Are the Texas Longhorns back?
For most of the last two years, the question was a punch line following the call from Joe Tessitore when the Horns beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in overtime to open the 2016 season.
“Texas is back, folks,” Tessitore intoned as Tyrone Swoopes crossed the goal line for a 50-47 win.
As it turned out, Texas was not back, as the call by Tessitore absolutely failed the test of time. A road loss to Kansas that season entrenched “Texas is back” into the pantheon of national college football jokes. A 7-6 record during head coach Tom Herman’s first season didn’t exactly relegate that joke to the dust bin of history.
And now? As the Longhorns hold a five-game winning streak following big wins over the Trojans, Horned Frogs, Wildcats, and Sooners?
Actually, it’s irrelevant.
In the post-game interview, Herman wanted to tread lightly and ultimately defined the win that way. So did defensive end Breckyn Hager, who wore No. 60 in honor of the late Tommy Nobis and declared himself the arbiter of whether Texas is back before the season.
So what is relevant then? Finishing, the focus of the entire offseason after the Longhorns lost numerous close games in 2017.
What’s relevant is the opinion of the coaches and players in the locker room, according to Herman.
The key to all of it, though, is finishing.
Last Monday, less than 48 hours removed from the first Texas win over Kansas State in Manhattan since 2002, Herman was asked if he would categorize his team as one that knows how to finish.
The question was raised following the team’s fourth consecutive win overall; each of which, to one degree or another, required Texas to close to reach the win column.
“Yeah. Knows how to only requires one time of doing it and then you know. Now, is it a team that can consistently go do that, that still remains to be seen,” Herman responded. “But I think we understand the formula. We have confidence in our ability to do it. But the proof is in the pudding time after time after time.”
Just days removed from those remarks, Texas closed. Again.
This time around, Texas closing came at the expense of the No. 7-ranked Oklahoma Sooners in the Red River Showdown to secure what very well may be the program’s most monumental win since 2009. Capping what was once a commanding 45-24 fourth quarter lead with comfortable final few minutes would have been the preferred outcome, but nevertheless, 5-1 is 5-1.
In what typically proves to be the biggest game on the schedule of the Longhorns and Sooners each season, Texas took the field with 2:38 remaining in a contest deadlocked at 45-45 after the Horns sacrificed 21 fourth-quarter points to the Sooners on a mere 10 plays. Texas not only needed to find a way to put points on the scoreboard; keeping the ball away from an on-fire Oklahoma offense led by Heisman candidate Kyler Murray was equally as essentially.
The Texas response?
A nine-play, 52-yard drive that chewed up all but nine seconds from the fourth quarter clock and ended with the burnt orange section of the stands celebrating a perfect 40-yard field goal from true freshman Cameron Dicker.
“I knew I was going to make it,” Dicker said after the game.
Expect Texas to emphasize controlling a double-digit advantage going forward after struggling to do so for the second time in as many weeks, but again, 5-1 is 5-1, and the Longhorns learning to close is largely whhy Texas is enjoying its best start since 2009.
Last week in a 19-14 win over Kansas State, after allowing the Wildcats to claw back with 14 unanswered second-half points, Texas closed by forcing a Kansas State three-and-out before eating the remainder of the four minutes on the clock with a methodical 10-play, 36-yard drive, converting two third downs along the way.
Prior to that point, Texas opened Big 12 play with a 31-16 win over No. 18 TCU, and yet again, the Horns had to close to increase their win total.
After trailing 17-10 late in the third quarter, Texas forced back-to-back turnovers, capitalizing on each to the tune of 14 points. Far more notably, following a TCU missed field goal, with the Texas lead lingering at one score midway through the fourth quarter, 24-16, the Longhorns chewed nearly six minutes of the clock as part of a 10-play, 66-yard touchdown drive to effectively snap the Horned Frogs four-game stranglehold over the Horns.
The Texas 37-14 win for Texas over No. 23 USC unfolded in a similar manner.
Although the final score was indicated of a blowout, the Longhorns lead was just 23-14 in the third quarter with Trojans kicker Chase McGrath eyeing a 50-yard attempt. Had it split the uprights, McGrat would have cut Texas edge down to just six points, but just a split second after the snap, Caden Sterns sprang through the line of scrimmage and blocked the attempt, paving the way for an Anthony Wheeler 46-yard scoop and score, and thus, a 30-14 Texas lead.
At that time, though, Herman’s Texas program hadn’t shown that it was capable of closing on a consistent basis, even after solidifying a win over Tulsa the week prior with a 10-play drive to drain the clock. Despite the Longhorns enjoying a 30-14 lead, it didn’t quite feel comfortable.
And then there was the matter of doing it consistently, even within a game.
Texas changed that perception throughout the next three series, forcing a three-out and stringing together a nine-play touchdown drive to take control with a commanding 37-14 lead, and then forcing yet another three-and-out.
From the 10-play, clock-killing drive against Tulsa, to 34 unanswered points against USC, to 21 unanswered points against TCU, to the 10-play, game-ending drive against Kansas State, to the nine-play, game-winning field goal drive against Oklahoma — Texas is proving time and time again that it’s learning how to close and finish games.
That wasn’t the case last year. Consequently, the Texas dropped games to USC, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech by narrow margins. Even the 2018 season-opening loss to Maryland was an example of a Texas team simply unable to close and capitalize after owning a fourth-quarter lead, but the Longhorns are now drastically rewriting the narrative surrounding this Texas team, week by week.
As Herman would say, it’s 1-0, then 1-0, then 1-0, then 1-0, then 1-0 again.
In some fashion or another, Texas has closed out five consecutive wins and now enjoys the program’s most successful first half of the season since the Texas national title run in 2009.
Is Texas back? That’s irrelevant — It’s all about finishing the day 1-0.
Mission accomplished. Five times in a row.
The Golden Hat belongs to Texas. This t-shirt can belong to you. The victory will live forever.