When the Texas Longhorns travel to Los Angeles to face off against the No. 4-ranked USC Trojans on Saturday, Tom Herman will put his 6-0 record as a head coach versus ranked teams on the line, while attempting to reverse a streak of road failures for the ‘Horns.
Herman’s prowess against top-25 opponents is bordering on the mythical at this point, but the 2-8 record for Texas in the last 10 true road games illustrates just how much he’ll have to overcome.
In Charlie Strong’s final season as the head coach, the Longhorns were abysmal on the road, pulling off a single victory against the Red Raiders that came down to the last play and suffering embarrassing loses to a Cal team that finished 5-7 and, well, Kansas.
Likewise, the 2015 season also featured a lone road win that came in the season finale against Baylor. The other contests? A blowout at Notre Dame, a blowout at TCU, the shutout at Iowa State, an 18-point loss at West Virginia, and a close loss at Texas Tech.
So this is a team that clearly becomes overwhelmed at times in hostile stadiums, and there’s no question that the Coliseum will be exactly that on Saturday evening with over 90,000 screaming fans.
Of course, the hope is that the flashes that Texas showed against San Jose State could be evidence that Herman found some magic fairy dust and that it’s starting to take effect on his team.
The ‘Horns are 15.5-point underdogs against the Trojans, but Herman had plenty of success in that role — over an 11-game stretch as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State and head coach at Houston, his team won all 11 games up to the resounding win against Louisville last season.
And, actually, the reasons for that success are more substantial than magic fairy dust.
During that 38-10 destruction of the Cardinals and Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Cougars sacked the elusive quarterback 11 times, forced three fumbles, and were the more disciplined team in committing only one penalty compared to 15 for Louisville.
Suffice it to say that the pressure packages used by defensive coordinator Todd Orlando were effective in that game. And it certainly helped to have standouts like star defensive tackle Ed Oliver and an NFL-quality pass rusher like Tyus Bowser at the B-backer position.
Unfortunately, the ‘Horns don’t have that type of proven talent to deploy at either position, but there are two intangible reasons and one tangible reason why Houston was able to beat three top-10 teams under Herman.
“Believed in the fact that we were going to be the best trained team on the field that Saturday and a team that played with the greatest purpose, which was the true, unabashed love for the guy next to you and your coaches. That was real,” Herman said on Monday.
Perhaps more importantly, the Cougars were the more physical team. Not only that, but the most physical team that Oklahoma had ever played against when Houston beat the Sooners to open the 2016 season.
“I had an assistant from Oklahoma call me the day after we beat Oklahoma and said I've been here 17 years, and that is the hardest hitting team we've played,” Herman said. “As a head coach, that's -- regardless of the score, if you can have an opponent, win, lose or draw, call you the next day and tell you that, then I think you're on to something pretty good.”
Considering that Herman won those six contests by an average of 14 points, there’s no question he was on to something pretty good.
Now it’s time to translate that to Texas.