Texas coach Mack Brown put a stop to the Lane Kiffin jokes with his triumphant return to Austin after Saturday’s stunning 36-20 victory over previously undefeated Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
Next up: Comparisons to Mark Richt, who led Georgia on an unlikely charge to the 2011 SEC championship game by reeling off 10 consecutive wins after an 0-2 start. The surge silenced rampant speculation about Richt’s long-term job status in Athens, Ga.
It is too early to consider Texas (4-2, 3-0 Big 12) in full-scale, season-turnaround mode despite a dominant performance against OU (5-1, 2-1), which fell to No. 18 in Sunday’s Associated Press poll. But there is no doubt the Longhorns just played their most complete game against a quality opponent since the 2009 season, with key contributions from the offense, defense and special teams.
For the time being, that puts Brown and his three-game winning streak in closer proximity to Richt than Kiffin on the list of comparable coaches at power programs who have faced extreme heat in recent seasons. Kiffin, the former Southern California coach, was fired in September after the Trojans’ seventh loss in their last 11 games.
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Brown, like Richt in 2011, has an opportunity to flip the script of this season — as well as public perception about his recent coaching efforts — by beating the schools that matter most to his fan base.
If the Texas team that showed up in Dallas surfaces every Saturday the rest of the season, the Longhorns have a chance to run the table in a lackluster Big 12 and claim the league title.
But if Texas reverts to the form it showed in lopsided losses to Brigham Young and Ole Miss, or even in its 31-30 escape from Iowa State, Brown’s squad will be in deep trouble against any of its six remaining conference opponents.
Brown understands the tightrope Texas must walk down the stretch. As he extolled his team’s focus and effort while prevailing as a two-touchdown underdog in a season-defining game, Brown also reflected on the message his players need to take away from Saturday’s first triumph in the Red River Rivalry since 2009.
“Anybody can beat anybody if you play better than the other team. If you go out there and stand around, you probably can’t beat anybody,” Brown said. “We were focused. We were tough. We were confident and resilient. These guys did not let up. But in college football, you have to be careful. Somebody wins, you get too high. Somebody loses, you get too low. We can’t do that. We have to go back to work.”
Texas has a bye this week before an Oct. 26 game at TCU (3-3, 1-2) that will mark the Longhorns’ first trip to Fort Worth since 1994, when both schools were Southwest Conference members. That means two more weeks for a resurgent defense to adjust to the strategic tweaks and attitude adjustments being imparted by defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, one of the Longhorns’ shining lights in the Red River Rivalry.
Robinson replaced predecessor Manny Diaz, who was fired after Texas surrendered a school-record 550 rushing yards in a 40-21 loss to Brigham Young. Robinson’s unit has displayed better fundamentals and more effective game plans during the team’s three-game winning streak.
Without question, the inexplicable decision by Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel to call only three designed quarterback runs against an opponent that has struggled against mobile quarterbacks benefited Texas in Dallas. After the game, OU coach Bob Stoops said the glaring omission was “just the way coach Heupel… wanted to go into the football game.”
Although valid, that strategic second-guess is not meant to diminish the improvement the Texas defense has made in five weeks under Robinson. Texas limited Oklahoma to a season-low 263 yards and one offensive touchdown. The Sooners’ lone TD drive covered 27 yards, following a 73-yard kickoff return by Roy Finch. A pair of well-timed, and well-disguised, blitzes called by Robinson played a major role in both Oklahoma interceptions.
Stoops credited the Longhorns with playing “great technique defensively” and with showing more consistency in Saturday’s showdown. If Texas’ current mini-revival becomes a full-fledged season turnaround, similar to what Richt pulled off at Georgia, Robinson will deserve much of the credit for saving Brown’s bacon in 2013.
“You can tell our defense is learning more of what Greg Robinson taught. We are tackling better in space,” Brown said. “It is really amazing to see what Greg Robinson and those other three defensive coaches have done to tie this together, to put in the run-stopping defense they put in [against OU].”
Eventually, the bottom-line credit or blame will belong to Brown for whatever Texas does as a Big 12 contender down the stretch. For now, Brown simply is happy his team seized its opportunity in Dallas.
“Hopefully, we’re starting a new streak,” Brown said after breaking a three-game losing streak to OU. “We’ve won five of the last nine now, for you that are counting.”
In this rivalry, and for the Texas coach, people always are counting. For Brown, the current count is three consecutive wins in a season on the brink. That’s three steps closer to Mark Richt and one huge step removed from Lane Kiffin.