Rodrique Wright remembers it like it was yesterday, he says. The former All-American defensive tackle for the Texas Longhorns can still picture bumping into his teammate and quarterback Vince Young the night of the college football awards in New York in December of 2005. Wright was on his way out of town, but Young had one more night remaining and one more award to find out about: the Heisman Trophy.
It was a big recruiting weekend back in Austin, Wright recalled. But in the midst of the courting of future prospects, the entire team went upstairs to see whether Young would take home the trophy Wright said everyone believed he deserved. Young had a perfect 12-0 record and 35 total touchdowns, after all. With his size and speed and arm strength, he was viewed as a truly transcendent college quarterback at the time.
Then Reggie Bush’s name was called instead of Young’s.
Then Young called Wright on the telephone. The gist of the conversation, Wright said, was, “Let’s go.”
“He had that fire,” Wright said of Young. “He had that chip on his shoulder: We’re going go to work and we’re going to win the whole deal. Those guys on defense, we were like, ‘Yes.’ Because when Vince is pissed, it’s going to be on another level.”
If they weren’t tired of hearing how good USC’s offense was with Bush and Lendale White and Dwayne Jarrett and Matt Leinart before, then they were now. The feeling of disrespect on defense was already palpable, and now there was this to add fuel to the fire.
“The Heisman was just the icing on the cake,” Wright said. “On defense, we wanted to go out there and perform, and make sure that Vince was the guy holding up the trophy at the end of the game.”
Twelve years later, a similar feeling has taken hold at Alabama. And it started the night their quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, finished second in the Heisman voting to Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray as well.
Tide offensive line coach Brent Key — a coach, not a player, mind you — fired the first warning shot on Twitter when he wrote, “#Dec29.” Three minutes later, defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs piled on when he tweeted, “Dec 29 it’s up” with an emoji of a clenched fist.
On the 29th, exactly three weeks to the night Tagovailoa was snubbed by Heisman voters, Alabama and Oklahoma are due to square off in the College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Capital One Orange Bowl in Miami (8 ET, ESPN).
A few minutes after Buggs’ tweet, linebacker Mack Wilson joined the growing chorus of Alabama players on Twitter. He wrote, in part, “Make them regret it 13,” referring, of course, to Tagovailoa’s jersey number.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, there have been six occasions when the top two Heisman vote-getters have faced one another in a bowl game. And oddly enough, a third of those matchups have featured an Oklahoma player in the runner-up position.
Like Wright in 2005, former Sooners linebacker Torrance Marshall and his teammates had a watch party in December 2000 to see if their quarterback, Josh Heupel, would take home the bronze trophy. Heupel, too, was 12-0 and had thrown for more than 3,100 yards.
But Heupel didn’t win it. Instead, it was Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke.
To say that Marshall and his teammates were upset about the outcome would be an understatement. And they weren’t afraid to speak their mind about it.
Even though a few weeks had passed since the snubbing, when Oklahoma and Florida State squared off at the Orange Bowl to decide the BCS National Championship, an angry Marshall looked Weinke dead in the eye during the coin toss at midfield.
“You got my boy’s trophy,” he told him.
Marshall recalled a back-and-forth over whose trophy it really was that culminated with him telling Weinke, “We’re going to find out today.”
Weinke and the Seminoles’ offense were dominated that night as the Sooners won, 13-2.
“I really meant what I said about him winning the Heisman,” Marshall said all these years later. “That wasn’t his trophy. I just really wanted him to feel what we felt with him winning the Heisman Trophy. We didn’t feel like he should have won it. He shouldn’t have won it. We felt that they should’ve had more respect for us than what they had. And that was it.”
This time, the disrespect is going in the opposite direction.
This time, it’s Oklahoma that has the Heisman winner and Alabama the runner-up. What’s more, the Tide’s defense has heard for weeks now that the game is bound to devolve into a shootout, which doesn’t sit well with them either.
“As a defense, we take it personal,” Wilson said.
