Watching Texas lose a heartbreaker in Austin
I'm a sucker for a good sports story and the tradition surrounding it. My Premier League team is Liverpool, a team bathed in history, culture, tragedy and success. I have supported the Green Bay Packers in the NFL since I was seven years old. Similarly, the uniqueness of the Packers appeals to my love of tradition. They are the only small town team in the NFL, purely owned by their fans.
While I don't have a favourite college football team, I'll look for Alabama results as I just admire their process, ruthlessness in performance and recruitment, and their extraordinary coach Nick Saban. I like the grit of the Big Ten Teams and love watching the explosive Ole Miss offense under Lane Kiffin.
I do have a soft spot for North Carolina after a glorious weekend spent in Chapel Hill some years ago. My friend and I watched the Tar Heels, from a fraternity house basement, win basketball's Final Four, setting off wild celebrations on campus afterwards. Trees were covered in toilet rolls, everyone was screaming "Go Heels" and dancing in the street. I'm fairly sure I remember watching a couch being dragged into the street and set on fire. It was an atmosphere that hooked me on to the sheer passion of college sport and the exuberance of the fans. It was intoxicating. A year watching URI football in Rhode Island and a trip to Blacksburg, Virginia, three years later, seeing the "Skipper" tradition cemented my love of this game.
The Build Up
Much as I admire other teams, there is just something about football in Texas. I recently watched the series Friday Night Lights again and going to the Texas-Alabama game on Saturday reminded me how much this game means to people, at all levels. There are two religions in this state. God and football. I'm not sure in which order of priority.
Watching the Longhorns, at home to Alabama, one of the best teams in college football over the last decade, was too good to be true. The whole experience was breathtaking. My wife Amy and I arrived a couple of hours before kick-off, thanks to a Nigerian-American Uber driver with a love of Phil Collins and a late braking ability to rival Lewis Hamilton. Having hurtled through Austin to the strains of Sussudio, weaving at high speed through heavy traffic, the adrenalin was already pumping.
ESPN's College Gameday is a staple tradition of a typical college football Saturday. It's hard to compare in the UK, but like Glastonbury meets Football Focus. The network picks one campus each week for their game of the week, creates a fan zone with beer tents close at hand, and gets the crowd going. I've watched it countless times at home so it was a pleasant surprise to find that they were in Austin on Saturday. Walking towards the Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium, the temperature was already in the early 90s and lines of burnt orange were moving en masse towards the field, with the noise building. The network was broadcasting live from a fan area just adjacent to the stadium and whipping the crowd up into a frenzy. We went in to soak up the atmosphere. It was barely 9am and the bars were already doing a brisk trade. The cameras zeroed in on an Alabama fan downing a beer, clearly not his first of the morning, from a shoe he'd just removed, to wild cheers from the crowd.
Alabama 20-19 Texas
Darrell K Royal Memorial stadium is impressive. With the Austin skyline in the background, a huge video board, 54 feet high, 134 feet wide and costing a cool $4.5 million, dominates the south side of the stadium. The student section of the crowd was almost full two hours before kick-off. We took our seats just over an hour before, watching the anticipation rising as the stadium filled, beyond capacity as it turned out. A record 105,213 fans, a Texas record, watched the teams run out with fireworks going off and a flyover by a B-52 bomber to raucous cheers. Fox were broadcasting the game to a live national audience. You could feel this was a big deal.
Alabama were heavy favourites, by as many as 20-30 points according to some media pundits. Josh, an Alabama fan from Huntsville, AL, introduced himself with a warm smile and confident prediction as he took his seat next to me. He agreed with the 30-point prediction. Josh was decked out in cut-off Crimson Tide shirt and cap, also sporting a pair of cowboy boots. How he didn't pass out in the heat is beyond me. He and his brother-in-law, visiting from Greensboro, North Carolina, spent the game trying to convince me to support Alabama.
This game was to be the barometer for Texas, testing themselves early in Steve Sarkisian's second season as head coach, against the best. We would see how far the former Alabama offensive coordinator's revolution in Austin was progressing. They didn't disappoint.
