A couple of weeks ago, Texas Longhorns head coach Mack Brown of his team, "This is what I thought we'd at the start of the season."
Brown was referencing his team starting to achieve to its potential after the dominating road win over TCU that included a much better response to the weather delay than that shown against BYU earlier in the season, but what he probably didn't expect at the start of the season was for the Longhorns to become a player-led team that seems as tough of any in recent memory.
After the losses to Ole Miss and BYU, the coaches and the team faced a crossroads -- to splinter, divide, and fall apart or to come together and work towards their common goal.
"After Ole Miss we really came together and decided let's not talk about it, let's be about it, and we really put our minds to preparing just week after week, just on each opponent, and really just believing in each other that we can do it and building off of the momentum we've had after the K-State game and going into OU and just those type of wins, especially in Iowa State, really speaks about our character as a team," said fullback Alex De La Torre on Monday.
A big part of the process was a players-only meeting held after the Ole Miss game. Defensive end Cedric Reed said that the team talked about trusting each other more, while fellow defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat added that the defensive leaders got together first to discuss what needed to change and then took it to the defense and then the rest of the team.
The message was one of accepting coaching not only from the staff, but also from each other.
"Earlier on in the season when we started, we had two losses and everybody would think that the team was starting to get down on each other, start tearing apart and breaking apart, but we really started getting closer and really started to understand each other more. I mean, we're like brothers, so we understand. We understand that we can tell each other, 'Hey, you need to do better on this,' or 'Hey, you need to get better on this,' and not let it get personal, like people think, 'Man, he doesn't like me,' and things like that, " said Jeffcoat.
The impetus for the meeting stemmed from advice handed down by the strength and conditioning staff, Jeff Madden and Bennie Wylie. Both told Jeffcoat and the other leaders on the team that the most successful groups they had coached motivated and policed themselves -- they were player-led teams.
For quarterback Case McCoy, a lot of it has been about players putting aside the quest for personal accolades, something he said doesn't exist at the high school level, where the longtime bond forged by friends growing up together helped produce a special Graham team his senior season.
Brown also deserves some credit for his positive attitude, one that he has forged over the years after a notable incident as an assistant that Troy Aikman said nearly broke him at Oklahoma after Brown lit into the team at halftime, prompting head coach Barry Switzer to tell him after the game that his teams don't discuss losing in the locker room.
So on the sideline just before the crucial fourth-down play that decided whether the Horns were still in the game against the Mountaineers, there was Brown grinning like a madman.
"Do you know that every player and every coach on the team was looking at me to see how I respond? Every one of them," the Texas head coach said on Monday. "And if I'm tight, they're tight. If I show confidence in them, and why wouldn't I because they've always made those plays and then I told them, 'this is who we are, how much fun is this, we're exactly where we like to be.' We're going to make it, and then after Case (McCoy) and Jaxon (Shipley) did it, I pointed to Case and said, 'you did it again, now we're going to score and win the game,' and he said, 'you're right.'"
"But it's important. If I'm screaming and shouting and threatening them, then they think there's some doubt in my mind whether they're ready for this. I always say, hey, this is up to you. Do your job, be proud, and this is fun. This is what you come here for. This is what you want. We said there would be adversity on the road, you've got it. You're overloaded with it so handle it and let us win and get home."
After the fourth-down conversion, Texas was able to drive into the red zone before yet another drive stalled out inside the 20, sending the game into overtime. The critical touchdown on the first possession on the third-down pass to De La Torre caught the West Virginia defense off guard and put the pressure on the Mountaineer offense to score a touchdown to keep pace.
Thanks to a leaping pass break up on third down and a leaping interception on fourth down, linebacker Steve Edmond broke out into a spontaneous celebration that took him the length of the stadium.
"I felt like I won the lottery because I didn't know what to do, I just took off running," said Edmond. "The first thing I did, I just held the ball up and I took off running to my right, and all I saw was just West Virginia people, just people looking at me. They weren't really doing anything, they were just staring at me just running across the sidelines."
"And then I just saw all my teammates coming from my left, and like the week before West Virginia I got hurt celebrating with Chris Whaley, and I was thinking, I'm like, 'I cannot get hurt celebrating with my teammates again,' so I took off running away from them. And then I saw my fans, I'm like, 'They can't hurt me,' so I'm going to go over there and celebrate with them."
Two of the team's emotional leaders, running back Johnathan Gray and defensive tackle Chris Whaley, both went down with season-ending injuries against West Virginia. Two years ago, after running back Fozzy Whittaker tore his knee ligaments against Missouri, beyond the lack of depth with Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron already out, there was a noticeable let up from the team, a loss of energy.
