When Texas Longhorns redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard blasted through the California Golden Bears defense to pull the Horns to within 45-44 after a wild comeback, Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium was in a frenzy.
#Texas QB Jerrod Heard with the incredible scramble, but then... pic.twitter.com/JsST5vCrDn— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) September 20, 2015
Seconds later, it was heartbreak and shocked silence after senior place kicker Nick Rose pushed the extra-point attempt wide right to send the Horns to 1-2.
As much as it hurts, the moment was never too big for Heard, who fumbled and threw a crucial interception at the end of the first half, but otherwise set a school record with 527 yards of total offense and cemented his position as the starter, gaining significantly more yards in one game than the 396 yards put up by former starter Tyrone Swoopes in his last games. Cool under pressure, Heard's legs and precision passing were a huge positive for a team that never gave up despite struggling mightily during the third quarter.
There's hope now after years in the quarterback wilderness and there's no way to quantify that. There's some fight in this team, even though it's far from perfect. After the game, head coach Charlie Strong said the hoped the team turned the corner during its comeback, a belief that will be tested with a difficult start to the conference season loooming.
On the day, Heard finished 20-of-31 passing for 364 yards and added 24 carries for 163 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, including his incredible 45-yard scramble on 3rd and 4 with the game on the line. His legs gave the Cal defense fits and his passing was accurate, his pocket presence poised. There's no question that he's brought some serious juice to the Texas program.
The Horns closed the 45-24 deficit to 45-38 with several minutes remaining after a touchdown scramble by Heard on 3rd and goal from the 13-yard line and a 27-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back D'Onta Foreman, but were unable to recover the ensuing onside kick and only had one timeout remaining following a failed challenge on the previous drive.
Still, the Texas defense stiffened and ultimately benefited from a dropped pass on third down to give the offense another chance.
Unfortunately, a poor stretch from the end of the second quarter into the third quarter created that serious deficit. Just how good is the Cal staff at making third-quarter adjustments? The Golden Bears have outscored opponents 49-0 in that frame this season and ripped off 31 straight points on the Longhorns spanning the critical stretch from the end of the first half through the decisive third quarter.
A big forced fumble by senior defensive end Shiro Davis helped the Horns take a 24-14 lead with only seconds remaining in the first half.
Texas took advantage on the next play when Gray went six yards for a big touchdown to seemingly provide even more momentum for the Longhorns heading into halftime.
But then things started to fall apart. The run defense started to give way in allowing a 49-yard run by Khalfani Mohammed that flipped the field and Cal was able to respond with a touchdown after a four-play, 75-yard drive that took only 40 seconds off the field.
The Texas offense remained aggressive in trying to score before halftime, but Heard made his first big mistake in throwing an interception and Cal was able to tie the game at 24 with a late field goal.
The onslaught continued in the second half when Heard turned the ball over again, this time on a fumble in the pocket after he pulled the ball down on a run-pass option. Cal capitalized by converting a 4th and goal from inside the one-yard line and then scored two more touchdowns on consecutive possessions thanks to star junior quarterback Jared Goff continuing to place the ball in perfect spots for his tall receivers and a 78-yard touchdown run by Muhammad that effectively put the game out of reach.
Or so it seemed at the time.
In all, the defense struggled mightily once again to defend the run, allowing 280 rushing yards on 6.8 yards per attempt and even let Goff scramble to several important first downs, even though he's not known as a runner and entered the game with only a handful of runs over 10 yards.
And the third-down defense was not much better, though it was improved from recent games. Cal converted 5-of-13 attempts and picked up first downs on both fourth-down attempts.
In the hopeful first half, it was Heard providing the spark for Texas, looking accurate once again on his downfield passes and creating plays with his feet in the running game, scoring his first touchdown on the ground and changing field position with an explosive run to get Texas out of the shadow of its end zone.
A long pass to freshman wide receiver John Burt took the Horns down in the red zone to finish the play with a well-blocked touchdown run by senior running back Johnathan Gray to take a 17-14 late in the second quarter. It capped a 95-yard drive.
Heard finished the half 11-of-15 for 222 yards passing and seven carries for 42 yards and a touchdown. Overall, the Horns put up 317 total yards in the first half against a Cal defense that struggled mightily in pass defense, often letting Texas players run free down the sidelines.
There were some struggles defensively, as the Longhorns defensive backs struggled to maintain contact with Golden Bears receivers and both starting safeties had to leave the game -- junior Dylan Haines got ejected for a targeting penalty and sophomore Jason Hall left the game with an injured shoulder.
However, junior Kevin Vaccaro stepped up in place of Haines, forcing a fumble near the Texas goal line that sophomore cornerback Antwuan Davis recovered to keep Cal off the board.
Kevin Vaccaro making his older brother proud with game-changing hit, forced fumble. #hookem pic.twitter.com/1tCMbBECYA— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) September 20, 2015
Another Golden Bears drive ended when a penalty on 4th and 1 forced a field-goal attempt that went wide right.
Now the team will have a chance to determine whether the loss was a crushing defeat that lingers for weeks or whether it provides hope for the future because of the fight this team showed.
With Heard taking ownership of the quarterback position and the team, the guess here is that the answer will be the latter. As brutal as it was, Heard shined brightly when it mattered. It probably won't be the last time.