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After midnight in a stairwell of the Horseshoe, as Ohio Stadium is known, Texas freshman tailback Jamaal Charles sat ticking off his big games from last year to a reporter. "Well, there was Humble High," he said, "and Tyler Lee...." And then he was interrupted by Vince Young, who was coming down the stairs.
"I'm so proud of this guy," said Young, the Texas quarterback, putting a hand on Charles's shoulder. In his second game as a collegian, the 18-year-old Charles, from Port Arthur, Texas, had made several key plays in the Longhorns' most important regular-season vic- tory in years--if not decades. "Now you've been through it," Young said of big-time college football. "Now you know what it takes."
If you're a Texas fan, you also know what it takes. It takes Maalox. The second-ranked Longhorns' 25-22 victory over No. 4 Ohio State last Saturday night was vintage Vincent: come-from-behind and ulcer-inducing. Trailing by six points with five minutes to play, Young drove the Longhorns 67 yards for the game-winning score, capped by a perfectly placed, 24-yard touchdown pass to his second read, wideout Limas Sweed, who made a leaping catch while falling backward into the end zone.
Young's other two completions on that drive were to Charles, who led all Texas receivers with six catches, but Charles seemed more eager to talk about a play on which he didn't make a reception. "Did you see the hit I put on the guy who made the pick?"
"That was you?" said Young. "I couldn't get up--they were lying on top of me. All I heard was the crowd go, 'Ooooh!'"
With the score tied at 10 in the second quarter, Young made his worst decision of the night. Wrapped up by defensive end Mike Kudla, he foolishly flung a pass that was intercepted by A.J. Hawk, the Buckeyes' sensational senior linebacker. Hawk returned the ball 24 yards before Charles slammed a shoulder into Hawk and leveled him. That sequence, as well as any other, typified this first meeting of tradition-rich and richly talented programs. Momentum swung often. Established stars were as good as advertised, new stars emerged.
Such early-season, interconference marquee matchups have become increasingly rare in the BCS era. Coaches and athletic directors figure, Why should a program with national championship aspirations take the risk? While there was much brave talk from both teams before this game about how a loss would not put their primary goal out of reach, there was no getting around the downside. Yes, in four of the last seven seasons, one-loss teams have made it to the national title game. Last year, on the other hand, Auburn, Utah and Boise State were undefeated and excluded.
Like Big Ten brethren Michigan and Iowa, who also lost on Saturday (box, page 112), Ohio State must now be considered a long shot to play in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4. Also, the Buckeyes moved no closer to resolving the question of who their quarterback is-- Justin Zwick or Troy Smith, who took 32 snaps coming off the bench. The only certainty, it seemed, was that coach Jim Tressel had put the wrong guy on the field for Ohio State's last-chance drive, which started at the Ohio State 31 with 2:31 to play. Pulling the ball down and scrambling--a Smith specialty--on the first play, Zwick fumbled and Texas recovered. Game over.
The Longhorns, for their part, took a huge step toward their first national championship since 1969. While several danger games remain-- Oklahoma in Dallas, home against Texas Tech, at Texas A&M, the Big 12 title game--there was little doubt, as the final seconds bled off the clock in Columbus, that the Horns had just beaten the toughest team on their schedule.
Too often marquee games we circle on the calendar months ahead of time ultimately fizzle and disappoint. (Exhibit A: Florida State's Gong Show-like Sept. 5 win over Miami in a game that set offensive football back two decades.) This collision of venerable football cultures, however, exceeded expectations. Not only did the outcome remain in doubt until the final 19 seconds, but also the players were terrific ambassadors for their schools and conferences. "I was on the bottom of the pile, laughing and saying, 'Y'all are hitting,'" said Young, "and they were laughing and helping me up."