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Texas' late-season surge fueled by trust and confidence

The culture change in Austin truly started to take form after the debacle in Manhattan.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting in the post-game locker room in Manhattan after the team's first shutout loss since 2004, the Texas Longhorns were at a low ebb.

Having come out on the road without emotion or energy, the team faced a crossroads and head coach Charlie Strong let the group now just how upset he was about the performance.

He was disappointed and frustrated, he said two days later during his weekly Monday media availability, as it was becoming increasingly apparent that playing a team close for a few quarters but then succumbing to mistakes was ultimately going to be unacceptable over the course of a whole season.

He wasn't pleasant with the team in his post-game comments, he said this last Monday.

At 3-5, the team needed wins in three of the last four games of the season to become bowl eligible and faced a clear choice -- give up and have an extended offseason or come together and finish out the season with purpose and see what would happen as a result.

It faced such a difficult task without the benefit of a winning streak under Strong. After eight games, the team had yet to put together even two wins, much less three in four games.

In looking at the roster, though, Strong knew that he had enough talent. So he challenged the coaches to work harder and work better, challenged the seniors to take control of the team and lead by example.

"There's got to be a reason why we're not having success because the talent is here," Strong reflected before the Oklahoma State game. "Coach [Mack] Brown left us some really outstanding players. It was all about us getting connected with the seniors because that is a group of guys you have to get connected with. We have some seniors playing well, we have some that are not. But we have to get them all to start playing well and buy into it."

The refrain from Strong was consistent since the start of fall camp -- the seniors had to take ownership of the team. After getting back from Kansas, the seniors held some meetings to talk about the level of buy in, an area senior cornerback Quandre Diggs repeatedly said was lacking throughout the fall.

And it wasn't an easy task for the Texas head coach to get some of the seniors to step up and talk to their teammates. Sure, it was easy for Diggs -- it's always been easy for Diggs to talk -- but not so much for guys like Cedric Reed and Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks and Jaxon Shipley.

Strong needed his voice to be the voice of his senior leaders on the team, so he called up Diggs and Hicks to break the team down.

"I knew if I could get those two to just relay the message and get the total group of seniors to just come together and start hearing the same message and speaking the same message, then the message would get across."

It worked, as the Sunday meetings that Strong had been holding with all the senior leaders finally resulted in a break through -- they were now speaking to the team with the voice of their head coach.

For players like Diggs, losses piled on top of losses burned too much to continue. Burned deeply and to the core. All along, Strong knew it was exactly that type of catalyst that would have to spur the team to true change, to transition to true unity.

It would have to hurt to the extent that the most consistently vocal leader on the team wasn't sure what else to say.

"I feel like guys don't get up for the occasion," Diggs said after the loss in Manhattan. "I'm tired of bothering with people that are old enough to be able to get up and get ready for a challenge. If you can't do that as a man, then I don't know what to say."

Strong knew what to say at least -- that his football team was better than its record. He said as much publicly and it wouldn't have meant anything if it didn't turn out to be true. He would tell them in almost a self-help mantra way that they're a good football team, good people, and good players.

Reaching the point of putting truth to all those statements was pretty simple for Strong, simply a matter of trust and execution.

"The main thing is if we come together as a football team, don't hurt ourselves, if we just execute, who knows," said Strong after the Kansas State game. "If we play the way we're capable of playing, we'll see how we end up with these next four."

Strong also believed that his team had something else -- agency. The losses weren't a result of playing a string of ranked opponents, but rather a failure to take advantage of opportunities.

"I always say to them, it's never what someone else does, it's what we do," Strong said after losing to Kansas State. "You sit there and look at the film. We sat there on defense yesterday, went through the first series. I think they had a 12-play drive. It's what we did, not what [Kansas] State did to us."

And what the Longhorns were doing to themselves was making huge mistakes. Against Kansas State, one of the biggest was the fumble by freshman running back D'Onta Foreman on a reverse to senior wide receiver Jaxon Shipley, the mechanics of which drew immense scrutiny during the following week. Earlier, sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes had underthrown an open Shipley for what would have been a touchdown.

Throughout the entire game, the defense couldn't get off the field, giving up numerous long third-down conversions, including junior cornerback Duke Thomas getting beat on yet another double move in an unacceptable spot on 3rd and 14. On the next play, Kansas State scored to take a 13-0 halftime lead.

