Football

Horns holding accountable

Hassan Ridgeway rumbles to the end zone. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Hassan Ridgeway rumbles to the end zone. (Will Gallagher/IT)

AUSTIN — The operative catchphrases from Texas players this week have been ‘accountability’, ‘trust’, and ‘execution’. The program has this now, they said, and the result was the riveting 24-17 upset of Oklahoma. The body of work, however, suggests that the 2015 Longhorns are like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.

Coach Charlie Strong said as much: “The uncertainty is always there, because when you go out, you’re just hoping they’re ready to play…”

What, in the name of our dearly departed Bevo, convinces players that they are ready for prime-time (even as the team is slated for its third straight late-morning kickoff)? How does Texas ensure that its performance against OU is now the norm rather than the exception?

“We have to hold each other accountable,” DT Paul Boyette said.

It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.

Two weeks ago, attempts to hold each other accountable went public – and then went viral – as players confronted each other via social media and the national media. But even that had a galvanizing effect, prompting the third team-meeting in as many days.

“We talked about it immediately,” said Marcus Johnson. “It was a spur of the moment situation. These young guys, they don’t really mean too much by it when it happens. We got it handled at that time. From then on, it hasn’t been an issue.”

Continued Johnson: “It’s part of growing up. It helped us understand that we can’t allow the outside to affect us, or to continue to allow little, petty things to grab at the team. At that point in time, everybody was looking for something to pinpoint as to why the team wasn’t playing well. We handled it well. We were able to overcome it and get past it.”

Very few expected Texas to get past the 16-point favorite Sooners.

Jerrod Heard and John Burt after a TD at DKR. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Jerrod Heard and John Burt after a TD at DKR. (Will Gallagher/IT)

After all, it had been a Longhorns team that couldn’t get out of its own way as of late. Yet, Texas ran for 313 yards (the most it has posted against OU in 65 years) while the defense played with the kind of controlled-violence not seen since the 2005 national championship game against USC.

“We held guys accountable and trusted them,” Boyette said. “It’s about trusting your brother. Going into OU Week, we put our trust in each other. We just relaxed and executed. …Coach Strong preaches toughness, accountability, and being responsible. A lot of guys have really bought-in because, hey, if we go out and dominate on the offensive and defensive lines, we’re going to come out victorious.”

Boyette concedes that Texas “treated the (OU) game like it was a bowl game,” but players say they are determined that the effort was not simply the product of an emotionally-charged atmosphere. In short, it’s a culture change. It was (finally!) the brass knuckled, blue collar performance that Strong was determined to instill in the program.

“It has to be any every-day thing,” Johnson said. “You can’t just expect it to come out in games. It has to be how you practice. It has to be the way you watch game film. It has to be the way you do everything. We’re putting a lot of emphasis on that in practice.”

Senior tailback Johnathan Gray seconds that emotion.

“We’re working on consistency and execution,” Gray said. “When we step on the field now, we have to know we have to execute each and every play that coach Strong calls for us. And we’re going to fight. That’s what guys are doing now.”

It’s just that it’s not what guys were doing during Texas’ 1-4 start, the program’s worst since 1956. But, against Oklahoma, Boyette said that “Everybody was on the same page. There were no missed assignments. Everybody was executing.”

What a difference a week makes. The difference, he said, came from extra film study and “knowing the personnel and knowing your job.” In addition, improvements in “communication was very big” against the Sooners. The Oklahoma win was a confidence boost, he added, not only because it came against a Top 10 teams but also from the collective experience of “dominating the person in front of you.”

Granted, the Sooners had a very suspect offensive line and a QB that was quickly taken out of his comfort zone when defensive coordinator served a steady diet of blitzes. Meanwhile, playcaller Jay Norvell installed a jet sweep package that put Marcus Johnson in motion in nearly every play. It “threw off the defense,” Johnson said, while giving Texas the option of three ball carries on every snap.

Now, Texas faces the only Big 12 squad that is as enigmatic as itself. Kansas State is coming off a 55-0 thrashing against Oklahoma but, a week earlier, those same Wildcats were knotted at 45-all against TCU with less than two minutes remaining.

Longhorn players, however, are convinced they will get K-State’s A-game. They also know the Wildcats are gunning for their 7th win against the Horns in the past eight meetings and, as Boyette said, that is “motivation” in itself.

Meanwhile, his teammates still have plenty of incentive after shocking their arch-rival. They are determined to finish with a winning record and send the seniors to a bowl game. They also know that, even that relatively difficult goal, remains well below the program’s standard.

Concluded Gray: “We still have to prove Texas is still tough, Texas can fight, and Texas has players who want to win.”