Last year, it was ugly. A no-contest. Notre Dame crushed Texas 38-3. The Longhorns managed just 163 yards of offense that night. On Sunday night in Austin, they started a true freshman QB Shane Buechele and rolled up 250 yards by halftime and finished off the Irish in a thrilling 50-47 double-OT win by producing more than three times as many yards as they had last year against No. 10 Notre Dame.
Buechele, the slender kid, was brilliant for much of the night, throwing two TDs on perfect passes and missed a third on another beautiful deep ball that sophomore speedster John Burt dropped, but the Horns were never fazed. (Burt later caught a TD on a similar play.)
At one point in the third quarter the Longhorns were up 31-14, but DeShone Kizer kept the Irish coming back and picked apart a young defense, giving the Irish a 35-31 lead. Texas answered with a D’Onta Foreman TD run. Then, there was another kicking game blunder for UT, a blocked PAT that Irish DB Shaun Crawford returned 98 yards for two points to tie the score.
“I believe in what we’re doing,” Strong said after the game.
Even more importantly, his players believe in it too. That’s apparent. Two of his other big playmakers Sunday night were former UT starting QB Jerrod Heard as a wide receiver and Tyrone Swoopes, his bullish change-of-pace-running QB who closed out the win after trucking some Irish defenders to set up the game-winning play.
“It’s gonna change eventually,” Strong added. “One game does not make a season.”
It doesn’t, but this Texas team has a real passing game with Buechele and his pinpoint accuracy and pocket presence. That’s a big difference. It also has speed at receiver, and a potent new scheme from Baylor protege Sterlin Gilbert, who brought the power running attack/vertical passing game system that was lighting up scoreboards in Waco.
Defensively, the Horns’ best players against ND were all sophomores. DT Chris Nelson had eight tackles and 1.5 TFLs. Speedy linebacker Malik Jefferson, the star of Strong’s 2015 recruiting class, had six tackles and a sack and flew all over the field. Breckyn Hager and Anthony Wheeler combined for 10 more tackles. Rangy freshman DE Naashon Hughes blocked a kicked to go with his four tackles.
Strong’s record moves to just 12-14 in his time at Texas, but it’s obvious he’s turned the corner there. There were flashes last year. He beat two top 12 opponents in OU and Baylor, but the season was plagued by inconsistency. He inherited a mess from Mack Brown with a program that had gotten soft. Truth be told, UT didn’t get that way overnight, and it wasn’t going to fixed overnight either.