SAN ANTONIO —
Oregon State is salivating over this game.
The Beavers’ practices on the Incarnate Word campus have been crisp, the level of excitement palpable.
Other than the national championship game or the Rose Bowl, their head coach, Mike Riley, can’t think of another place his 15th-ranked team would rather be.
Oregon State clearly wants to be here.
Texas says it does, too, although bowl teams’ success very often follows along the lines of a Realtor’s mantra. Location, location, location can make all the difference in players’ mindset, and the 8-4 unranked Longhorns have to consider this an exotic locale instead of a site an hour or so away from their home campus.
Seeing is believing, and Longhorns fans want to see for themselves that their favorite team can overcome consecutive losses that kept it out of the Cotton Bowl and the exit of offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to Arkansas State.
Apparently, they’re curious enough to show up to see if their team does as well. Texas has sold all but a hundred of their allotment of 12,500 tickets. The Alamo folks expect a full house. Oregon State sold more than two-thirds of its 9,500 tickets, but airfare from Corvallis, to San Antonio has ranged from $800 to a steep $1,400.
It’s difficult to say if Texas’ fan base trusts its erratic team to play well or simply is intrigued with a game against a very underrated Pac-12 team that beat Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin and lost by four on the road to league champion Stanford.
“If the fans are concerned we don’t want to be here, that’s definitely not the case," Texas junior offensive guard Mason Walters said. “With the focus and intensity we’ve had in practice up, there’s no need for concern."
While there may be a noticeable lack of buzz — at least in Austin — surrounding this game, everything from the quality of opponent and the historically competitive Alamo Bowls to Texas’ need for redemption after a subpar regular season culminating in a two-game losing streak all suggest otherwise.
That had better be the case because traditionally speaking, if the Longhorns aren’t interested in the proceedings, their play will reflect it.
At no time other than the 1984 Freedom Bowl was that more true. Like this one, Texas opened the season with high expectations, but that club lost four of its final five games, none more humiliating than a 55-17 blowout at the hands of Hayden Fry’s Iowa team.
Of course, the next time the Longhorns were to face Iowa, they rectified matters by slipping past the Hawkeyes 26-24 in this same Alamo Bowl. Redshirt freshman Colt McCoy, a second-year player like current Longhorns quarterback David Ash, rallied his team from a 21-10 third-quarter hole with the help of a 72-yard touchdown pass to Jamaal Charles to win in 2006. Like this year, Texas was playing on the heels of back-to-back losses that season.
“I can imagine they’d be a little disappointed coming here," said Oregon State senior wide receiver Markus Wheaton, a Dallas native. “But we can’t take them for granted. They’re still coming to get the job done."
“Texas is known for its football," Beavers linebacker Michael Doctor said. “That makes us that much hungrier."
The Alamo Bowl is counting on a couple of hungry teams.
“I know Texas wants to finish strong," Alamo Bowl executive director Rick Hill said. “And when you don’t go to a bowl game for two years like Oregon State, they’re fired up. When it comes to bowl games, brand name helps, the Heisman helps, but this is one (that stands) on merit. If both teams play competitive, people will tune in."
Viewers usually do. The Alamo Bowl holds three of the top five ratings for the most-watched, non-BCS bowl games in ESPN history.
New play-caller Major Applewhite does not expect any mental hangover from Texas.
“I don’t think teams are flat; I think players are flat," said Applewhite, who will be calling plays for the first time since he did so for Alabama in 2007. “I think you have individuals that don’t get themselves focused and ready to play. Maybe you have four or five of them, and they make two mistakes apiece, and that’s 10 snaps that you’ve wasted."
Texas has already wasted enough this season. But Applewhite said he expects the players to play with an edge Saturday.
“We’re trying to find out who loves football, who doesn’t," Applewhite said, “and play with the motivated ones."