Bowl win provides reprieve for Horns

AUSTIN, Texas -- Let the dissection begin.

For the better part of nine months, the Texas season will be pulled apart, picked at and held close for inspection. The 31-27 victory over No. 13 Oregon State should at least briefly -- maybe until spring ball -- provide for a more sensible study of the season that has passed.

A loss almost certainly would have allowed the hyenas to lick clean the bones of the Longhorns' carcass. But, for now, they have been kept at bay by the glimmer of light that win provided.

That's not to say it was a great win over an outstanding team. None of the Oregon State's players would have made Texas' starting 22. (Running back Storm Woods, who ripped through Texas for 118 yards, played high school football a dozen miles from Texas at a school long-recruited by Texas, which just happened to provide Texas with Alamo Bowl defensive MVP Alex Okafor, and was not considered for a scholarship by the Longhorns.) Although the fact Texas has been blessed with superior talent than the opponent hasn't precluded the Longhorns from walking off the field, horns down, a few times in the three previous years.

Texas clearly, as almost always, had the superior individual talent. Oregon State had the better team. That is, until Texas became one in the fourth quarter.

"Guys just started to play ball," said quarterback David Ash.

When that happened, simultaneous "thanks yous" and "finallys" were sent up from the crowd. That is what people have been long pining for Texas do to, play ball. And what many had feared, rightfully so, Texas had forgotten how to do.

For several seasons Texas has become a team rigid in its execution, a group of joyless workers marching single file into a Soviet-era factory. Sure, there were brief respites and moments. But, by and large, Texas had become a gray team in a sport that provides as much color as the leaves every fall.

It's impossible to defiantly say whether or not one victory changed the pervasive feeling that has hung low over the Texas program for these years. After all, it was only last year when many of these same players won the Holiday Bowl against Cal that Mack Brown unrolled his map and dragged his finger across the path to the next destination, a BCS bowl.

That Texas wound up 80 miles south of campus and several days short of playing when it really mattered speaks to the fact that Brown overestimated his ability as well as the maturity of his players. Together they made missteps that created a painful journey while pointed fingers wondered about and harshly criticized the man leading this team.

The questions were loud -- particularly following a 42-point loss to Oklahoma and a home loss to TCU -- and warranted. They will not be silenced by one victory over an average team. But those conversations will be held in darker shadows than prior to Dec. 29.

That's because Texas, in the final 15 minutes against Oregon State, provided its thousands of worshippers a picture of what talent can be when it comes together as team, when players start to just play ball and forget all the trappings -- some good, some bad -- that come with being a Texas football player and remember all the reasons why they just played football in the first place. There is joy in such play and pleasure in watching it.

But there is also now a challenge in making sure neither emotion, for the players or the fans who so successfully support the nation's richest program, is fleeting. The charge this offseason will be to have the temerity and maturity to hold the emotions captured in the final 15 minutes against Oregon State close, because as anyone who has watched Texas football understands, joy, passion and heart can be mercurial and elusive qualities easily scattered across a program that recently serviced the individual in spite of the team.

Whether or not Texas can or has accomplished such a task will not be revealed for another nine months. And whether or not this is now a team willing and understanding of the next step will not truly be known until it stands across the field from Oklahoma. A win against the Sooners is what it will take for everyone to believe that Texas is no longer a collection of self-interested individuals but a team ready to just play ball.