Strong statement: With coach on hot seat, Texas responds in stunner over No. 10 Oklahoma
DALLAS — Charlie Strong put that gold cowboy hat on his head and flashed a huge smile filled with relief, joy and vindication.
If last week’s beat down at TCU was rock bottom for Strong at Texas, his first victory against rival Oklahoma might be what changes the trajectory of his program. Or maybe it was just a temporary respite for the beleaguered Longhorns and their coach.
Regardless, the 24-17 win against the 10th-ranked Sooners on Saturday was no ordinary victory for Texas.
"We heard all week how the pride has been lost. How we don’t play hard," Strong said. "And I don’t have an answer for last week (TCU 50, Texas 7), we go out and we kind of just lay an egg and this week we came out and we wanted to impose our will. We wanted to play physical and watch our team just go to work."
The Longhorns (2-4, 1-2 Big 12) worked over Oklahoma’s defense with 313 yards rushing. Their D went to work on quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Sooners offensive line, blitzing and stunting their way to six sacks. Naashon Hughes and Poona Ford buried Mayfield for a 17-yard loss on a third-and-14 deep in Oklahoma territory late in the fourth quarter on what turned out to be a fitting last offensive play of the game for the Sooners.
When Jerrod Heard and the Longhorns offense got the ball with 3:33 left and Texas leading 24-17, they never gave it back. The Longhorns churned out three first downs, took a knee and then stormed the field as if they won championship trophy.
"We needed this," Strong said.
The linemen lifted Strong off the ground during the celebration and tossed him in the air before he got to lift the Golden Hat Trophy that goes to the winner of the Red River Rivalry.
Strong doffed that cowboy hat proudly, then passed it to his players.
"I think they said they didn’t want to see me get fired so they were going to step up and play for me," Strong said with a laugh.
The Longhorns came to Dallas in the midst of the program’s worst start in 59 years and as 17-point underdogs to the Sooners (4-1, 1-1). It’s been nothing but turmoil and excruciating losses for Texas this season. After getting drubbed by the Horned Frogs last Saturday, the Longhorns made matters worse by sniping at each other on social media. Eighteen games into Strong’s tenure and his future in Austin was already being questioned.
"Watching ESPN and seeing everything in the media about coach, everybody attacking him, picking on him and stuff, a bunch of guys were like, this isn’t fair. We’re not playing hard and it’s affecting him and his status," offensive guard Sedrick Flowers said.
Heard led a scaled-down offense that threw only 12 passes, The quarterback ran for 115 on 21 carries. D’Onta Foreman made the biggest offensive play, a tackle-breaking 81-yard run that set up backup quarterback Tyrone Swoopes’ jump-pass touchdown to Caleb Bluiett that made it 24-10 with 13:52 left in the fourth quarter. The 244-pound Swoopes played the role of closer for the Longhorns, with a 3-yard run TD to go with that scoring pass.
The Red River rivalry has been played 110 times and has a history of upsets and surprising results, including two years ago when Texas came in 3-2 with coach Mack Brown’s future very much in doubt and won 36-20. Texas is now 6-2 since 1989 against Oklahoma when it is unranked and the Sooners are ranked.
That recent history didn’t seem to provide much hope for Texas fans. They were noticeably slow filling their half of the Cotton Bowl as kickoff approached. There was also a little more room to spread out on that side of the stadium, with a smattering of empty seats.
The Sooners were wary.
"I definitely don’t think it was a lack of focus, and we definitely did not underestimate them at all," Oklahoma offensive linemen Ty Darlington said. "They were a much more talented and capable team than the record."
The Texas win in 2013 was every bit as unexpected as this one, but it provided only a short-lived boost in a tense season that ended with Brown stepping down.
Texas did not fix all its problems against Oklahoma this time, either. That offense will still have a hard time keeping up in the Big 12. Strong is still relying heavily on inexperienced players. But some of them are really good, notably freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson (two sacks).
Confidence is not necessarily a problem either for the Longhorns.
"This is the spark," Jefferson said, "that lights the fire."