STILLWATER — After a 23-0 loss in Manhattan, Kansas three weeks ago, the Longhorns were left for dead.
Call it a resurrection because Texas is going bowling.
When few believed in this team, at least they did and that was enough to carry this squad to a 3-game winning streak and winners of four out of five. It was a team win in more ways than one as Texas thumped Oklahoma State, 28-7, here at Boone Pickens Stadium on Saturday night in Stillwater.
“It was a great team win. I challenged our players early in the week and said we have two games left and we need to get to a bowl game. We owe it to ourselves and to our seniors for the leadership that they’ve provided the last few weeks. We’ve come a long ways and just to get bowl eligible speaks volumes of the hard work that they’ve put in,” said Texas coach Charlie Strong.
The win moves Texas to 6-5, 5-3 in the Big 12 Conference and into bowl eligibility in Charlie Strong’s first year in Austin. To hear Strong talk about it, you’d think he was a proud father. In some respects, he is.
“In the locker room, they’re just so happy,” said Strong. “I said to the seniors I’m just so happy for them to get to a bowl game because a few weeks ago nobody thought we would be here; everybody just wrote us off. And I tell them all the time don’t let outside forces control this football team.”
On offense, a group that has seen more turnover than a car dealership at offensive line is starting to gel at just the right time. They are creating running lanes, and kept Swoopes clean for most of the evening.
Junior RB Johnathan Gray continues to progress, netting 122 total yards – 87 on the ground, 35 through the air. Swoopes’ favorite target, senior WR John Harris is playing at a level even he didn’t think was possible. For a guy that had 190 yards in his first three seasons total, is now only 36 yards away from becoming the 6th UT WR to go for 1000 yards in a season in program history.
And then there’s Swoopes. The sophomore signal-caller put together his best performance of his young career. He finished 24-of-33, for 305 yards, two TDs, and no INTs. Not a bad stat line to lead your squad to bowl eligibility. Nothing more evident than two specific passes to Armanti Foreman in the 2nd half. The 19-yard toss on a corner route was a thing of beauty, only topped by his 45-scoring strike to Foreman late in the 4th to clinch it for UT. Texas QB/OC said the freshman Foreman has “Daje-type speed” and “he’ll put the fear of God in you.”
Not bad for a guy that was sitting the bench until Jaxon Shipley re-aggravated his hamstring colliding into a wall in the back end zone at Boone Pickens Stadium in the 2nd quarter. Strong said Shipley should be fine.
“We had good rhythm tonight,” said Watson. “We had a good plan. Tyrone (Swoopes) played exceptional tonight. He did a lot of good things and handled a lot of things well at the line of scrimmage. He had good protection and made several good throws throughout the evening. Our receivers took the challenge of getting space and winning man coverage. The offensive line kept tight and relatively clean. Being able to run the ball always helps an offense because you can play both sides of the street. You can keep a balance in the offense.”
But the story of the game was the Texas defense. For the second consecutive week, they were the real MVP.
“To come on the road and go get the victory we got here today was really special,” Strong said. “I told the guys in the locker room there was so much individual effort, but it was a team effort. To just watch how hard they played, and defensively they had a shutout going for a long time.”
The defense was exceptional in the 1st half. While Texas had 253 total yards, OSU had 51, including -10 on the ground.
The mentality is different, especially on the defensive side. Strong makes sure of it. Instead of giving an inspirational pep talk, Strong told the players to take off the extra clothing for the cold, blustery 30 degree night in Stillwater.
“They tried to tell me it was cold,” Strong smiled. “I told them it wasn’t.”
The interior line was incredible. From Hassan Ridgeway, who grabbed his team-leading 6th sack of the season, to Malcom Brown, who had a game-high two sacks, to Poona Ford, who is playing as if the light is starting to come on, the defensive tackles were simply too strong for overmatched OSU offensive line.
“We knew we could play this way, said Malcom Brown. “We like to compete against each other, to see who can get to the quarterback first. We already were doing it in practice, we just needed to translate it into the game. We still want to win out. The season isn’t over because we beat Oklahoma State (5-5, 3-4). We want to beat TCU too.”
When UT is running the 3-3-5, it allows Texas DC Vance Bedford to rush three (Brown, Reed, Ridgeway), and drop eight. That’s insanely effective and downright unfair.
And the secondary has established reputation for big hits. When Mykkele Thompson leads you r team in tackles, change is apparent. Three of the top four tacklers were from the defensive backfield. And it means something to this group.
“It means a lot,” said Quandre Diggs. “Getting through another month with my teammates is the most important thing and getting the opportunity to play with these guys again. It’ll be fun. We did what we wanted to do tonight, and we played the way we wanted to. It feels good to be bowl eligible. We’ve come a long way on both sides of the ball and on special teams. I think guys took it up to themselves to go out and play the game the right way. It hurts losing, but it feels good winning the game.”
In fact, Texas shutout the Cowboys in the 1st half of a home game for the first time since 2005.
For Oklahoma State, the fireworks came at halftime (actualy pyrotechnics) and its best offense came from a student hitting a 24-yard field goal between the 3rd and 4th quarter. At least he won $10,000 from Dr. Pepper. That’s more than you can say for the Cowboys faithful.
As for Swoopes, he’s not trying to quell the naysayers. He’s just getting better and gaining confidence.
“We played well,” said Swoopes. “Our backs played well, and our offensive line blocked well. Our receivers caught balls so it was a great team performance.”
Watson brought Swoopes in last Sunday for a 1-on-1 video session. It was a teaching moment as Watson wanted to critique Swoopes privately, teacher to student. And it paid big dividends.
“It was a good start,” Watson explained. “There’s no doubt about it. Starts are always big. We challenged our guys this week to do just this. We’ve got to start fast when we come into an opponent’s home. We’ve got to be efficient in the way that we manage ourselves on the field because our defense has played lights out all year. We’re growing to become like them. We wanted to leave no doubt what we were here to get done.”
UT got on the board on its opening drive when Swoopes hit Harris with a 19-yard TD on a corner route to the back of the endzone. It capped a 10-play, 57-yard drive. Only a misplayed handle by the holder prevented the perfect drive as UT led, 6-0.
The next Texas drive would be a display of balance and precision. A Harris grab for nine, Daje for 15 more, then Gray scoots for eight. But Gray wasn’t finished. His 6-yard TD plunge gave Texas the 13-0 mark and showed how hard Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline have been working in their first season in Austin.
Special teams had its “wow” moments and it’s not-so-good-times. Rose would connect on two field goals in the 2nd quarter giving the Longhorns the 19-0 advantage heading into the intermission. Rose wasn’t finished as he connected on a 44-yard kick midway through the 3rd, punctuating a 8-play, 53-yard drive. He also missed a chip shot and extra point. Something about that Oklahoma wind. But I digress.
OSU got on the board during the 4th quarter when RB James Washington takes a Daxx Garman screen pass eight yards to the house. It prevented a home shutout for OSU.
“After I thought about it for a second, I knew I really don’t need this,” Harris said after wearing extra clothing for warmth. “He challenges us as men and he challenges us as a team. It’s fun to have a coach like that.”
The Thanksgiving tilt with the No. 4 TCU Horned Frogs at DKR is setting up to be a classic.
“It was good to get qualified,” said Swoopes. “We still have one more game so it doesn’t mean we can’t go out there and win that one, too.”
His go-to receiver passed along those same sentiments.
“We can still win out and go to a better bowl,” said Harris, with a grin as big as a Sunday preacher in service.
Texas has risen.