The ‘Horns, 4-5 overall and 3-3 in the Big 12, are trying to secure their 16th bowl in the last 18 seasons, and need victories in two of their final three games against No. 24 West Virginia, Oklahoma State and No. 6 TCU to reach the .500 eligibility mark. The OSU game, on the road, is sandwiched between a pair of home contests that at least give UT a chance to ride its defense in an effort to avoid a losing record in a head coach’s initial season for just the second time in program history, a span of 29 coaches over 121 years.
“You want to go to that extra game, just for your seniors mainly,” Strong said. “You always talk about the extra practice, but let’s be honest. A lot of those young kids are getting that practice now on scout team.”
Strong amassed a 37-15 mark in four seasons at Louisville, including a split of games against West Virginia in 2010 and ’11. His defensive mindset, and disciplinary focus, made him a prime fit at Texas, especially with a resume that included stints at Florida, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Notre Dame and South Carolina, among others. Strong, 54, faced some initial adjustment with his current roster, and had already dismissed nine players from the team by midseason. But those who remain seem to have fully integrated, and the Longhorns are now beginning to build cohesion.
After being soundly defeated by BYU and Baylor, along with a close losses to UCLA and Oklahoma, UT was just 2-4 and seemed buried in the race for the middle of the Big 12 pack, as well as any postseason hopes. But wins in two of the last three games, albeit against Iowa State and Texas Tech, have breathed some life back into Texas.
“What we wanted to do was just to go out and be consistent,” Strong said of UT’s 34-13 win last Saturday at Texas Tech. “We started off slow on offense, but we were able to put it together and then defensively, we know that anytime you go on the road, you have to take the crowd out of it by playing really good defense.
“We gave up one score on defense, and could have been better on third down, but overall I am pleased with how hard our players played. We just have to be more consistent in how we played. We’ve been able to hold in to some games, but we haven’t finished those games. That’s critical when you play defense. You have to finish and not give up scores late in the game. We have a good foe this week so we will have to see if we can slow them down and stop them.”
Texas is allowing a reasonable 223.1 points per game average, good for 45th in the nation. The Longhorns, however, are scoring just 22.2 per game (105th) and rank 81st (212.6) and 84th (149.1) in passing and rushing yards, respectively. UT has also been gashed on the ground by and squad with the semblance of a running game, and three teams have gone over the 247-yard plus mark.
“Up tempo offenses, they score a lot of points and you have to be ready to play good defense,” Strong said. “The thing about it is they are on the ball quickly and they can move the ball. They have enough weapons and you look at what weapons are on that offensive side of the ball with wide receivers that can get on top of you and stretch the defense and the quarterbacks who can make the throws, so it’s a really, really unbelievable conference. I had a chance when I was working at other places to watch this conference, so there haven’t been any surprises. It’s really what I thought it would be.”
West Virginia, after a disappointing last-second loss to TCU that essentially ended the hopes of a Big 12 title, has struggled throwing the ball over the last two weeks in a split with the Horned Frogs and Oklahoma State. The Mountaineers (6-3, 4-2) are scoring 36 points per game, good for 23rd nationally, and have made exceptional defensive strides, especially against spread offenses. Texas’ ground-based attack, with a quarterback who can scramble in Tyrone Swoopes, should provide a reasonable test for a team looking to pick itself up off the psychological canvas.
There’s a very real concern that this season’s Texas is last year’s Kansas, a game that WVU somehow lost right after it was defeated by UT. The similarities are almost disconcerting: West Virginia lost at home when it couldn’t pick up a key first down late on the ground before allowing a foe to drive for a score, in this case to tie and force overtime, where the Longhorns prevailed 47-40 with a very winnable road game looming. WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen insisted the Mountaineers were ready to move on, but that remains very much to be decided this weekend.
“He hasn’t changed much,” Strong said of his counterpart. “When you have a system, which Dana does, then he tweaks it and makes it better. That’s what happens every year is it gets better and better because he is able to add to it. Any time you have a system, you have a chance to go be successful. He had Geno (Smith) and now he has (Clint) Trickett and those receivers that get down the field and stretch you vertically. He doesn’t have to do much. The players change, but the system stays the same.
“Kevin’s an outstanding wide receiver, and it’s really tough,” Strong said of White. “TCU did a great job of handling him. They have an outstanding corner themselves, and they were able to play some man and double and get him out of the game. (WVU has) scored a lot of points, so it’s not only Kevin. They have a lot of weapons on offense. You look at them on offense, and they have Kevin White and (Mario) Alford, two unbelievable receivers. But also, they have a running game with two backs who have rushed for over 500 yards. Their quarterback Trickett, he has done a great job where he doesn’t get them beat. He does a great job of managing the offense and his completion percentage is really good. They play great defense and get off the field on third down. That’s what you always talk about on defense is third downs, and they get off the field.”
Texas has struggled with third downs offensively, converting 33 percent behind sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes. Swoopes (6-4, 243 lbs.), thrust into the starting role when starter David Ash was forced to cease play because of multiple concussions, has hit on 156 of 263 passes for 1,723 yards and nine scores against five interceptions. The well-built right-hander, more of an extend-the-play scrambler than a true runner, ranks third on the team in rushing yards with 237 on 78 carries.
“It’s all about consistency with him,” Strong said. “He didn’t play well against Kansas State, and then bounced back against Texas Tech and played very well.”
Backs Malcolm Brown and Jonathan Gray remain the solid one-two punch they were last season. Brown (5-11, 222 lbs.) has 533 yards and a team-best six touchdowns with a 4.1-yard average. Gray (5-11, 215 lbs.), a bit quicker with less power, is at 445 yards and three scores, with a 4.3 average. Jaxon Shipley (6-0, 190 lbs.) leads the receivers in catches with 51, but has gained just 500 yards and scored once. John Harris (6-2, 218 lbs.) has 48 receptions for 814 yards (17 ypc) with six scores. He averages 90 receiving yards per game.
“I am pleased,” Strong said. “Now we are 4-5 and we played a lot better (against Texas Tech) than we have this season. I haven’t done a great job of coaching, and we haven’t done a great job of playing. But we are coming into a stretch now where we have West Virginia coming in at home and we need to play well at home. We still have some games left out there to play, and we know we can get better and play much better.”