The Greg Davis Review: 1998, Part 1

The Greg Davis review begins in earnest... now, with a look at Davis and Mack Brown's first season at Texas, 1998. If you're just joining the party, two previous entries to the series have already run - "Greg Davis' Pre-Texas Career" and  "John Mackovic at Texas." Unfortunately, the NCAA's archived statistics only go back to 1999, making it impossible to review the '98 season quite as richly as we'll be able to review those since then.

Two additional notes: First, I don't know yet whether I'll go into quite as much narrative detail in succeeding seasons as I do with 1998, but Mack Brown and Greg Davis' first season at Texas was a pretty unique one in terms of its surrounding circumstances and I thought the full story worth recounting.

Second, I'm unexpectedly entertaining an out-of-town guest, whose arrival has put on hold my ability to finish the statistical compilations for this piece. This is likely the only entry for this series until Thursday, when my guest departs.

Background

Between the 4-7 overall record, the loss to Baylor, and Rout 66, John Mackovic's final season in Austin undoubtedly represented one of the low points in Texas Longhorns football history. Even so, he did leave the program in better shape than it had been when he inherited it in 1992 from David McWilliams, who had proven to be a notably inferior head coach to his predecessor Fred Akers. For his part, Akers was a strong football coach overall who had the unfortunate job of following Darrell Royal.

The Akers-led Longhorns peaked in 1983 behind one of the most ferocious defenses in the history of college football, just barely missing on the national championship due to a Cotton Bowl loss to the Georgia Bulldogs, whose fans tease Longhorn faithful to this day: "What time is it in Texas?" Always the same: "Ten to nine."

After the '83 peak, Akers' teams suffered two so-so years before bottoming out in 1986 - a 5-6 campaign which included losses to Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas A&M. Texas fans decided Akers had missed his best shot at a championship and lost faith that better times were ahead. Akers was fired and defensive coordinator David McWilliams took over prior to the '87 season.

I mention all this because the Texas program was in steady decline after 1983 all the way through David McWilliams' tenure, who didn't do enough to aggressively take on Texas' problem recruiting African Americans, instead more or less standing still and allowing Texas A&M to enjoy a solid run as the state's top football program.

But Mackovic started to turn things around. Everyone is well aware how high Mack Brown has elevated recruiting at Texas, but it's only fair to note that he didn't have nearly as far to go as he might have had his predecessor not laid some very solid groundwork. Casey Hampton, Quentin Jammer, Tony Brackens, D.D. Lewis, Shaun Rogers, Bryant Westbrook, Ricky Williams, and Leonard Davis were all big-time football players brought to Austin by John Mackovic. And, importantly, they were African American big-time football players. Mack Brown's exceptional recruiting the past decade is a product of many things Mack himself has done, but there's an element of fortuitous timing involved as well. Though John Mackovic's weaknesses as a coach and player manager were severe, his legacy beyond his two outright conference championships is the work he did to begin the resurrection of Texas as a recruiting power.

The 1998 Season Recap

Pre-Season

Mack Brown is fond of saying that his very first recruiting job at Texas was getting Ricky Williams to stay for his senior season. Obviously he succeeded, and it's quite a thought experiment to imagine how things might have played out had Williams elected to forego his senior year. We'll never know, and for Brown and Greg Davis, it was a godsend - another bit of fortuitous timing that helped Mack Brown launch his career at Texas running at full speed. It isn't often, after all, that a newly hired coach inherits such a stupendous offensive weapon.

Having Ricky stay for his senior season was fortunate for Mack Brown in another critical way: Texas' new head coach arrived in Austin very much a card-carrying member of the traditionalist wing of the coaching fraternity, which meant a heavy emphasis on defense and ball control. For the offense, then - lots and lots of rushing. At least heading in to 1998, it looked like Mack Brown could hire Miss South Carolina as his offensive coordinator and she wouldn't have much trouble with the job. Mack loved to run, and so did Ricky.

The icing on the cake came in the form of an offensive line that featured three fifth-year seniors (Jay Humphrey, Octavius Bishop, and Ben Adams), as well as sophomore Leonard Davis, already an impenetrable force at tackle. Elsewhere, even the situation among the pass-catchers was promising enough, with Kwame Cavil, Wane McGarity, and tight end Derek Jones each returning. Though the Texas passing game was non-existent in 1997 when senior QB James Brown battled injuries and saw his production completely collapse, the '98 Longhorns were at least blessed with some receivers with game experience.

James Brown's graduation meant Texas would field a new starting quarterback in '98, but even here, there wasn't much of a decision to be made - not when the two options were senior Richard Walton and a freckle-faced, undersized freshman named Major Applewhite. During his first three years with the team, Walton had mostly served as James Brown's back up, appearing in 19 games and attempting 152 passes, including 5 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. But as Walton would have told you, he rather preferred the job duties on the sideline - tracking plays on a clipboard, relaying signals, and the like. According to Walton's former teammates, when in 1995 he had filled in as starter against Baylor for the injured James Brown, he was reportedly near-frantic about the responsibility, asking as many players as would listen what it was like to be a starter.

Even so, as he prepared for his senior season he knew the starting responsibility would fall on his shoulders. Though Walton knew he'd be turning pro in medicine and not football, he understood that he was going to be the one the new Texas coaches counted on to keep greased the wheels of the Ricky Williams machine.

And for a short while, he did.

