew Brees, a Heisman Trophy candidate who threw to Nunez in high school. "Major reads defenses so well; plus he knows what every guy on the offense is doing on every play. It's amazing." Applewhite spends 20 hours a week watching tape. In his bedroom the console that holds his television set and VCR is cluttered with dozens of videocassettes. "I fall asleep at night watching tape, and I watch tape while I'm getting dressed in the morning," says Applewhite.
Though there's improvement in Applewhite's play with each game, there also is the lingering expectation that he will be replaced by the 6'5", 210-pound Simms, who was regarded by most recruiters as the best high school quarterback in the country a year ago. "Chris and Major are like night and day," says Cavil. "I mean, Chris is gifted."
Simms has uncommon poise for his age, an engaging personality and a sensational arm. "Chris is extremely bright, extremely gifted," says Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis. "You could pretty much take any word and put extremely in front of it, and it would apply to Chris." That would include confident. Three days before the game against Nebraska, Simms was asked if he would be ready to play against the Cornhuskers if needed. "Absolutely, I'm ready now," Simms said.