' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite College Football Games: Game 12

Saturday, November 16, 2019

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 12

December 29, 1994 (Sun Bowl): Texas - 35 North Carolina - 31

Much like the last week of August instinctively fills me with dread, flashing me back to the start of school and my life being over for another nine months even though I haven’t gone to school in years, the week between Christmas and New Year’s instinctively cheers me up, a respite where real life gets put on hold, even though real life has ground on now during that week for decades. Whether bowl games are merely a manifestation of this idea or a direct contributor to it, I’m not sure, even after all this time, and not sure it matters; what matters is bowl games being liberated from the regular season’s tiresome insistence on politicking, punditry, and The Big Picture. Each bowl exists unto itself as a little fount of joy, like a window on a secular advent calendar, or something, waiting to be opened. Granted, a sad candy corn, “Bad Santa” style, might tumble out, like the 2004 Silicon Valley Classic, but, who knows, you might also discover a miniature Krackel, like the 1999 Gator Bowl. And then there’s the 1994 Sun Bowl, which was like finding a whole damn Paris-Brest.

You probably don’t remember the 1994 Sun Bowl. That’s because even if these mid-tier bowls are event-oriented, coming but once a year, they are also transitory, glorified exhibitions not meant to last beyond the moment in which they are played. That refreshing stakes-free sensation is often detectable in bowl game crowds, as it was in the 1994 Sun Bowl, where the 50,612 people in the stands did not generate a roar so much as background chatter akin to restaurant ambience. It lent the game an air of conviviality rather than tension, a rattling good afternoon out in which teams combined for over 900 yards of total offense with touchdowns being scored by land and by air, by offense and by defense and by special teams too, the winning six points not coming until the last minute.

It wasn’t just the fireworks, though, but their rendering. It was a peerless uniform match-up; that striking Longhorn Burnt Orange against that elegant Tar Heel Carolina Blue. It was aptly named Texas quarterback James Brown who in his very movements seem to embody a syncopated bass line of the other James Brown. It was Texas coach John Mackovic successfully going for it on 4th and Goal, admirably honoring the ephemeral nature of the event with a simple two-word strategy – Why Not? Later, Mackovic’s coaching counterpart, Mack Brown, employed the Why Not? approach too, dispatching junior wide receiver Marcus Wall to return a punt for the first time in his career. He promptly returned that punt 82 yards for a touchdown, of course.

Wall’s score, along with quarterback Mike Thomas’s 50-yard TD strike, put the Tar Heels up 31 – 21 with eight minutes left. But the Longhorns mounted a comeback on the strength of their star running back, a dude by the name of Priest Holmes, who scored once and then scored again, from five yards out on a splendiferous sort of in-the-air somersault. Because the game kicked off early afternoon, it began in the long shadows of a low winter sun and ended in the fading light, the kind characteristic of a late December afternoon when the air is so cold and so still that every sound dangles in the air just a bit longer, that strange, wonderful space where time seems to stop even as you sense it slipping away, a sensation which ineffably rose out of the way Holmes hung over top of the Tar Heel defense, just for a second, on that game-winning TD. It was the perfect ending to the perfect game, one which bore no lasting impact aside from the fact that a quarter-century later I still think about it.

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