DALLAS — There are many preposterous and heart-stopping sights to behold at the Texas State Fairgrounds. This may have been the most unimaginable yet: Charlie Strong, his shirt freshly doused with ice water, hoisted into the late afternoon air and bounced up and down by delirious football players. This was a team that literally had its coach’s back, along with his shoulders and legs and feet, while basking in a catharsis. They had no assurances it would come. Few expected it would. And then Charlie Strong body-surfed and put a golden cowboy hat trophy on his head and everyone hugged the governor as they left the field. The eulogies for Texas? Hold ’em, for now.
A 24–17 victory over No. 10 Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry was stunning and fun but still does not fix everything. That would neglect just how bad it had gotten this year and the Longhorns’ complicity in that, including a performance just seven days old that Strong described as “god-awful.”
Saturday’s win does demonstrate that Texas is capable of a motivated, physical, disciplined effort. It does earn Strong the right to be evaluated at the end of the year—if that was in fact in question—an appraisal that should revolve around his ability to coax more games like this out of his group.
It does provide the players and staff the peace and quiet required to do anything worthwhile at all.
“We needed this,” Strong said. “I think (the players) said they didn't want to see me get fired, so they were going to step up and play for me.”
He was joking. Kind of. For a week, Texas fans kept their heads up because that was the only available sightline from rock bottom.
TCU reduced the Longhorns to cinders in a 43-point win last Saturday. Team infighting spilled out into social media. It was announced that Bevo, the school’s mascot, would not attend the Red River game due to a life-threatening condition. On Saturday, a sign resting against the sideline wall before the game read “Bevo, The eyes of Texas are upon you…” It said something that the welfare of a steer, no matter how beloved, was worthy of as much attention as the product on the field.
No one could have known or expected that Strong would see a solid week of practice, including a crisp Thursday workout and then make a proclamation to his staff on Friday morning that ran directly counter to the negative momentum. “Guys, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” the Texas coach recalled telling his coaches, “but it would not shock me if we go out there and play an unbelievable game.”
On Saturday, 91,546 souls were a little more than surprised by what they witnessed. And the half that wore burnt orange to the Cotton Bowl ought to take heart in much more than a positive result. How the Longhorns won this game seemed like a semi-discernible foundation upon which Strong and his staff can build a consistent plan for success, something elusive so far in 2015.
There was no pretense offensively, no attempt to mask a lack of confidence in the vertical passing game. Which was fine because that lack of pretense produced 313 rushing yards, including an 81-yard stampede from D’Onta Foreman to set up a touchdown that put Texas ahead by 14 in the fourth quarter.
A defense that had amassed just six sacks to date got to Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield seven times on Saturday alone, most notably putting the Sooners’ line on skates on a late third-and-14 that was the last offensive play Bob Stoops’s team would run. Texas blitzers seemed to come from every angle and every gap at some point during the game; Strong said his team played base defense on maybe three downs the entire afternoon.
“The scheme was perfect,” freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson said.
And that scheme was?
“Get after the quarterback,” Jefferson said. “Shake him up.”
No doubt the result unnerved Oklahoma, which now appears set to leave the Big 12 race to Baylor and TCU again. The Sooners reprised the disappointment of 2013, when they similarly entered the Red River Rivalry as hefty favorites against a wobbling Texas program and left pondering how in the world they lost. “We definitely did not underestimate them at all,” center Ty Darlington said. “They were a much more talented and capable team than their record.”
According to the Longhorns’ Foreman, though, that approach didn’t silence Oklahoma players when the teams occupied the tunnel before the game. The Sooners’ chatter—probably no different than what has banged off walls in the 109 previous meetings of these programs—was nevertheless interpreted as a hubris that required a retort.
“I just wanted to go out there and show them we got something,” Foreman said.
This might have been the breaking point, all right, for Strong’s program. A 1–5 start featuring consecutive losses to TCU and Oklahoma would convince no one that finer days were ahead. And the players were starting to feel as though they were constantly walking behind a car with exhaust problems.
“People say we’re not talented, we don’t have what it takes to win games—that’s what bothered me,” guard Sedrick Flowers said. “I know what we have. For us not to go out there and play how we can play, that’s what bothered me the most. We gave them a reason to say that.”
The only way to alter the circumstances was to give everyone something else to talk about. The Longhorns certainly accomplished that Saturday. They stood before their exultant fans showering them with a “Texas Fight!” anthem and then returned to celebrate in the middle of the field, where Strong donned the golden cowboy hat to another roar from the crowd. Offensive lineman Brandon Hodges went from player to player taking selfies, however touchy the presence of personal phones may be these days at Texas. Safety Kevin Vaccaro approached quarterback Jerrod Heard, noting how many people had yammered about Texas while shouting, “They’re all quiet now!”
As the players left the field, they encountered governor Greg Abbott, who brought each in for a handshake and a hug. “There is Texas fight behind this team, and they showed it today,” Abbott declared, with the same vigor of a campaign promise.
“It takes time, like I said, for everybody to get on track and have some dogs come out there and play every week,” Jefferson, the Longhorns’ gifted freshman, said later. “This is the spark that lights the fire.”
It sure beat putting one out.