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Texas QB Jerrod Heard's spark helping Longhorns turn the corner

The devastation of Saturday's loss is helping the Longhorns finally come together as a team.

Cooper Neill/Getty Images

"Coach, I got it now. We need to go win this thing. I'm going to get you a touchdown."

Redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard went and got Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong that touchdown. He surely did.

Resiliency. Belief. Excitement. Hope.

Those things haven't come easily for Strong during his short tenure in Austin -- a 7-9 overall record that includes six loses by 20 or more points is incontrovertible evidence of that.

But after an offseason during which Strong burned about the destruction wrought by Arkansas in the Texas Bowl, he wanted to see some pride back in his program. Based on the results in South Bend, it still wasn't there yet.

Then came the spark in the form of redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard, the tinder that caught aflame and started a roaring conflagration.

"Just watching him, he's exciting, and he has brought the excitement into the team," Strong said. "You watch our whole sideline now when our offense takes the field, our guys are all just locked in. When we went back out there to go and tie the game, they just knew we were going to go out and go tie that game."

There's the belief.

Before the final drive, there was Heard pumping up the crowd and pumping up his teammates. Telling his head coach that he was going to go make the necessary plays.

So he did, just as every player and every coach and every Texas fan in the stadium or at home or at a bar with their friends knew that Heard could. Even such a short time into Heard's career, he'd made it so apparent so quickly that he had the necessary tools to do exactly what he believed he could do, everyone else believed with him.

For anyone who ever watched an unleashed Vince Young, that similar confidence from Heard was easy to recognize. The results are even easier to see.

The ending took a sharp turn out of Heard's control with senior kicker Nick Rose's missed extra point, but that devastating ending also produced the potential for an even more profound impact than whatever would have happened in overtime or otherwise dictated in the last seconds of regulation by star Cal quarterback Jared Goff.

There was hurt. And the Longhorns felt it.

It might seem like a small thing or an obvious thing, but for last year's team it was not a reality and it truly vexed Strong, who thought that he would be able to come in and flip a switch to get the Texas program purring again. Quandre Diggs was decidedly vexed as well about that reality, too -- he repeatedly talked about having players in the locker room he didn't think deserved to be there.

All those blowout losses, none of that burn. For guys like Strong and Diggs, that's pretty much incomprehensible to their makeup. Yet, so it was.

But on Saturday night, the players felt it. Finally. The burn.

"For the first time I saw a team that really actually took a loss the way they should take it," Strong said. "It hurt a lot of the players."

They were no longer the victims, agent-less or selfish individuals unable to coalesce into a functional, organic whole. In the critical moments on Saturday, the team rallied together.

For the first time, they truly saw their potential when faced with adversity. Cause for confidence moving forward.

The unlikely miss by Rose further galvanized the understanding of what each individual could have done better to avoid that outcome.

"I told our team, 'We can't put it on his shoulders,'" Strong said. "Shouldn't have gotten to that point. If we took care of our business on offense and defense, that never would have happened."

Indeed, that was the message that new play caller Jay Norvell delivered to Rose by inviting him into the offensive meeting room to see how many mistakes that unit made.

Too often last year, the breakdowns were so frequent and pervasive that it was easy for individual players not to take ownership of mistakes. That's the definition of a losing culture. When that spark happens, though, then those mistakes become all the more apparent and so much more closely connected to the final outcome.

Then comes the ownership and then comes burn. Perhaps some resiliency even comes out of it.

"It's been a while," said senior running back Johnathan Gray. "Normally we'd be down by 21 points, it would get out of hand. This week we were down 21 points, we had fight in us.

"Now guys are like, 'Let's keep this going. We know what we can do, what we're capable of. Let's go out here and fix the minor mistakes and start winning games.'"

Then there's maybe even some pride in there, something Strong knew had to come back into the program to turn it around.

"There's a foundation already been laid here, and it's up to us to continue to fight," said Strong. "We have to fight. We can't just give in."

The confidence all stems from the quarterback. Now the defense knows all it has to do is get the stop. Get the ball in his hands. Something electric might well happen.

In Heard We Trust.