After eight games, those mistakes completely and utterly defined this Texas football team in its first year under Charlie Strong.

Yet, it was that same team that had chances against UCLA, hung tough for a half against Baylor, hung tough for a half against Kansas State, had a chance against Oklahoma. The same team capable of moving the ball up and down the field against the Sooners and Cyclones and a defense capable of limiting the explosive offensive attacks of the Bears and the Wildcats. The special teams, unfortunately, were mostly just special in the worst way possible.

Texas was capable of a great play followed by an excruciatingly awful play.

So prior to the game game against the Red Raiders, the game that would define whether the Longhorns could summon the cohesion to make a bowl game, Strong wondered what team should show up, wondered it aloud and in front of his players.

"I said, told them before the game, 'What team is it that shows up today? Is it going to be a team that plays with a lot of passion, a lot of confidence? A team that has a lot of pride and just understands what we gotta go get done?'"

The answer was a definitive one and the statement was made by Diggs, who knocked Texas Tech back-up quarterback Patrick Mahomes from the game with a devastating blow in the second quarter that forced a fumble:

"I think that was just a play that kind of turned the game around, kind of brought that physicality that we needed," Diggs said after the game. "Anytime you can get a good, clean look on anybody, it definitely turns the momentum in the game. The guys reacted like you see any big hit. I guess that got everybody's juices going. That is leading by example. You go out and make the play when the play is presented to you. Once you do that and do the right thing, the guys have no choice but to respect that, and that makes everybody else want to go out and play harder."

The play absolutely energized the team, setting up a short touchdown run from senior running back Malcolm Brown to give Texas a 10-6 advantage. Though the Red Raiders answered with the team's only offensive touchdown of the game, a spectacular jump cut by junior running back Johnathan Gray allowed him to finish a 17-yard run in the end zone and the Longhorns never looked back.

Gray's run heralded his full return to health for the first time since his Achilles injury just as the offensive line was starting to develop an identity as a unit capable of running at opponents with man- and gap-blocking and gaining significant yardage. In the first half at least.

The team played even better at home against West Virginia, highlighted by a huge game from senior defensive end Cedric Reed, who forced a safety and added a strip-sack later in the game, while senior defensive back Mykkele Thompson delivered the two biggest hits of his career.

In the first half, the running game once again showed up early behind some strong play from the offensive line and another big jump cut from Gray to find pay dirt.

A trip to Stillwater featured much more of the same, a performance keyed this time by junior defensive tackle Malcom Brown, who earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week in recording two sacks and creating another with a quarterback pressure.

The running game was strong again early, Swoopes played his most complete game of the season, and the defense battered and abused Oklahoma State quarterback Daxx Garman. By the end of the first half, the body language of the Arizona transfer indicated that he wasn't interested in taking many more shots from the physical Texas defense.

"Someone asked me, what did you see that changed? It's all about trust, and it's all about confidence now," Strong said on the Monday following the Oklahoma State game. "On defense, we're playing with a lot of confidence. Guys feel like they can go out and go stop people. And then offensively, you just start gaining their trust. In the beginning, you didn't see that because the running backs weren't running as hard as they could run. They didn't trust the offensive line."

Tasked with running behind an offensive line that featured a total of five career starts heading into the BYU game, the running backs didn't believe that the blocks were going to be there for them. For the most part, they were right for much of the early part of the season.

And the wide receivers probably didn't trust Swoopes to put the ball in the right spot. For the most part, they were right for major stretches of the season.

Now there's trust. Now there's confidence.

Now the Horns are just having fun playing football -- that was the other ingredient. Instead of the offense worrying about the defense and the defense worrying about the offense and surely everyone worrying about special teams, the trust in the coaching staff forged by the senior leaders helped the team's confidence come out, which in term produced a group with an overall winning mental attitude.

"I think for the last three games you saw us loose and not worried about stuff," Diggs said on Monday. "I think that's why we played so well."

And so the efforts for culture change at Texas by Charlie Strong turned the corner just in time to save the season and earn those extra 15 practices and a bowl-game appearance.

Now Texas has a chance to make a truly national splash in a high-profile game against TCU on Thanksgiving in prime time.

But, like senior defensive back Mykkele Thompson said on Monday, there's no reason to be tight.

They're just out there having fun. Finally.