The Longhorns' defense was in Alabama quarterback Bryce Young's face all game. Their swarming defensive line disrupted the Crimson Tide, restricting them to a field goal and signalling their intent to upset the odds.
Quinn Ewers, starting just his second game as Texas quarterback, was throwing the ball confidently early on, marching the Longhorns down the field. He couldn't quite connect on touchdown attempts to receivers Ja'Tavion Sanders and Xavier Worthy and Bert Auburn tied the game with a field goal at 3-3.
Late in the first quarter, Alabama threatened to take the wind out of Texan sails. Jase McLellan ran for an 81-yard touchdown before a late hit on Ewers from Alabama linebacker Dallas Turner knocked the Longhorns quarterback out of the game. Ewers sustained a clavicle injury and is expected to be out for 4-6 weeks, potentially returning for the Red River showdown with Oklahoma on 8th October. Ewers had completed 9 of 12 passes for 134 yards before the injury. His 46-yard completion to Worthy lifted the crowd from its seats and camped Texas at the Alabama 1-yard line, where Bijan Robinson punched it in for a touchdown to bring the Longhorns level.
The Texas defense was relentless towards the end of the first half and early in the second, forcing Alabama to punt on three conscutive drives. They sacked Bryce Young five times during the game but failed to capitalise as Bert Auburn agonisingly missed a 20-yard field goal which would have put them ahead.
Alabama were clearly rattled, conceding an unheard of fifteen penalties throughout the game, their most in over ten years.
A bizarre succession of events then saw Texas denied a safety. Having thought they had sacked Young in the end zone, the officials penalised Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown for targeting before overturning this and deciding that Young had thrown an incomplete pass before being tackled. This riled the crowd, and was clearly too much for a Texan gentleman in the seat in front of me who bore a passing resemblance to Elmer Fudd, his voice rising an octave with each outraged shriek, turning the air blue, much to the amusement of Josh and his brother-in-law next to me.
Texas fielded the Alabama punt and drove back downfield, taking the lead with a 33-yard field goal. Hudson Card, replacing the stricken Ewers at quarterback, was cool in the heat of battle, calmly leading Texas back into Alabama territory, where a third field goal gave them a 16-10 lead. With the fourth quarter under way, the upset was becoming more than a possibility. At a time in the game where Alabama would have expected to be easing away, Texas were right in this and this enormous crowd, cheering under the unforgiving heat, were screaming for their team to keep their heads.
Young, the Heisman-winning quarterback, started to show his composure under intense pressure from the Texas pass rush. A 14-yard pass to Ja'Corey Brooks converted a huge 4th-and-3 moment. Two plays later, Young, back-pedalling from the onrushing Longhorn defense, found Jahmyr Gibbs in the end zone on a 7-yard pass to put the Crimson Tide in front with 8:29 remaining.
Texas responded with a 49-yard field goal from Bert Auburn to take the lead with 1 minute and 29 seconds left in the game. A hundred and five thousand fans' hearts were in their mouths as the game was heading to a finish of Hollywood proportions. Alabama kicked into overdrive, the prospect of being beaten by a kicker whose name matched that of their biggest rivals, Auburn, being too much for them. Young showed his class, evading despairing Texan clutches to pick up a first down, setting up Tide kicker Will Reichard for the game-winning 33-yard field goal, breaking Texan hearts.
Alabama moves to 2-0 on the season while Texas drops to 1-1, but their performance will give fans in Austin real hope that Sarkisian is building a program that can gain momentum on their journey to the SEC and national recognition.Despite their loss, AP voters determined their performance good enough to put them in the AP Top 25, entering at No.21. Although the loss to Ewers is a blow, they may have enough to contend for the Big 12 this year. Fans applauded Texas off the field.
It was a privilege to watch this incredible game. I may even take Josh up on his appeal to watch Alabama in Tuscaloosa and, having enjoyed his persistence in attempting to lure me throughout the game to support his team, bid him goodbye with a "Roll Tide", which he and his mate cheered loudly. I already want to come back and can't wait to watch Texas A&M take on Miami this Saturday.
This was a Saturday that fed my soul.