Texas coach proves grip is Strong with stunning upset of Oklahoma
If last week served as a referendum on Charlie Strong's control, or lack thereof, of the Texas Longhorns football program, let "TEXAS 24, NO. 10 OKLAHOMA 17" serve as evidence that the second-year coach firmly has both hands on the wheel.
In the aftermath of blowtorch-like heat from last week's 50-7 disaster at TCU and the ensuing Texas Twitter civil war that apparently even a critically ill Bevo couldn't stomach, Strong stepped up and called this one on Monday: Right time to play OU, he said; time to coach better, he said; time to bring this team together, he said.
Check. Check. And check.
Past promises Strong didn't deliver on were dissected one-by-one all week. His most recent promise made Monday, that intense, passionate effort would be on display from his team at the Cotton Bowl was signed, sealed and delivered by the very Texas players who seemed to be ripping the program apart only days before.
At 2-4 and 1-2 in the Big 12, no, Texas isn't back. It won't crack the Top 25 on Sunday and it might still be a recruiting class or two away from closing the gap on TCU and Baylor. But on this sun-drenched Saturday at the Cotton Bowl, the Longhorns -- sniping upperclassmen and underclassmen alike -- put away the excuses, set aside their differences and punched the Sooners in the mouth with a determined, collective effort.
Give former Oklahoma assistant Jay Norvell, now the Longhorns' play-caller, major credit for finally putting into action a physical, bull-headed game plan that took a nasty, no-nonsense attitude to execute. Of Texas' 70 plays, 58 were rushes. They did it with key senior right tackle Kent Perkins out of the lineup and two true freshmen plowing the OU line.
Senior running back Johnathan Gray was a workhorse, carrying 22 times for 76 yards. Sophomore D'Onta Foreman finished with 117 yards, 81 on a backbreaking romp to end the third quarter and set up a huge score early in the heart-stopping fourth as Texas desperately fought to keep OU at arm's length.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard only threw it 11 times for 53 yards, but killed OU with his legs, escaping trouble and churning up 115 yards on 21 carries. Even senior wide receiver Marcus Johnson showed signs of being the playmaker Texas so frustratingly has lacked, breaking tackles for the game's first touchdown and making four big catches in all. Even demoted QB Tyrone Swoopes was key in two goal-line situations, including a critial 2-yard TD pass early in the fourth quarter that stretched the lead back to 14 points.
And credit Strong for a defensive game plan that shut down hot quarterback Baker Mayfield and OU's new Air Raid offense. Befuddled and embarrassed a week ago by TCU's aerial assault, this Texas defense played with attitude, even a measure of swagger. With 4:24 to go, a pair of Longhorn sophomore linemen, Naashon Hughes and Poona Ford, sacked Mayfield on third-and-14 to effectively end the Sooners' chances.
"I'm just so proud of our players, they came out and competed," Strong told ESPN immediately after the game. "All week they hurt so much that they didn't have their pride, and just the way they battled back. I know this, I've been saying it and I truly believe it, we have a good football team."
The players' belief in their coach was evident in their effort alone, and then stamped home with the jubilant celebration after what most predicted would be another blowout loss to continue Texas' worst start in more than a half-century.
In the glow of victory, Texas players gathered on the field in a flowing circle of burnt orange, jumping for joy, and then there was Strong, flat on his back, the hands of his players bouncing their Gatorade-soaked coach up and down.
A bit later Strong donned the golden cowboy hat annually awarded to the winning team of this century-old rivalry. Relief written all over his usual stone face, Strong beamed a smile bigger than the inflatable "Big Tex" who keeps watch over the Cotton Bowl from the neighboring Texas State Fair.
Of course, if not for late-game special teams gaffes in consecutive losses to Cal and Oklahoma State, maybe this win over Bob Stoops and the Sooners isn't so surprising. Maybe the TCU loss would have been viewed more as a hiccup than a panic attack. Maybe Strong wouldn't have been fired by a half-dozen analysts.
Saturday was just one win, one win that allows Texas to breath a little easier entering a much-needed bye week. But it can all vanish just as quickly if the Longhorns don't come out to play in two weeks against an always game Kansas State team.
But just as things looked the bleakest for Strong during his short time at Texas, he proved he indeed has control of the program. And for now that's the best sign Texas could get.