ARLINGTON, Texas -- Five plays. Two minutes of football. That’s the difference.
That’s how quickly Texas’ gut-check triumph became gut-punching torture. A No. 12-ranked UCLA team was all but finished. Had those five plays gone as planned, the Longhorns walk out of AT&T Stadium with their first huge victory under Charlie Strong.
The result of those four plays -- UCLA 20, Texas 17 -- left them devastated.
“We had that game right there,” Texas receiver John Harris said. “It hurts everybody in the locker room. It was a hard loss. The heartbreak is there. That hurts. It hurts bad.”
What makes the torment feel so much more raw was the fact that, with 4:17 left in the ballgame, they were celebrating a victory that felt almost assured.
When Steve Edmond stripped running back Jordon James and little-used defensive tackle Paul Boyette Jr. fell on it at the Texas 25, the party was on. That was it. The first turnover of the ballgame went Texas’ way. The signature victory was so close.
And then, for reasons they’d later regret, they reverted back to the hurry-up pace that had, just moments earlier, helped spur an 80-yard, 10-play touchdown drive. The clock was rolling.
“We probably could’ve slowed it down a little and milked the clock,” Harris said. “I think we were still high emotion after the big touchdown. I don’t think we really grasped what was going on at that point in time.”
Brown’s next run lost 5 yards. And then Swoopes, on third-and-10, couldn’t connect with go-to receiver Harris.
Three plays. No yards gained. Only 1 minute, 11 seconds taken off the clock. Then Texas moved back to the 20 on a false start by safety Josh Turner, playing in his first game post-suspension.
While that’s not an ideal turn, not for a coach that preaches toughness and a team that knows it has to win with its run game, it’s still survivable.
Will Russ’ punt soared 58 yards. Ishmael Adams sped down the left sideline, past a crushing block by linebacker Cameron Judge. He bounced off a hit from Russ and picked up an extra 11 yards for a 45-yard return down to the 33.
And then, just as Charlie Strong and his defensive coordinator suspected, UCLA took the field knowing it was time to take the big shot.
“They ran double moves, wheel routes, fake bubble gos throughout the ballgame,” Texas DC Vance Bedford said. “For the most part we did a good job with it. Until that last play.”
Jerry Neuheisel, the backup quarterback the Longhorns were more than happy to face, sold it to perfection. When he pump-faked with 3:05 left, and Texas corner Duke Thomas bit on the faked bubble screen, Texas was finished. Jordan Payton had Thomas beat by 4 yards when he hauled in the game-winning touchdown.
“He knew he should’ve stayed on top,” Bedford said. “After the fact, it’s always tough. I feel for the young man. He played his tail off.”
And so did Texas. Its four-quarter battle felt so even and, briefly, so winnable. Edmond made the strip at 10:15 p.m. CT. Payton was in the end zone at 10:18.
“It’s about finishing,” Strong said. “When you have those opportunities, you’ve got to take advantage of them. The good teams take advantage of the opportunities."
The story before that five-play swing was of a Texas team that rallied from embarrassment, with a young quarterback enjoying breakthrough moments and a hard-nosed defense saving the day against a Bruins team missing its Heisman-contending star.
This should've been Texas storming out of AT&T Stadium as don't-bet-against-us underdogs with renewed pride.
Not Saturday. Not yet. Instead, it's another painful ending, a familiar 1-2 record and a feeling that being this close only makes it hurt worse.