As signs of unrest build, Charlie Strong, Texas can't afford to unravel against Oklahoma
AUSTIN, Texas — It can't happen again. Not in this game. Not with Big Tex standing sentinel and Oreos getting dunked into deep fryers. Texas cannot get steamrolled against Oklahoma the way it got steamrolled during its last visit to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
That visit should be fresh in the Longhorns' minds. It only happened a few days ago. That 50–7 loss to TCU last Saturday – followed by Monday's player infighting conducted through old media and social media—has to be the last time Charlie Strong's team lays down for an opponent.
Strong is safe right now. The people who make the decisions at Texas, from the influential boosters to the interim athletic director to the school president, have voiced their support for the second-year coach. If Strong's team fights—the opponent, not itself—that support probably won't waver.
This season could already be lost. The power brokers understand that. Look down that schedule and find the wins for a team with scant few players who will get sniffed by NFL teams next spring. Iowa State. Kansas. Those are the only ones close to being sure things. That would only get Texas to 3–9. Win a couple toss-up games, and that's 5–7. It's still unacceptable, but given the dearth of upperclass talent, it might represent progress in this year's Big 12. If Texas makes a bowl, Strong has absolutely nothing to worry about.
If Strong can make it to next season, about half his roster will be players he and his staff recruited. (Strong's first class was composed mostly of players who committed during the Mack Brown regime.) In 2016, no one should be blaming Brown anymore. Strong should have enough to compete. "I never will ever say it was coach Brown's fault," Strong said Monday. "It wasn't ever his fault. It's on me." Next season, Strong's Longhorns should turn around.
Strong just has to get to next season. Despite his support, Strong must be careful these next two months. He must be especially careful Saturday. The Longhorns already have been humiliated by Notre Dame and TCU. Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson seemed to know what was going to happen before the teams even took the field.
Todd McShay asked Gary Patterson what the biggest challenge for his D is today. Patterson: “We've beaten better with less.”— Longhorn Network (@LonghornNetwork) October 3, 2015
Because Texas is Texas and also because Texas hasn't always been the most humble conference partner, no forthcoming opponent will take pity on the Longhorns. If Oklahoma's Bob Stoops can bury them, he will. If Baylor's Art Briles can bury them, he will.
That's why Strong must make sure his team doesn't quit. He has the support he needs now. With another flop like last week's trouncing at TCU, that support might begin to erode. If the Longhorns were to get boat-raced by the Sooners, an already flagging fan base might throw in the towel the way its team did in Fort Worth. Attendance would drop, and each successive loss—even the close ones—would add to the misery*. If new president Gregory Fenves and interim AD Mike Perrin look around during the Thanksgiving game against Texas Tech and see that tens of thousands of fans stayed home to eat turkey and then watch the Longhorns get destroyed by Baylor the following week, their opinions may change.
*If you're reading this and thinking about another program that wears orange and white, yes, the situation at Texas is incredibly similar to the one at Tennessee. Like Strong, Butch Jones inherited very little talent, but Jones has been on the job a year longer. Jones still needs another year, and he still has the support of the influential people at Tennessee, but like Strong, Jones must make sure his team keeps fighting to keep the fan base from quitting after a string of losses. Where the two programs diverge is the fact that Tennessee's three losses have come by a total of 12 points. Texas has two one-possession losses and two losses by five touchdowns or more.
Brandon Wade/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images
It is up to Strong, the staff and the players to keep everyone engaged. They don't have to win every remaining game, but they do have to show a spark. If the team doesn't give up, the fans probably won't, either. Playcaller Jay Norvell couldn't hold back Tuesday when asked what the staff's message to the team was.
"I don't know that the message has changed. I mean, we've got to play together in all three phases," Norvell said. "The simple fact of football is this: If you want a physical team, you've got to have physical individuals. If you want a tough team, you've got to have tough individuals. If you want a smart team, you've got to have smart individuals. And we've got to win individual battles to get the team response we want. It's not rocket science. You guys have been watching this game a long time. We've got to have guys step up and hit people. We've got to have guys step up and make plays. We've got to have guys step up and play the style of football that we want to play here. I guess that was what the message was."
This Saturday in Dallas would have been weird enough for Norvell even if last Saturday in Fort Worth had gone down differently. Now, the Red River Rivalry means even more.
Norvell was fired in January after six years on Oklahoma's staff. He had been the co-offensive coordinator. Less than two weeks later, Norvell joined the Texas staff as the receivers coach. Days after the Longhorns' first game, Norvell found himself calling the plays after Strong came to grips with the reality that coordinator Shawn Watson's new offense wasn't really new at all and Texas coaches had wasted an entire off-season preparing the wrong quarterback to start.
The Longhorns played better in close losses to Cal and Oklahoma State. They ultimately lost after special teams gaffes, but their offense improved dramatically. That improvement seemed to evaporate Saturday at TCU. The evaporation may have been the result of facing better defensive players, but the Longhorns will also face a quality defense Saturday in Dallas.
It will be up to quarterback Jerrod Heard to rally the Longhorns. Heard's favorite Red River memory is the game two years ago, when a Texas team that on paper should have been blown out by Oklahoma wound up whipping the Sooners 36–20. Tuesday, Heard tried to calm fears about the apparent rift between the older and younger players on the team. He hadn't taken part in the sniping. In fact, his only social media contribution had been this tweet after the TCU game.
I'm sorry— Heard (@SmileHeardJ) October 3, 2015
Monday, Heard looked down at a text message and realized he needed to have a chat with some of his teammates. "Someone had texted me, 'Get your teammates off Twitter,'" Heard said. "I was like, 'Oh Lord, what are they doing now?'" Heard insisted that any issues have been smoothed over and any frustrations taken out during a physical Tuesday practice. He didn't seem particularly worried about the Twitter fight other than the embarrassment it caused the program. "I'm about to get their phones and delete their Twitters," Heard joked.
The great thing about being a sportswriter is that depending on what happens Saturday, we can spin that intra-team sparring however we wish. If the Longhorns get blown out, it was a signal they had fallen apart. If they win or fall in a close one, it was a changing of the guard and the (more talented) freshmen have declared themselves the team's leaders. The truth is probably closer to what Heard said Tuesday. "Stuff like that is just for the favorites and the retweet," Heard said. "They're not serious at all."
The redshirt freshman also said something else that suggested wisdom beyond his years. "If we beat OU," he said, "everything is going to go away."
Heard is absolutely correct. A win against Oklahoma would assuage the fears of almost everyone in burnt orange. At this point, a close loss might be almost as soothing. But the Longhorns must also know that a repeat of last Saturday could start the unraveling in earnest.
They can't allow that to happen. Norvell put it perfectly Tuesday. "Nobody's riding in on a white horse," he said. "We've got to fight our way out of this mess. And that's the only way."