2001 Big 12 Title Game, Revisited

With all due apologies to FDR, Dec. 1, 2001 is a day that will live in infamy for fans of the Texas Longhorns.

To understand the magnitude of Texas' 39-37 loss to Colorado that day in the Big 12 championship game, you've got to remember what happened in the days and hours leading up to kickoff.

2001 regular season (Sept.-Nov. 23)
Texas goes 10-1, losing only to Oklahoma, 14-3. The Horns beat Texas A&M in College Station, 21-7, to likely clinch an at-large BCS berth. OU is expected to beat Oklahoma State the next day to tie Texas for the Big 12 South title and advance to the Big 12 championship game at Texas Stadium. (A&M beat OU earlier in the season to give the Sooners their first conference loss.) Hours after the Horns beat the Aggies, Colorado shocks the college football world by routing unbeaten No. 1 Nebraska, 62-36, to win the Big 12 North.

Nov. 24, 2001
Oklahoma State upsets Oklahoma, 16-13, handing Texas the Big 12 South title and ultimately costing the Horns a BCS berth. Obviously, that wasn't on anyone's mind as the time, as Texas now had an outside shot to play new No. 1 Miami in the Rose Bowl for the national championship. Only No. 2 Florida stood between No. 3 Texas and Pasadena, and the Gators had a tough game against No. 4 Tennessee and then probably the SEC championship game still to play.

Pregame Dec. 1, 2001
Virginia Tech nearly upsets No. 1 Miami in Blacksburg, but a dropped a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter allows the Canes to hold on, 26-24, and earn spot in the Rose Bowl. Hours later, No. 2 Florida can't convert a two-point conversion with 1:10 remaining and loses at home to Tennessee, 34-32. The game ends minutes before the Big 12 title game begins, and reality sets in for Texas fans who've hoped all year for a chance to reach the national championship game: Win and we're in!

First 10 minutes of Big 12 title game
Texas Stadium is DKR-North. Burnt Orange is everywhere, and UT fans are rabid. There's no reason not to expect a victory, as Texas beat Colorado, 41-7, earlier in the season in Austin. After Colorado's first series ends in a punt, Texas drives 85 yards in just over two minutes to take an early 7-0 lead on a Cedric Benson TD run. Everyone assumes the rout is on. Colorado runs 8 plays for 8 yards on its next two possessions, and Texas is driving for another score late in the first quarter to send the crowd into a frenzy and for all intents and purposes put the game away when everything changes. Everything.

My bad #1
Chris Simms played well in 2001. The Simms-Applewhite debate was over, as Simms started every game that season and no one complained. With a spot in the national championship game now oh-so-close, Simms reputation as the Golden Boy was about to be legitimate. Cue Lee Corso: not so fast. On first down from the Colorado 22, Simms throws an interception to CU linebacker Aaron Killion, who returns it 75 yards to the UT 12. Three plays later, a Chris Brown TD run ties the game. Seemingly on the ropes, Colorado now has life. Texas goes three-and-out on its next possession, and Colorado drives for a go-ahead field goal and a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.

My bad #2
Texas' next drive lasts just two plays, as Simms is intercepted for a second time, this time by CU linebacker Joey Johnson. The Buffs take advantage and drive 64 yards for another Brown TD run and a 17-7 lead. Simms shakes that one off to lead the Horns to a field goal, and after Nathan Vasher intercepts a pass on CU's next possession, the Horns appear to be in good shape down just 16-10. The next play proved otherwise.

My bad #3
In an image that is burned into the minds of many Texas fans next to that of OU's Roy Williams leaping over the line in the Cotton Bowl, Simms fumbles the ball while being sacked deep in Texas territory. His attempts to avoid the rush are pathetic, and instead of throwing it away he loses control as he's hit and CU recovers at the UT 22. On the next play, Daniel Graham turns a short pass in the flat into a TD and the Buffs lead 22-10. Simms' confidence is gone at this point and the boos start from the crowd. For some reason, Major Applewhite is not warming up. Had Mack gone to Major here, who knows?