Season Summary

Texas' season started as expected, with a 66-36 home-field walloping of a poor New Mexico State team, in which Ricky Williams rushed for 215 yards and 6 scores - all before the end of the third quarter. If Williams wasn't a Heisman frontrunner already, his season opener announced loudly that he was now. Against a vastly overmatched New Mexico State defense, Williams wasn't the only one with gaudy numbers. Richard Walton performed very solidly in his first game as the first-team quarterback, completing an efficient 15 of 21 passes for 282 yards, with 1 TD and no turnovers.

A week later, Texas headed to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena hoping to avenge the previous season's loss to UCLA - a 66-3 shellacking on Texas' home turf - arguably the worst loss in program history. Playing this time on the road, Texas again immediately fell behind the Bruins, trailing 14-0 just 7 minutes into the first quarter and 35-3 at half.

Though Texas would narrow the final margin, UCLA convincingly defeated Texas 49-31. However, as fate would have it, that game is not remembered by Texas fans for its outcome, but as the game in which Richard Walton broke a bone in his hand and his freshman replacement - Major Applewhite - began his memorable career.

Applewhite took over for Walton late in the fourth quarter at UCLA, and a week later, was given a rude introductions to life as a starter when Texas traveled to Manhattan, Kansas to play an oustanding Kansas State team. Ricky Williams was stuffed for one of only two times all season (55 yards on 22 carries), putting added pressure on Applewhite to move the ball without any run support. It was too much to ask, and the first-time starter would complete only 16 of his 37 attempts, with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. The 'Horns were slaughtered 48-7 to fall to 1-2 on the year.

Fortunately, that would prove the low point of 1998. Following the Manhattan Massacre, the schedule softened nicely for Texas, with a four-game stretch against Rice, Iowa State, Oklahoma, and Baylor, a quartet of teams that would finish '98 with losing records. Texas won each contest handily, outscoring its opponents 177-87 over the four-game run.

Most importantly, Ricky ran wild, providing Major some much-needed breathing room to adjust to the college game. After Williams racked up back-to-back 300+ yard games against Rice and Iowa State, Major earned the first big win of his career by leading Texas to a 34-3 drubbing of Oklahoma, throwing for nearly 300 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no turnovers. Though Richard Walton would be available again the following week against Baylor, Major's Red River Shootout performance officially cemented his status as the Longhorns' starting quarterback.

Texas had righted the ship at 5-2, but they would face their third Top 10 team of the season the following week in Nebraska, and in Lincoln no less. Meeting for the first time since the 'Roll Left' game-clincher in the '96 conference title game, Nebraska was a sizable home favorite against Texas, its shaky defense, and freshman quarterback. But in another classic game for the Longhorn highlight vaults, Texas pulled out a stunning 20-16 win when Major Applewhite hit Wane McGarity from two yards out on 3rd and Goal and Texas trailing by 3.

The game-winning touchdown pass was a great play by Applewhite and - with Nebraska committed so heavily to stopping Ricky Williams - a nice call from Greg Davis. At the snap, Applewhite immediately began rolling to his right, with a tackle and guard roving out with him to dam the Blackshirts. Lesser quarterbacks would have thrown the ball too soon, but Major waited, waited, and waited as long as he absolutely could, releasing the ball towards McGarity only a split second before the Husker defenders finally arrived. It was enough time for McGarity to separate from his man, Applewhite's throw was on the mark, and Texas beat the Cornhuskers on the road to move to 6-2 in Mack Brown's first season.

A week later, Texas escaped Oklahoma State in Austin despite a sub-100 yard game for Ricky (97 yards on 23 carries), thanks in large part to a 408-yard eruption from Major Applewhite, including three touchdowns. However, the following week in Lubbock, Texas' scrappy freshman quarterback finally turned into a pumpkin, throwing two picks and missing on 14 of his 24 attempts. Meanwhile, Texas Tech's Ricky Williams outgained the Heisman frontrunner of the same name, the Red Raiders' kicker conneected on all four of his field goals (including a 53-yarder), and Tech upset the Longhorns 42-35 on a Rob Peters TD run with less than a minute remaining.

Despite the setback, anticipation for Texas' season finale against A&M was incredible, as Ricky Williams had closed within striking range of the NCAA career rushing record. Add to that the usual fanfare for rivalry games and the Aggies' #6 national ranking - thanks to a 10-game winning streak - and you had a recipe for Longhorn football mayhem.

Ricky did his part, seizing the record for himself in the first quarter on a head-shakingly great 60-yard run that ended with Williams hauling a would-be tackler with him into the endzone for a 10-0 Texas lead. Though the Aggies would come back and, late in the fourth quarter, surge ahead 24-23 (thanks in part to two costly Ricky fumbles), it was a day for the Longhorns through and through, the contest ending with a Kris Stockton game-winning field goal with just 5 seconds remaining.

Mack Brown's first regular season at Texas thus concluded with an 8-3 record, 6-2 in the Big 12, second in the South Division to eventual conference champion Texas A&M, who the 'Horns had defeated. Ricky broke the rushing record and won the Heisman Trophy. Major Applewhite excited fans like few freshmen players ever have. And for the cherry on top, Texas was invited to the Cotton Bowl to play Mississippi State, a game they won handily 38-11.

As far as Texas fans were concerned, they had their man. Both at quarterback and head coach. Everything seemed to be coming together... so easily.

But, before there was Lee Corso, there was Hamilton Holt, who famously warned, "Nothing worthwhile ever comes easily."

The bastard was right.

 

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