Football

Texas turning the corner

Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Jerrod Heard. (Will Gallagher/IT)

AUSTIN — Texas’ 50-47 knockout of Notre Dame in double-overtime was like a “15-round heavyweight fight”, Charlie Strong surmised on the morning after.

The one-two punch of quarterbacks Shane Buechele and Tyrone Swoopes gives Strong what should be a tide-turning, signature win in his third season on the 40 Acres.

In short: this was a statement game.

Already, several pigskin pundits have announced that Texas is back. But the statement UT wanted to make, Strong said, is that his players are tough, control the line of scrimmage, and are physical at the point of attack. Oh, and Texas (finally) has a quarterback. Make that two.

While Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly will face at least a week’s worth of scrutiny for his unsettled handling of QBs DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, Texas has (for the first time in years) a clear offensive identity. That’s because Texas coaches know what they have in their two QBs and, more importantly, when to use them.

Strong informed Buechele he would start the game but told Swoopes he would be the one to finish it. During the pre-game walk-through, Strong took Swoopes aside and said: “You’re going to have a chance to win this game. You will win this game. There’s going to be chance to come in, and you’re going to go win it.”

The game-winner, at the end of a 6-yard run, saw Swoopes patiently wait for an open lane before careening off left tackle. He erased three seasons of bittersweet memories, and leapt in Longhorn lore, when he extended his 6-6 frame into the north end zone for the program’s most scintillating win since the 2006 national championship game.

By then, a number of Notre Dame defenders learned you can’t play bumper car against an 18-wheeler.

“The play that Swoopes scored on, we let the linebacker loose. No. 5 (LB Nyles Morgan) just comes scott free, and he made the guy miss. Somebody else tried to him low, and that’s when he dove in for the touchdown.

Strong said he alerted Buechele’s mother Friday that Shane would open as the starter, but asked her to “keep it under wraps”.

Buechele calmly threw for 280 yards, two TDs and one INT. He even kept on a ZR to move the chains on third-and-long, though Strong later told Buechele he does not want him running the ball.

Meanwhile, Strong assured Swoopes, who has 14 starts on his resume, that the decision “had nothing to do with you or your ability. But we’re going to go with the freshman. You’ve worked very hard. We have a package for you. You’re going to play.”

Swoopes took the field, with poor field position at the 12-yard line, on Texas’ fourth offensive series. The 18-wheeler trucked the Irish with 31 yards on four totes to jump-start a 17-play scoring drive to spot Texas a 14-7 lead.

Confirmation of Buechele’s starting assignment began to leak by Sunday afternoon, so it didn’t come as a complete surprise that a true freshman would start for Texas for the first time since legendary Bobby Lane took the field in 1944.

The biggest surprise of the night may have been Jake Oliver’s 36 yards on three grabs, but it came as no surprise to Strong. Oliver was the only receiver to log 100+ catches during Camp, Strong noted, adding that Oliver has shed 24 pounds since last season.

“I call him Mister Clutch. In the Red Zone, he eats ‘em alive.”

Maybe the third time’s the charm, but Texas’ third play-caller in as many years tallied 517 yards of total offense.

Sterlin Gilbert’s debut saw Texas crisply orchestrate 86 plays against what Strong previously labeled as the biggest D-line Texas will face all year. As billed, Gilbert’s up-tempo balanced attack (280 passing, 237 rushing) blended a power running game with stretch-the-field verticals.

When Buechele connected with Armanti Foreman on a 19-yard fade in the corner of the south end zone, the Horns had scored more points on their opening drive than they did in the entire game at South Bend last season.

Buechele managed just one completion in the third quarter — it was the 73-yard TD toss to WR John Burt – but Strong believes his offense expects to score TDs on every possession. That’s why, just before the second OT, Strong told his defense that holding the Irish to a FG would be the difference-maker.

“I told our defense to hold them so that our offense would know how many points we would need to score. I told them that we’re going to score. It’s just a matter of how many (points) we need to win this football game. If we hold them to three, then we’re going to go get us a touchdown.”

For the first time in his Texas tenure, Strong said the Horns were solid in all three phases of the game.

Sure, there were plenty of defensive hiccups that allowed Notre Dame to erase a 17-point deficit. Vance Bedford’s bunch was particularly susceptible to designed QB runs and inside screens, and Strong bemoaned 11 “foolish penalties”.

(Nope, he did not mention the 15-yard sideline penalty incurred after he, ahem, made contact with an official during Notre Dame’s two-point return of a blocked PAT attempt).

Lost in the gaudy offensive stats was P Michael Dickson’s field-flipping 55-yard average.

“The way he punted got us out of a lot of holes,” Strong noted.

Strong stopped short of saying that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, but acknowledged he has yet to deploy many of the assets still in his arsenal.

“We still have weapons that didn’t play a lot last night. They are really effective and we really going to speed this offense up. The only thing we’re going to do is get better and better and better.”

The mood in the post-game locker room was, understandably, “electric.” But there was also a collective “sigh of relief,” Strong noted. After all, Texas withstood the kind of blunders (particularly the late blocked PAT attempt leading to Notre Dame’s two-point) that had previously torpedoed the season.

“We’d been waiting for this for so long, but it was always like we’d get to that point and something bad happened. At halftime I told them: ‘Finish this game. We’ve got 30 minutes of football left. We’re going to take a few hits, and they’re going to take few hits. But, at the end of the day, can we withstand it?’”

The verdict, at last, is yes.