AUSTIN — Texas’ 27-6 comeback Saturday against Iowa State is like a long, deep swig of Pepto-Bismol after a month-long bender.
The three-touchdown tonic provided fast, temporary relief for the bilious burn in the pit of burnt orange bellies. But beating Iowa State is not the cure-all. It will not remedy all that ails a program that found just enough second-half offense to avoid a fourth straight loss. So, don’t look to Saturday’s outcome as the panacea. Likewise, don’t try peddling this prescription to sophomore DE Breckyn Hager; the wild-child ain’t swallowing it.
Texas’ first win in 30 days is, according to Hager, the springboard toward running the table.
“We’re going undefeated,” Hager said. “We’ve got no choice. We’re going to do whatever it takes to get there…We’re going to get better. We’re going to keep steamrolling through teams to prove to fans, and to the media, that these coaches are here to stay.”
A nine-win season (with a chance to reach double-digits in bowl season) is, by most accounts, the only way coach Charlie Strong holds onto his job. Some insiders believe the University will be offering Strong a $10 million parting gift just in time for Christmas, regardless. That’s because his record stands at 14-17 after 2 ½ years at, arguably, the most high-risk, high-reward program in college football.
Strong diplomatically refused to speculate what a win against Iowa State implies about his future.
“I tell our players that, number one, you’re in control of your destinies,” Strong said. “Go about being your best every day. We’ve lost three games, and we can’t go back to those games. It’s all about the present.”
For the moment, it was Texas’ defense most complete outing of the season. For the most part, it did a better job of keeping WRs in front of them and not giving up chunk yards through the air. The Cyclones two-QB system was just 19-of-34 passing for 182 yards. The defense limited 6-5 Allen Lazard to 65 yards on seven grabs, and nearly half those yards came against a busted coverage midway through the first quarter.
“We took it upon ourselves to go out and step up and help the offense when they needed it,” said DE/OLB Naashon Hughes. “We went out there and played with a chip on our shoulders.”
Sure, it was ‘just Iowa State’. But it’s a hungry Cyclones team that had racked up 42 points (Baylor) and 31 points (Oklahoma State) these past two weeks. The beleaguered defense kept, under Strong’s supervision for the second time, kept ISU out the end zone; it’s a good thing considering Texas’ offense did not get into a rhythm until the second half.
“It’s safe to say (Strong) has fixed the defense,” Hager said, “as long as players don’t screw up the game plan.”
There were plenty of screw-ups; Texas was penalized nine times for 100 yards. Sure, some of it had to do with one of college football’s most penalized teams continuing to shoot itself in the cleats; this was also a flag-happy officiating crew that tossed yellow flags like Mardi Gras beads.
“I told the officials that I’ve never seen this many flags,” Strong said. “They told me to back up.”
Penalties kept Texas going in reverse; the offense had mustered just 161 of it 505 total yards by halftime despite another monster night from RB D’Onta Foreman. The junior’s 136 yards on a career-high 30 totes puts him in rare air. He now has seven straight 100-yard games, trailing only Earl Campbell in school history. He is well on his way to becoming Texas first 1,000-yard rusher since Jamaal Charles (2007).
“One game doesn’t determine the season for us,” Foreman said, “and even those loses don’t determine the season for us. We’re a really good team, but we have to keep pushing. We have to put these games behind us, but it was a wonderful win for us tonight.”
Freshman QB Shane Buechele was 26-of-38 for a career-best 296 yards and two TDs. He connected with 10 different receivers.
“His ceiling is very, very high,” said OC Sterlin Gilbert. “He’s absorbing and watching and learning and listening, and then going out and executing.”
Execution was a first-half issue for an offense that has not played a complete game since, arguably, UTEP. Iowa State got on the scoreboard first with a 39-yard FG to cap a 12-play drive. Joel Lanning’s 30-yard completion to Lazard, against a dazed-and-confused CB Davante Davis, was the big play in the 58-yard march.
Texas responded with a fumble.
D’onta Foreman coughed it up fighting for extra yards at the Texas 33, a blunder compounded by Caleb Bluiett’s personal foul. ISU took over in prime real estate at the 18, but credit CB Kris Boyd for his vicious PBU on 3rd-and-goal from the 8. The visitors settled for a 25-yard FG to take a 6-0 lead into the second quarter.
