Last season, head coach Charlie Strong and Texas stunned Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry and saved his job.
If he wants to stay in Austin, he’ll have to repeat the feat this weekend.
It’s the middle of the third season of the Strong era, and the roller coaster that has featured offensive ineptitude and a revolving door of quarterbacks in 2014 and 2015, then sudden offensive promise with true freshman quarterback Shane Buechele at the helm in 2016 is about to go flying off the tracks.
Because Strong—a defensive coach by trade—has neglected his side of the ball while fixing the Longhorns’ offensive issues that plagued them during his previous two seasons.
Texas’ defensive unit ranks 116th in the country in scoring defense (38.3 points per game), has given up 47 or more points in three of four contests in 2016 and 38 or more in five of the last seven games overall.
Those struggles forced Strong to make drastic changes this week, when he demoted defensive coordinator Vance Bedford to secondary coach and took over the play-calling responsibilities himself in what clearly is a desperation move—even though he’ll never admit it.
Strong commented on the move, per Texas’ official site:
I don’t think it’s desperate or desperate measures. Talking with the defense and defensive staff, they understand. They understand what we need to get done. It’s not this big desperation, all of the sudden, ‘Hey, coach, you’ve got to.’ I know this. That, ‘Hey, I’ve done it before and I can see where I can help us.’ And sometimes you feel like you need new energy and eyes, and hoping this will be a good move for that, which it will be.
But when you connect that dot to the one Mike Finger of the San Antonio-Express News and Houston Chronicle provided, there’s enough noise in the system in Austin to break a decibel meter:
If you can’t decipher that code, let me do it for you.
It means: “Psst, Tom Herman: Don’t you go falling in love with LSU over the next couple of months. Because we’re coming.”
The current Houston head coach has spent time at Texas, Texas Lutheran, Sam Houston State and Rice during his career. He also led Ohio State to the national title as the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator in 2014, guided Houston to a New Year’s Six bowl berth in 2015 and has combined his lethal offense with the nation’s sixth-best defense in 2016 (250 yards per game).
He’s the elixir for what ails Texas, and LSU already has a jump-start on courting the hottest coaching commodity in America (through his agent, of course) after it fired former head coach Les Miles following a 2-2 start.
The problem at Texas begins and ends with Strong, who has not gained any traction save for the week after beating what we now know is a mediocre Notre Dame team in the Longhorns’ first game this year.
“When you’re the head coach, you have to have your fingerprints in everything—offense, defense and special teams,” said former Miami and North Carolina head coach Butch Davis, who’s now an analyst for SiriusXM and ESPN. “Your forte might be offense or defense, but if you let one side of the ball go completely untouched with every little emphasis on it, you’re going to have problems.”
Strong being pulled in the direction of fixing his offense—which he did by hiring offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and running more of a power attack out of the spread with tempo—put too much on Bedford‘s shoulders.
“Charlie trusted Vance, who’s a close friend,” Davis said. “He probably gave him too much leeway and said, ‘OK, Vance can spin this ball and I’ll try to get the offense fixed. I’ll get quarterback Shane Buechele ready and get the running game going.'”
As a result, you’ve seen confusion with Football 101, including confusion on where to line up and with missed tackles.
“What we are doing is we are freezing and all of a sudden the guy freezes us and he takes off and we just can’t get restarted, whereas he’s on the move,” Strong said Monday of his team’s defensive woes, per the school’s official website. “If you’re stationary and a guy is on the move, you have no chance at all to tackle him, zero chance. Every time he’s going to beat you.”
What’s more, Texas’ lack of focus on special teams created a debacle for the ages against Oklahoma State last week, when the Cowboys blocked three extra points.
“To get three extra points blocked in one game, that’s unheard of,” Davis said. “You might get one in a season or two in a decade. But three in one game? I’ve never heard of that.”
Strong wants a different voice for his defense in the hopes that it will spark a change.
If the plan to fix the defense is simply “a different voice” heading into a rivalry game against an Oklahoma team that’s averaging 492.5 yards per game, 6.86 yards per play and 39.5 points per contest, it will be a long afternoon deep in the heart of Texas—one that will define the future of Strong and his program.
“It’s like the kid who’s sticking his finger in the dike, and there’s a leak, and then another leak and another,” Davis said. “Before long, you run out of fingers.”
As Finger noted in the quote from Red McCombs, the possibility of change is already out there among Texas’ power brokers, all of whom will undoubtedly look squarely in Herman’s direction.
The Red River Rivalry has always mattered for bragging rights.
But for the second straight year, it’s personal for Strong. He was carried off the field following last season’s 24-17 win over Oklahoma, which eventually went on to play in a national semifinal against Clemson. That was after a 1-4 start for the Longhorns and enough offensive problems to fill the Cotton Bowl.
The script for this season’s annual showdown with the Sooners is essentially the same, with the plot twist coming on Strong’s side of the ball instead of the other.
A good defensive performance from the Longhorns will hold off the posse for now.
More of the same, and the wheels will start spinning at a high rate toward Herman. Even though Texas would likely have plenty of pull if and when the job opens up, it can’t let LSU get too much of a head start.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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Source: Bleacher Report-CFB News