It's not out of the ordinary for Texas to compete for the Big 12 title under head coach Mack Brown. Given the program's annual wealth of blue-chip talent, that much is often expected. Still, with the way the Longhorns' 2013 season began, the fact that they're 6-0 in conference play heading into a critical game against No. 12 Oklahoma State this Saturday seems like nothing short of a miracle.
Just three games into the year, the 'Horns appeared to be sinking. They started 1-2 for the first time since 1998, and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was ousted in favor for Greg Robinson just a day after a 40-21 loss to BYU in which the defense surrendered 550 rushing yards. That's not to mention the spreading rumors about longtime athletic director DeLoss Dodds’ retirement – it was announced on Nov. 5 that Arizona State athletic director Steve Patterson will become Texas' next AD, with Dodds sliding into a consulting role – and Brown’s immediate and long-term future in Austin.
Administrative matters aside, however, Texas still had nine regular-season games left to play. For all of the sky-is-falling talk surrounding the program, the Longhorns' 44-23 loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 14 provided plenty of time for a turnaround.
The players got together for a defensive meeting, and then for a team-wide meeting. They weren't about pointing fingers or making excuses; they were about trying to come together and play at the level the team was expected to during the preseason.
On Sept. 21, the 'Horns beat Kansas State (31-21) for the first time since 2003. More importantly, they moved to 1-0 in Big 12 play.
“We talked about how we believe in each other and we expect more out of each other,” senior defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said. “We need to give more. We were starting Big 12 play with Kansas State, and that was a team we hadn’t beaten in a while. I definitely hadn’t beaten them since I’ve been here. We could right all these wrongs that we’ve done by winning out in the Big 12 and first starting with Kansas State.
“We just kept going on.”
That positive momentum following the win over the Wildcats was almost undone in Ames on Oct. 2, when Texas survived Iowa State 31-30 in a controversial Thursday night clash. It appeared that running back Johnathan Gray fumbled at least once, if not twice, on the eventual game-winning touchdown drive, and Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads was incessant in his dismay in his postgame press conference.
Yet there was little time to mull over close calls with the Red River Rivalry up next. Many expected the then-unbeaten Sooners to steamroll Texas (Oklahoma was favored by 14.5 points) and the Brown hot seat rumors to start back up with gusto, but it didn’t play out that way.
“We were tired of losing to Oklahoma,” Jeffcoat said.
Texas dominated the line of scrimmage, and quarterback Case McCoy -- who took over for David Ash after Ash suffered a concussion against BYU and another head injury against Kansas State -- went 13-of-21 for 190 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. All of a sudden, the Longhorns were 3-0 in league play.
The journey the Longhorns have taken is an unorthodox one. Coming into the year, the team returned 19 starters and seemed poised to build on a somewhat disappointing 9-4 (5-4) finish in 2012. The 1-2 start flipped the script to a can’t-miss trainwreck, and everyone kept waiting for the carnage to pile up.
It never did. Now with six straight victories, Texas is in the unlikely position of leading its conference while remaining an underdog -- a role the Longhorns haven’t often assumed in recent memory.
Injuries have played their part. With Ash out, the offense switched to a more conservative rushing attack behind the two-headed tandem of Gray (780 rushing yards, four touchdowns) and Malcolm Brown (442 rushing yards, eight scores). But Gray will miss the remainder of the year with a right Achilles injury suffered in last week's 47-40 overtime win at West Virginia. The 'Horns also lost senior defensive tackle Chris Whaley, who had scored two defensive touchdowns, for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
“We've lost a lot of players this year,” Brown said during his press conference on Monday. “I think there are five or six starters right now that aren't in there. But what you've got to do in modern day football and part of being a good football team is being able to have enough depth and have enough about you to step up and be the next man to move forward.”
Moving forward has essentially been the mantra for this year's Longhorns. Heading into matchups with Oklahoma State, Texas Tech (Nov. 28) and Baylor (Dec. 7), Brown's squad can still achieve its goal of winning the Big 12.
“I really can't think of a person on this team that is pulling that bus backwards,” junior long snapper and former Green Beret Nate Boyer said during the team’s press conference on Monday. “Everyone is pushing it forward. I'm sure all of us have our doubts from time to time. I do; that's just human. But then there's always something else that happens or someone else on the team that says something or you see something in them, and it just puts you right back in that positive state of mind and know that you've got this.”
• Mark Travis, Cowboys Ride For Free: “Unless you are Alabama or Stanford and your defense gets to prove itself by playing other elite opponents, defensive-minded teams rarely catch on with the general public. And, shockingly, the Pokes have become a defensive team this season. It's likely that the offense will return to form once the quarterback situation gets sorted out in the offseason, but new defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer has done an unbelievable job with his group, showing a great ability to manage the game on top of coaching up the players. It's a down year in the Big 12 and Oklahoma State has yet to play Baylor, but it's already clear that this is one of the best defensive teams the Cowboys have ever had.” • Wescott Eberts, Burnt Orange Nation: “Greg Robinson has freed up the defensive line to become dominant units by allowing his ends to play with their hands in the ground instead of sprinting upfield and losing contain, which has resulted in better run defense and more passes knocked down. The defensive tackles are playing straight ahead instead of looping, and the linebackers are starting to show some progress as a result of Robinson's ability to teach the game -- this is a guy with years of experience teaching at the highest level in the NFL. It's probably not an overstatement to say that firing Diaz and installing Robinson as the defensive coordinator has saved the Texas season.”