Yeah, Wilson admits that they started out somewhat shaky with so many people in so many new roles early in the season. Stars such as Minkah Fitzpatrick and Da’Ron Payne and Rashaan Evans were gone. By season’s end, though, they were a different unit with new stars such as Quinnen Williams and Deionte Thompson. Today, Alabama has given up the fourth-fewest points per game in the FBS, compared to Oklahoma, which ranks 96th.
“Our defense has to show the world what we’re really about,” Wilson said. “We’re really that team. We’re really that defense.”
Maybe the times have changed. Maybe players have learned from the past and are more wary of creating bulletin board material. Or maybe it’s as simple as this being just another instance of Alabama coach Nick Saban clamping down on the chatter.
Whatever the case, the revenge rhetoric was tamped down in Tuscaloosa as the Orange Bowl drew near. Of course players would admit that they still wished Tagovailoa would have won the Heisman, but Williams claimed the idea of proving the voters wrong wasn’t on his radar at all.
It took weeks of questions about Murray and the Heisman for a crack in the facade to reveal itself, and even then it was a tiny sliver of a moment.
At the Orange Bowl media day on Thursday – literally the last time players would speak before the game – Williams nearly let the cat out of the bag when a reporter asked him whether the defense had seen anyone like Murray before.
“I feel like Kyler Murray is not what everybody–“
Williams stopped himself as if he was about to walk into oncoming traffic. He cleared his throat before the reporter interrupted the silence to ask, “What’s that?”
“I’m good,” Williams responded, brushing off a moment that would have likely drawn the ire of Saban had he continued.
For the most part, instead of taking shots at Murray, the Tide have been busy building him up.
“He’s a very explosive player,” Williams said back on Dec. 9 when he didn’t stray from the script. “He can do it all – run the ball, throw the ball- just the all-around quarterback that you want to see.”
The challenge with someone as athletic and as gifted throwing the ball as Murray is immense. Players have talked about how important it will be to keep containment on him and how they can allow him to extend plays.
Murray accounts for 65.8 percent of the Sooners’ FBS-best 7,513 total yards this season.
The best defenders say they can do to stop him is get in his face and not let him escape or get rid of the ball quickly.
“Get your hands up,” Williams said. “Kyler is short. We’ve got Raekwon [Davis], 6-7. I’m 6-4. [Isaiah] Buggs, 6-4. Just getting our hands up. Just affect him in general. Get pressure on him. Get hits on him. If he’s throwing the ball short, get our hands up.”
Publicly calling Murray short might have been a step too far for Saban’s liking, but keeping the focus on X’s and O’s is what the 67-year-old coach must like to see. Saban couldn’t do anything about the tweets the night of the Heisman, but his fingerprints are all over the lack of rhetoric since.
Rodrique Wright knows this all too well. The former Longhorn played for Saban when he was with the Miami Dolphins in 2006 and understands the way he thinks.
“I guarantee you the coaches aren’t talking about that at all,” he said, referring to the Heisman revenge factor. “Because Saban is just focusing on detail, and the game plan, and focusing on them.”
The players, Wright said, are another matter, though.
It might be a small sample size, but too often we’ve seen teammates take it upon themselves to prove that the Heisman ended up in the wrong hands.
“You’re a human being,” Wright said. “You understand you want your guy to come home with the trophy. Every time a player brings home a trophy, that’s a trophy for that whole team. So I’m sure they think about it, I’m sure it’s something they want to go prove. I’m sure defensively, they want to go shut down the Heisman.
“When you go against a Heisman Trophy winner, you obviously want to be the team that shuts them down. So I guarantee you, they’re fueled by that. I’m sure that defense will be very feisty going into this game.”
- ^ Close (www.espn.com)
- ^ Close (www.espn.com)
- ^ Texas Longhorns (www.espn.com)
- ^ USC Trojans (www.espn.com)
- ^ Tua Tagovailoa (www.espn.com)
- ^ Kyler Murray (www.espn.com)
- ^ Isaiah Buggs (www.espn.com)
- ^ Capital One Orange Bowl (www.espn.com)
- ^ Mack Wilson (www.espn.com)
- ^ Quinnen Williams (www.espn.com)
- ^ Deionte Thompson (www.espn.com)
- ^ Kyler Murray (www.espn.com)
- ^ Xavier McKinney (www.espn.com)