Under the bright lights of Notre Dame Stadium, a young Texas Longhorns team featuring three freshman starters withered and folded to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last September, trailing 14-0 after the first quarter and losing 38-3 in a decimating blowout that resulted in immediate changes at quarterback and offensive coordinator.
Head coach Charlie Strong knew that he had made a mistake with his inexperienced team in more ways than simply allowing ineffective play caller Shawn Watson to attempt the installation of an high-tempo offense with which he wasn’t particularly familiar.
No, Strong had done something else — he’d unintentionally made the moment into something bigger than his team could handle.
Throughout fall camp, in an effort to help the Longhorns understand the incredible Fighting Irish tradition that had produced 882 wins and would factor into another, Strong had shown his team clips of big Notre Dame games every day, talked about the Heisman winners, the national championships.
“It gave them a feeling, so they don’t walk in there for the first time with their eyes big because it’ll be the first time walking in there,” Strong said at the end of last August. “So they have seen the stadium, they have seen us walking down the tunnel.”
But because of a pep rally held on the field the day prior to the game, Texas wasn’t able to get on the field until game day. Then the preparation the week before wasn’t enough, as Strong’s plan failed. The Longhorns head coach admitted as much on Wednesday during a rare offseason press conference.
“I really didn't think I did a good job last year with that game because I made too much about it early, but now we're just going to approach it like any other game,” Strong said. “They're going to hear so much about it, not much needs to be said.”
Indeed, with the move of the game from Saturday to Sunday, when it will occupy a primetime slot with no other contests competing for the attention of the college football world, all eyes will be on Austin, Texas and the Longhorns for a critical game that will begin to set the narrative for Strong’s defining third season.
Right now, Strong is embracing the opportunity to be in a spotlight as bright as those lights in South Bend.
“It's really great, we're the only game on that Sunday, and now everyone across the country is going to have the chance to watch you play,” he said. “Why else would you want it any other way? It's The University of Texas, and that's how it should be. Now we have a chance early to stamp our mark and see where we are. “
The national attention will increase the stakes as Texas seeks another big victory to complement 2015 wins over Baylor and Oklahoma — if the Longhorns get blown out again, the questions about Strong’s job security will once again take center stage after quieting during the incredible 2016 recruiting run that may not be finished, even with the Wednesday commitment of wide receiver Devin Duvernay.
This time, Strong needs to get the preparation right and the young team needs to show increased maturity and toughness after last year’s blowout.
“It's big,” he said. “I know last year we didn't go out and play well at all. We're at home. It's the opener for us. We need it within our program to play well. I expect us to go play well.”