And so the mysteries continue, and we’re not just talking about Sterlin Gilbert’s play-calling.
Texas overcame on Saturday.
A strong Baylor team. Its own mistakes. Negativity swirling around Charlie Strong and his future.
For the second time this season, resilient Texas knocked off a Top 10 team at home, this time eighth-ranked Baylor, to put the first dent in the unbeaten Bears’ season. That’s pretty impressive, no matter how bad Notre Dame has turned out.
And for the first time in a long time, the Longhorns came out on the right side of the scoreboard even if they did play a far from perfect game. Strong clearly prefers this over the alternative.
“It’s just amazing what we’ve been battling here and what we’ve been able to overcome,” Strong said. “With everything being so negative. The team continues to grow every week. You could just tell the grit within this team. There’s no quit.”
There wasn’t on Saturday even after Baylor scored four times in five possessions, starting at the end of the second quarter.
A defensive stop paced by safety P.J. Locke III to cap a terrific game personally and a late offensive surge for 10 points on Texas’ last two drives keyed a madcap, 35-34 Longhorns win before an announced crowd of 97,822 at Royal-Memorial Stadium.
That said, Gilbert’s game against Baylor — like seemingly every play Saturday — is under review.
OK, that’s long enough.
Texas won in spite of the first-year offensive coordinator’s worst game of the season. Almost as bad as the Big 12 officiating crew, who I think went to the booth to make sure it was Saturday.
The Longhorns won this one to even their record at 4-4 with a spectacular performance from D’Onta Foreman, who ran for 250 yards on 32 carries but mysteriously and inexplicably was used as a decoy on some of the most important plays of the day. They won with a play-making defense that bent like crazy, looked broken more often than not, yet made sensational plays from guys like Locke when they counted the most. They won with a clutch 39-yard field goal from Trent Domingue, who missed a field goal almost from the same distance in last week’s loss at Kansas State.
And in so doing, they won a much-needed reprieve for their head coach, who needs every win he can get to better a 15-18 mark and secure his future in Austin.
“I know this, I have a really good team. A special team,” Strong said. “It’s not a program in disarray, not a program that’s going backwards. It’s going to be special one of these days as we watch this team take off.”
Maybe this is the game that jump-starts Strong’s program, or it could be simply an anomaly in a diet of close, heart-breaking losses. That remains under review, much like Gilbert’s performance for oddly sticking with the 18-Wheeler package of Tyrone Swoopes even though that failed miserably on a 2-point conversion try — and on a dive play on a crucial third-and-5 — and could have cost Texas the game.
Baylor’s Kendal Briles, for his part, wasn’t any better.
The Bears butchered their own play-calling, throwing at the end when running the ball would have spent Texas’ timeouts and kept the clock rolling. They squandered their timeouts. They may have set a world record for illegal substitution penalties.
Baylor fell behind 23-14 in the first half and was so unrecognizably sloppy that Art Briles had to be spinning over in his witness stand. The Bears were not crisp, having gone three-and-out or giving up a Texas safety on four of five first-half possessions before a touchdown in the closing seconds.
The Longhorns defense, pushed around all year by the likes of Cal, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Kansas State, jelled for the first time all season with six sacks and nine tackles for loss. Locke was everywhere, batting away balls and making tackles to give Texas’ defense a spark.
This one looked a lot different than Texas’ recent games and more like its solid performance over lowly Iowa State. Of course, Texas has shown it’s both comfy and confident at home.
For this game, Strong pulled out all the stops.
With literally nothing to lose but his job, the third-year head coach and his offensive coordinator got creative all of a sudden. Maybe a little too creative.
Strong benched a pair of freshman All-Americans in linebacker Malik Jefferson and offensive guard Patrick Vahe, and the latter never got on the field. He signed off on a move of Swoopes, his backup quarterback, to part-time running back to give a breather to Foreman. He went for it on fourth down in Baylor territory.
None of the moves paid off in a big way. Jefferson was benched for just a single series, but played better. Swoopes managed just 7 yards on seven carries. And on a fourth-and-7 at the Baylor 30 in the second quarter, Shane Buechele was flushed out of the pocket and threw an interception.
Still, Strong was trying something, anything to break out of an embarrassing losing skid that had reached four defeats in five games after an optimistic 2-0 start. But the Foreman brothers kept Texas in position for the win as D’Onta ran all over Baylor and Armanti had a touchdown and a key pass to set up the winning field goal.
“I guess when you’re twins, you play off each other,” Strong said.
Will the good fortune last? Can Strong sustain some momentum from a 4-0 home record when it travels to Lubbock?
Texas played well on both sides of the ball for most of the opening half, but that’s been its résumé at DKR. Play every game at home, and Strong’s Longhorns might be 33-0. Well, maybe .500, since he’s now a respectable 10-7 at home.
But that beats the alternative.