AUSTIN, Texas — The plane that carried the Texas football team to Des Moines, Iowa, two years ago hit massive turbulence. Even the mention of that bumpy ride still shakes one 300-pound Longhorn. "I don't like that you brought it back up," defensive tackle Chris Nelson said. But as bad as the ride from the Lone Star State was, everything got much, much worse when the team arrived at its final destination in Ames.
The Longhorns had beaten Oklahoma and Kansas State their previous two games. They finally seemed to have turned the corner for second-year coach Charlie Strong. Then they took the field at Jack Trice Stadium. Texas didn't drive any deeper than the Iowa State 47-yard line until the final drive of the game. When quarterback Tyrone Swoopes's final pass fell incomplete, the scoreboard read Iowa State 24, Texas 0. It was the clearest indication to date that Texas was a broken program. "That's one of those games you never forget," senior defensive end Naashon Hughes said this week. "You never expect to lose to Iowa State being at Texas. But things like that happen. You've got to check yourself first." Another indicator of where Texas stood at that moment was this: A shutout of the Longhorns would have been a season-maker for Iowa State in previous years; in 2015, it didn't keep the Cyclones from firing coach Paul Rhoads.
The Longhorns have changed coaches, too, but they still haven't been fixed. They'll return to Ames on Thursday to open Big 12 play as a 1–2 team still trying to find its way. A 27–24 double overtime loss at USC on Sept. 16 has produced an odd reaction that further illustrates just how far Texas has fallen and how much work first-year coach Tom Herman has left to do if he wants to return the Longhorns to the sport's upper echelon. "I can't tell you how many times I heard the word ‘congratulations' [after the USC game]," Herman said this week. "And it made my skin crawl. Congratulations for what? For showing up and playing hard?"
A program long known for a confidence that often came off as arrogance now draws congratulations for losing to a team that should be considered a peer. So perhaps the condescension has been completely beaten out of the Longhorns. But part of Herman's job is to restore that confidence—if not the arrogance—so he can't simply rip away at his team for losing once again. So after the Longhorns returned from Los Angeles, the coaching staff asked them to look at the USC game in two ways. "We really talked to them about compartmentalizing the two things," Herman said.
First, the negative: "We lost a game we needed to finish in order to get where we're going," Herman said. "We need to hurt. We need to be upset about that, and we need to work tirelessly to correct the things that caused us to lose that game."
Then, the positive: "Wow, look at what we're capable of when we play really hard, when we play for each other, when we play really physical. Now, if we can correct the mistakes that led to the loss, we've got a chance to be pretty good."
Herman remains cagey about who will lead the offense Thursday. After missing two games with a shoulder injury, sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele has been back at practice. Sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger replaced Buechele quite capably, but Herman has said the job is Buechele's once he's fully healthy. Is Buechele healthy enough to play? Herman isn't saying. "I'm not going to tell Iowa State or [coach] Matt Campbell who is going to play," Herman said.
One thing Herman would reveal is a doubt that any of the Longhorns who lived through 24–0 will overlook the Cyclones, who come into the game 2–1 and also have their own overtime measuring stick loss (44–41 to Iowa on Sept. 9). If anyone else tries to suggest Iowa State isn't capable of pulling off an upset, Herman can remind them of the time the Cyclones wrecked Oklahoma State's national title hopes on a weeknight in Ames in '11. Herman was in his third season as Iowa State's offensive coordinator at the time. He has seen the Jack Trice crowd at its rowdiest. "Any time a big name comes to town," he said, "that place is rockin'."
Texas is big in name only at this point. The truth of the matter is until they can prove otherwise, the Longhorns are closer to Iowa State than they are to rival Oklahoma. The only way they can prove that is by winning the conference games they're supposed to win—beginning Thursday. "The last three games? The Big 12 doesn't count any of them," Herman said. "We've got an opportunity to go 1–0 in the Big 12."