Thrilling victory vs. Notre Dame marks 'Texas' U-turn'

AUSTIN, Texas — The young guys started it. Everyone was celebrating, and there was the head coach. And the next thing anyone knew, Charlie Strong was riding a wave of his players.

“I was trying to get away from them,” he said later, but unconvincingly, because in the immediate aftermath of Texas 50, Notre Dame 47 in double overtime, Strong celebrated right along with the rest of them.

Moments later, this included a hug from the team’s honorary captain, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right before Strong finally exited the field.

They’ve been hungry for this,” said the man in the wheelchair near the south end zone — and it was unclear whether Abbott meant the Longhorns or their fans. Let’s go with both and agree with this, too, from the governor:

“It feels like a championship.”

It was the season opener, of course. But it was a huge win, the most significant of Strong’s short tenure. And for several reasons, it felt like a potential inflection point in the program’s trajectory.

Texas finally found a quarterback. Shane Buechele, a precocious true freshman, looked like an emerging star. And the Longhorns found a role for their old quarterback. Tyrone Swoopes, who scored the winning touchdown with a 6-yard run, was the night’s hero.

For one night at least, Texas football was back.

“We needed this to get this program back in the spotlight,” Strong said. “This was a big win to get the program headed back.”

There are reasons for caution. Strong has crowd-surfed before. He thought after beating Oklahoma last year that Texas might have turned the corner. Instead the Longhorns finished 5-7, leading to a very long offseason, yet another offensive makeover and continuing questions, after only two seasons, about the coach’s job security.

But this feels different. If they celebrated Sunday night like a championship, the actual performance felt more like a potential beginning.

“I feel like this win is the beginning of Texas’ U-turn as a program,” sophomore receiver John Burt said. “Not only did we get this win, we have something to build off of, and we have more confidence as a program that hey, we can go out there and compete with these Top 10-type programs every week.”

The standard, of course, is to be a Top 10-type program. In going 11-14 in Strong’s first two seasons, there were few outward signs the Longhorns would get there. Until Sunday. Suddenly, there’s plenty to like.

Texas has a small group of seniors — importantly, according to Strong, they’ve bought in and become leaders — along with a large nucleus of talented younger players, the fruit of a couple of nice recruiting classes (Texas played eight true freshman Sunday). And if none of the Longhorns have experienced Texas as an elite program, many on the current squad also haven’t experienced too much of being beaten down over the last few years. Strong said he saw confidence building during the offseason.

He also saw something more tangible.

How long has it been since Texas had a quarterback? You have to go back to the 2009 season, when Colt McCoy led the Longhorns into the BCS national championship game. Then he suffered that shoulder stinger — and when Texas spent the next six seasons wandering in the college football wilderness, mediocre quarterback play was no small reason why.

After last season, Strong hired an offensive coordinator, Sterlin Gilbert, to install Baylor’s version of the spread offense. It’s the latest of several offensive makeovers over the last few years. Some attempts, both with Strong’s staff and Mack Brown’s before that, seemed halfhearted. None worked real well, and quarterback mediocrity might have been the biggest issue.

It has been an enduring mystery: In a state where schoolboys run the spread from the time they can first grip the football, how did Texas manage to avoid finding a credible passer? But then Buechele, the son of former big league third baseman Steve Buechele (now the Texas Rangers’ bench coach), enrolled last January. To hear teammates and coaches tell it, he brought an air of quiet confidence. And after Buechele excelled in spring practice, Strong was pretty sure he had something.

“Sometimes there’s a player that comes through that’s a special player,” the coach said. “And he’s one of those players.”

We’ll see. Freshman quarterbacks can look great one day and awful the next, and most spend a lot of time somewhere between. But Buechele looked Sunday like a perfect fit for the new system, throwing for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw a very costly interception that helped Notre Dame rally from a 17-point deficit. But possibly his biggest mistake was getting a little too involved in the postgame celebration.

“My dad always told me not to get into the middle of a dog pile,” he said, “but I couldn’t help myself.”

But Buechele emerged from the postgame celebration healthy. He’ll learn and grow.

“He’s got a really good chance to be a really good quarterback,” Gilbert said.

Which means Texas has a chance, finally, to return to being a really good program.

Strong did not announce a starter before the game. When Buechele trotted onto the field for Texas’ first possession, an audible ripple rolled through the school-record crowd of 102,315. And then the freshman started throwing perfect rainbows.“You just knew that he could handle it, like this stage wouldn’t be too big,” Strong said.

But to say anyone knew Texas could handle it? The Longhorns built a 17-point lead, then lost it. And then when they retook the lead late, Notre Dame tied it by returning a blocked extra point for two points. If it had happened a year ago, well — uh oh, here we go. Not Sunday.

“This team is just different,” Swoopes said. “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just different.”

Texas’ defense stuffed Notre Dame, forcing a punt. And while the eyes of Texas and everyone else focus on the quarterbacks, a nod to Strong’s trademark. The Longhorns’ defense made a nice first impression: They’re athletic and swarming, another reason to be bullish on Texas’ chances of building off Sunday.

Credit Swoopes for handling disappointment after losing the quarterback competition.“He did a wonderful job of everything he did tonight,” the senior quarterback said of the freshman.

But credit Texas’ coaching staff for maintaining the senior’s role in the “18-Wheeler” run package, which fits his skills and was integral in the win. Functioning as a 6-4, 249-pound running back, Swoopes pounded away at Notre Dame, a completely different offense than when Buechele was in the game, a very formidable change of pace.

In that second overtime, Swoopes barreled over Irish defenders for the winning touchdown, touching off that wild celebration. The young guys picked up the head coach for that crowd-surfing celebration, but several veterans joined in. For a moment, senior offensive lineman Kent Perkins was concerned.

 

“We almost dropped him,” he said. “It would have been funny.”

Instead, it was just pure fun. And now, after a signature moment, the challenge for Texas is simple, but not easy: Don’t drop this opportunity.

“I know one game does not make a season,” Strong warned, several times.

But could it make a program?


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