SAN ANTONIO -- In the end the balloons fell from the sky and swirled around the jubilant, and yes relieved, Texas players and coaches.
A tumultuous season on and off the field was over with an ending that, while not to script, featured enough feel-good moments that it was clear, at least on this day, nobody would burst their bubble.
And now, following a 31-27 win over No. 13 Oregon State (9-4) in front of 65,277 fans at the Valero Alamo Bowl Saturday, the wonder is if that bubble in on the rise.
That's long been the claim of Texas coach Mack Brown. This youth-laden team was one built for the future, Brown continually contended in the face of increasing criticism. The future started 15 minutes early for Texas. The No. 23 Longhorns (9-4), an underdog who played the part to Tony-worthy accolades for three quarters, showed fourth-quarter mettle and moxie rarely seen from a program whose heartbeat had been faint for several seasons.
There was David Ash benched for the regular-season finale, haphazardly working with new play-caller Major Applewhite through three quarters against Oregon State, proving, again if only for this moment, that he has the ability to lead Texas. In that final 15 minutes, Ash decided to be a leader and make the necessary plays to prove to his teammates that he was that leader. The sophomore was 8-of-10 for 127 yards with two touchdowns and rushed for 14 yards in the final 15 minutes or maybe, it could be argued, the first 15.
There was a defensive line, long pegged as one of the most talented in the country and therefore pointed to as a major disappointment in every big game, finishing with an Alamo Bowl-record 10 sacks, four of which came in a crucial fourth quarter that saw Texas outscore Oregon State 14-0. Alex Okafor had 4.5 of those sacks. While his departure will be lamented, the 5.5 sacks from underclassmen is enough to allow hope to at least rise on the horizon. It will creep even higher if Jackson Jeffcoat is able to come back from his injury.
There was Major Applewhite, given two weeks to understand his role as a play-caller and the quarterback he would be calling them for, calculating and missing for most of three quarters. But instead of shrinking away, Applewhite started speeding the game up just as he did more than a decade ago in the jersey two sizes too small, pressing, believing and coming up with the solutions and plays that sent waves of energy through a team left for dead, and enthusiasm through a fan base continually checking its Texas football pulse.
And finally there was a team coming together. For three years and three quarters there were questions if this collection of players, coaches and the person at the top was right for Texas football. One win won't end those questions. It will quiet them if only because of the way that win came about. Texas had not won after trailing by 10 points all season. The Longhorns trailed 27-17 after Ash threw an ill-timed interception in the third. That's when Texas folds, Bevo shrugs and the Longhorns start talking about their next recruiting class.
Not this time. The words they had thrown around -- commitment, earn the right, swagger, never quit -- became tangible feelings and were, for the first time, manifested on the field in that fourth quarter.
"Maybe now it is starting to sink in," said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
Yeah, maybe now the team, instead of drowning in sea of meaningless words and hollow actions that allow for false hope can understand what it takes to be a part of a program and history that was respected, and dare it be mentioned, feared for the better part of a decade. That's what a win like this, albeit over a tiny FBS school in a remote locale that had clearly, given the talent it put on the field, overachieved, can do for the Texas program if the players and coaches allow it and embrace it.
But this is where Texas was last year, winning against a Pac-12 team in bowl, believing a corner had been turned. The difference then may have been that Texas had yet to believe itself. They had not reached bottom and therefore did not yet understand what the climb back up takes.
"It is really about the culture of our program," Applewhite said. "We have to be more demanding of our players and be more demanding of our coaches."
"We have not fixed all of our issues," Diaz said. "This is a very, very important offseason for this program. This football team has to grind to get to where it wants to go. Any notion that we should be happy and rest on our laurels would be foolish."
"We're down. We're struggling," Brown told the team at halftime. "They've got the momentum. And for us to win this game we have got to have everybody jump in and do their job and do the best they can possibly do. But this is what we need. We need a tough win against top team to get back in the mix where we get confidence with all these guys coming back."
Texas, because of what it did when it mattered most, has that confidence now. It now has to hold onto that confidence, embrace it and not drop it in favor of excuses as it has done so often over the past two-plus years. The program has a path it can follow. There is promise there. There are players in place. And finally, maybe, there is the possibility that Texas could once again rise.