My bad #4
With just under four minutes left in the first half, Simms needs to lead a scoring drive to quiet the fans and give Texas a shot of momentum going into halftime. Instead, on Texas third play, he is intercepted again, this time by CU safety Medford Moorer. An awful play becomes unfathomable as Moorer returns the pick 64 yards for a touchdown. This may be the most disastrous snap in UT history, as on the same play Cedric Benson and All-American tackle Mike Williams knock each other out of the game when the collide trying to tackle Moorer, while Simms can only watch in horror as Moorer streaks down the sideline into the end zone for a 29-10 CU lead to destroy forever any goodwill Simms had built up over the year. The pro-UT crowd is ready to tear Texas Stadium to the ground, foaming at the mouth for Applewhite to come in. Instead, Mack Brown unbelievably continues to stick with Simms, who enters the field on Texas' next possession to a deafening chorus of boos.

You never wish for injury, but ...
Simms completes a pass to Sloan Thomas on first down, but injures a finger on the play when his hand hits the helmet of a CU defender. Texas calls timeout to look at it, and finally Applewhite enters the game. Had Simms not "gotten injured," you wonder if he would have ever been benched. I write "gotten injured" like this because I saw Chris do the exact same thing earlier in the season at Missouri. He hit his hand on an opponent's helmet when throwing a pass, Texas called timeout to pop Chris' finger back into place, and he never missed a snap. But against Colorado, thankfully the injury ended Chris' evening. Mack wouldn't take Chris out, so someone upstairs watching through the roof at Texas Stadium had to intervene.

Major to the rescue
Contrary to legend, Applewhite doesn't throw a 79-yard TD pass on his first play in the game. His first pass is incomplete and almost intercepted. But on his second snap, on a third-and-9 from the CU 21, Applewhite finds B.J. Johnson streaking down the middle of the field wide open and hits him in stride at midfield. As Johnson races untouched to the end zone, Applewhite sprints down the sideline in front of the CU bench, pumping "Hook 'em Horns" the whole way. Game on! CU's final first-half possession leads to no points, and Texas trails 29-17 at halftime.

Tension builds
Colorado adds to its lead on a TD run by Brown, and Dusty Mangum makes 2-of-3 field goals for Texas as the game enters its final 10 minutes with CU leading 36-23. Then CU coach Gary Barnett tries his best to help the Horns get back into it by calling one of the stupidest plays I have ever seen. Up 13 points with just over 9 minutes to play and facing a fourth-and-4 at the CU 49, Barnett calls for a fake punt throwback pass back across the field. Of course, this duck of a pass is intercepted by UT CB Rod Babers, who returns it 54 yards for a touchdown, bringing UT within 36-30. Game definitely on! At this point, UT's got all the momentum in the world and it looks like the Horns can still reach the promise land in spite of Simms' epic first-half meltdown.

Water torture ...
All Texas needs to do is force one more CU punt and everyone can pack their bags for Cali. There's seems to be plenty of time, but the Buffs mount a ridiculous 16-play, 7-minute drive that ends in a field goal and puts them up 39-30 with 1:58 to play. The backbreaker on this drive is a roughing the punter penalty on Phillip Geigger that prevents Texas from getting the ball back with three minutes and two timeouts remaining.

Too little too late
With CU playing basically a prevent defense, leading by 9 points, Applewhite leads a drive for a TD, but by this point there's only 31 seconds remaining and the Horns are out of timeouts. UT's only hope is to recover the onside kick, but Daniel Graham is there for the Buffs. One kneel down later and it's all over as CU wins, 39-37.

Epilogue
The what ifs continue until this day. What if Chris had missed the bus to the stadium? What if Chris had been benched after first-half turnover number 1, 2 or 3? What if Geigger hadn't rough the punter? Two days later Texas accepts a bid to the Holiday Bowl. Three days later Mack Brown names Applewhite the starter for the game against Washington. In San Diego, Applewhite cements his legacy by throwing for 473 yards in Texas' come-from-behind 47-43 victory. (The Horns trailed 36-17 in the third quarter.) Texas finishes the season 11-2, claiming its first 11-win season since 1983, and finishes the year ranked No. 5 in the final AP poll. Miami crushes Nebraska, 37-14, in the Rose Bowl to win the national championship, while Colorado loses to Oregon, 38-16, in the Fiesta Bowl. On Jan. 13, 2002, high school star Vince Young commits to Texas over Miami, and four years later leads Texas back to the Big 12 title game in 2005, where Colorado is once again the only thing standing in the way of the Horns traveling to the Rose Bowl to play for the national title.

--TR--

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