The next two Longhorn possessions resulted in two Longhorn punts. C Zach Shackelford was helped off the field, favoring his left ankle, with 9:02 left in the first half. There were no updates during the postgame.
Naashon Hughes 12-yard sack of Jacob Park squashed ISU’s second series of the frame. Aramnti Foreman 14-yard return of a 49-yard punt gave Texas excellent field position at the 41 with 5:32 left until intermission. But penalties continued to kill Longhorn drives, including offensive pass interference calls earlier in the half against Jake Oliver and Jacorey Warrick. This time, RT Tristan Nicholson negated a 22-yard completion to Dorian Leonard when he was flagged for being ineligibly downfield.
Bryce Cottrell dropped Park for a two-yard loss on 3rd-and-3. Armanti Foreman’s 22-yard return of a 47-yard punt to the ISU 48 gave Texas one more chance to get on the first-half scoreboard with 1:46 remaining. D’Onta Foreman careened around right end for eight; he then added another seven off right tackle. A personal foul against Cyclone DB Evrett Edwards made it first-and-goal from the 10. But Texas settled for a 21-yard FG after Iowa State kept it out of the end zone for the sixth straight quarter, dating back to October 31, 2015.
“When we came into the locker room, it was kind of dead,” D’Onta Foreman said. “We had to get everybody’s juices flowing. The offense didn’t play as well as we wanted in the first half, but we congratulated the defense and we were going to put some points on the board.”
ISU put eight in the box, and Buechele came out slinging. The freshman went airborne on seven of eight plays to start the second half, including an apparent 37-yard TD slant to Armanti Foreman. Typical of flag-happy officiating crew, no good play went unpunished. Foreman and safety Mike Johnson were both whistled for face mask penalties (Foreman’s infraction looked more like a stiff arm) to take the points off the board.
Buechele got it back in a hurry. Next snap, he found a w-i-d-e open Jerod Heard down the left sideline to put the exclamation mark on an eight-play, 75-yard drive. Texas had its first lead, 10-6.
“That was big for us as an offense to get started” Buechele said. “It was a great job of us bouncing back from a penalty and getting points.”
For the moment, the flags came faster than the points. Kris Boyd’s unsportsmanlike penalty (taunting) gave ISU a fresh set of downs at the UT 45 to negate Hager’s third-down sack. Hager stopped QB Joel Lanning on 3rd-and-one. Then, on 4th-and-1 at the Texas 26, Malcolm Roach stuffed RB Mike Warren for no-gain. But it was nigh that only Francis Scott Key could love: the flag was still there. Hager was flagged for taunting, but the ball still went over to Texas on downs at the 13.
“I let my emotions get the best of me,” Hager conceded, “and that’s something I’ll learn from.”
The fourth-down stop was the defensive play of the game. Offensively, the play of the game was Buechele’s play-action, scoring strike to future star Devin Duvernay for 75-yards down the right sideline. That made it 17-6 midway through the third quarter and gave Texas what finally felt like separation.
“The learning curve is not as bad as I thought it would be because this offense is simple and basic,” said Duvernay. “I pretty much have it down.”
Hughes second sack of the night – it was an 8-yard loss on 3rd-and-five at the 33 — took ISU out of FG-range. Collin Downing’s 37-yard punt pinned Texas deep, but it set up the night’s most impressive drive. It gobbled 96 yards.
Tyrone Swoopes and the 18-Wheeler hauled the ball to the 16 before Buechele faced a critical 3rd-and-five. Here, Horns fans were treated to a glimpse of the future. The freshman QB began connecting with freshman WRs, moving the sticks with a six-yard completion to Duvernay. Consecutive tosses to freshman Collin Johnson netted 21. Pass interference against DB Jay Jones gave Texas a fresh set of downs at the 18. From there, Foreman rumbled unmolested into the end zone.
Texas tacked-on a 29-yard FG at the 4:54 mark to complete the scoring. The eight-yard, sack-and-strip of Joel Lanning at the Texas 6 in the final seconds mattered only in Vegas. What matters now is whether Texas can win on the road for the first time this year.
The 24-hour rule, for post-game reaction, has already expired for Buechele.
“We’re past this,” he said. “We say ‘good job’ to everybody and we’re on to next week getting ready for Kansas State.”