Everywhere he saw Nebraska red. Defensive linemen snorting cold air, linebackers jumping into gaps, cornerbacks pressing receivers, coaches pacing the sideline, fans cheering in the seats, logos embedded in the turf. Red, red, red, as if the stadium were bleeding. Calmly, Texas sophomore quarterback Major Applewhite escaped. He punched the stop button on the remote that controls the VCR in his apartment bedroom, halting the tape and returning to a quiet world, like the turtle spinning back to Mr. Wizard. "They're Nebraska, and they're good," Applewhite said, "but they're not very complicated. It's not going to be calculus."
This was last Thursday night, two days before the arrival in Austin of No. 3 Nebraska, a 6-0 team that had outscored its last three opponents by a combined 127-38. Moreover, the Cornhuskers would be seeking revenge. Texas had stunned Nebraska in the teams' last two meetings, in the 1996 Big 12 championship game in St. Louis and last year in Lincoln, where the Longhorns ended the Huskers' 47-game home winning streak. Yet here was Applewhite, stretched out on his bed with his head propped up on an oversized throw pillow, zapping through Nebraska game tapes and picking apart tendencies as if they were as obvious as fat on a tackle.
Watch the safeties spin to one side on this slant.
They'll jump the crossing pattern here, and the post will be open.
We call this banjo coverage, and if they miss the tight end, it's a touchdown.
This torrent of arcane football lingo spewed from the lips of a red-haired, freckle-faced cherub who would have looked more at home if he'd been tuned to Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Most of the Longhorns' male cheerleaders have more muscle tone than the 6'1", 205-pound Applewhite does. He has neither a strong arm nor fast feet. His secret weapons are the cookies his girlfriend, Julie Villarreal, bakes every Thursday for the Texas offensive linemen and the prayers that his mother, Sandra, E-mails to him every week from home in Baton Rouge. He quarterbacked the Longhorns to last year's 20-16 upset of Nebraska, but he had Ricky Williams in the backfield then. A sizable number of Texans have spent the autumn waiting for Applewhite to lose his job to true freshman Chris Simms, the son of former New York Giants quarterback Phil. There was surely no reason to believe Nebraska would fall to Opie a second time.
But reason doesn't rule college football. Emotion rules. Energy rules. Desire rules. Skill rules, too, the kind that's not easily measured by a watch or a stack of weights. Early last Saturday evening Applewhite took a snap from Texas center Matt Anderson and jogged to his right, killing the final four seconds of the game and sealing the Longhorns' third consecutive victory over Nebraska, a 24-20 win that almost surely ended the Cornhuskers' national championship hopes. With the victory, Texas, under second-year coach Mack Brown, moved a big step closer to a return to national prominence.
Everything is in place for that to happen. The Longhorns' facilities have undergone a $90 million expansion. Seven of Brown's assistants were offered jobs by other schools during the off-season, but all were retained at salaries that make them among the highest-paid assistants in the country. Recruits are flocking to Austin. The fuse is burning, and Applewhite struck the match.
Texas improved its record to 6-2 on Saturday because Nebraska wasted a huge yardage advantage (429-275) by losing three fumbles, including one by I-back Correll Buckhalter on the Longhorns' two-yard line with 13:07 to play and Texas holding a 17-13 lead. It won because its defensive line, one of the great secrets in college football, consistently punished the Cornhuskers' offensive front: Senior end Aaron Humphrey, junior tackle Shaun Rogers and senior end Cedric Woodard combined for nine tackles for losses and never let the Nebraska option find its rhythm. It won because Hodges Mitchell, a 5'6", 190-pound tailback whose first love is soccer and whose father played in the Florida State backfield with Brown three decades ago, had 83 yards on 20 carries, enough to keep the Cornhuskers defense on its heels.
Yet it was Applewhite who made the difference. After sleepwalking through a first half in which he completed only 9 of 21 passes for 47 yards and Nebraska took a 13-3 lead, Applewhite made three lethal plays in the final 17 minutes. Each of them was testimony to his videotape preparation.