It would have been understandable if something similar had gone down in Morgantown on Saturday after Whaley left in tears on a cart. Instead, the Longhorns pulled out the win and multiple coaches and players spoke in glowing terms about the atmosphere in the locker room after the game.
"The dressing room was special," said Mack Brown. "You saw the way those players took the field after the win. I don't think I've ever seen them more excited than that. And in the dressing room, as sad as it was to lose Johnathan Gray, who was leading throughout the game, he was running up and down the sideline on his crutches. And Chris Whaley who was distraught leaving the field because he knew how badly he was hurt but him still coming right back out there. And then those two stood up and addressed the team at the end of the game and talked about how proud they were, and we're moving forward and we're not letting up, is really a special moment."
For the players, it was something that they haven't experienced before since wearing the burnt orange and white of the Texas Longhorns.
"It was just a different atmosphere than it's ever been before in the locker room," said cornerback Quandre Diggs, like many players on a team a guy who has rebounded from early struggles. "I feel like we put a lot into that win. We really wanted it. We wanted it bad. We continued just to weather the storm all through the game. We had a lot of ups and downs, and it was good to get that win. But also to see two of your leaders down and knowing they would be out for the season, it hurt us, but getting that win, it made it so much more sweeter. Like a lot of people have been saying on this team, we love this team.This team is just tremendous, the bond we share together is something that I haven't experienced since I've been here."
Deep snapper Nate Boyer felt the same way about the post-game experience.
"We're already so excited about that big comeback win, and you go in the locker room and you see those guys, and they're on crutches and they're dancing around with us," he said. "I know that had to hurt, but it didn't matter to them.Actually I watched replay of the game last night, and seeing Chris getting carted off the field and the tears in his eyes and the emotion, I know that man, I know those tears aren't for me, what's going to happen now with my future, and blah-blah-blah. Those tears are because he feels like he's letting down his team, and there's nothing he could have done. He gave everything he could."
The loss of Whaley had a particular impact on his back up, defensive tackle Desmond Jackson, who dedicated the rest of the game to his fallen teammate and responded with eight tackles, three of them for loss.
"It hit my heart once I saw him get carted off and he was crying," said Jackson. "I love Chris. Chris is like a brother to me, my older brother. He's always a guy you can just go and talk to so just seeing him get injured like that it just hit me hard.I told him during the game that I'm playing my heart out for you. I got you. That's what I kept telling him: I got you, don't even worry about it, I got you, I got you."
And he did -- exactly what this team is all about right now.
In many ways, the Horns have come to exemplify the motto that Boyer set for them at the start of the season, one that appeared as imperiled as the season following the campaign's third game. It's a motto taken from the military that says, "For the man on my right and the man on my left."
There's now a difference sense on the sideline during games at critical times, Boyer says.
"I'm going to admit I've had doubts in the last couple seasons at times in games where I'm just like, 'Here we go again.' Having that feeling, that's a horrible feeling to have and you should never feel that way, but I have. And I just don't have it anymore, and I definitely didn't have it on Saturday; I just knew," said Boyer.
"Just to be around those type of people is amazing. I mean, we're so lucky. I honestly don't know if there's another team in any sport in the world that has what we have. Maybe, but I think it would be hard-pressed to find it. There's just not a lot of animosity between anybody on the team, and the way that we have dealt with the beginning of the season adversity and the losses, which whatever, it's losses, and have come together and the way these guys have grown as men, yeah, I mean, people stepped up that night and became leaders just because that's what had to happen."
"We just knew that -- you work so hard at something, why would you quit, why would you roll over, why would you start blaming other people and all that when you know that's not going to fix anything? Why wouldn't you just take a look at yourself. What can you do, what little things can you do to fix it and help this team move forward, and everybody did it."
And now the Longhorns are in a position few besides Brown and perhaps certain members of the team thought they would be -- undefeated in conference play after six games and still in position to win the Big 12 title.
Maybe it all comes to an end this weekend when a good Oklahoma State team comes to town having won on their last two trips to Austin. Maybe it comes to an end on Thanksgiving against a reeling Texas Tech squad. Or maybe the Longhorns get run out of Waco in the Floyd Casey finale by the high-flying Bears.
Right now, at this moment, with three days left until game time, why not sit back, take stock of how far this team has come, and savor every instant that they remain undefeated in conference play, whether that be three days or three weeks?