If nothing else, Texas football coach Charlie Strong has lots of examples he can offer in Saturday’s pregame speech about underdog teams that have pulled stunning upsets in the Red River rivalry.
Whether that could be enough to spur the Longhorns (1-4, 0-2 Big 12) to a triumph as 17-point underdogs against No. 10 Oklahoma (4-0, 1-0) will remain open for discussion until the teams settle the issue in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl (11 a.m., WFAA/Ch. 8). Just realize the history of this rivalry is dotted with victories by double-digit underdogs, the most stunning of which occurred in 1996.
A winless Oklahoma team, led by coach John Blake, secured a 30-27 triumph in overtime against a Texas team that would go on to win the Big 12 championship. The Sooners entered as 21-point underdogs and erased a 24-13 deficit in the fourth quarter to post their defining victory in a 3-8 season.
Texas has pulled comparable surprises through the years, most notably a 28-24 upset in 1989 as a 17-point underdog that broke a four-year losing streak in the series. Two years ago, the Longhorns rolled into the Cotton Bowl as 14-point underdogs amid headlines about the tenuous job status of former coach Mack Brown.
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Texas won 36-20. But Brown was gone by the end of the season, clearing the way for Strong to put his stamp on a program that has not flourished under his leadership.
Similar job-related speculation has surfaced about Strong, whose record is 7-11 at Texas, despite public declarations of support from university President Greg Fenves and interim athletic director Mike Perrin. The Longhorns are coming off last week’s 50-7 loss to TCU, the most lopsided defeat of the Strong era, and spent Monday bickering among themselves on Twitter after safety Dylan Haines, a junior, called out younger players for a dubious work ethic during the team’s weekly news conference.
Against that dysfunctional backdrop, quarterback Jerrod Heard said the Longhorns have found a way to focus on the task at hand in efforts to end a three-game losing streak and avoid the team’s first 1-5 start since 1956.
“We know we can win this game,” Heard said. “We’ve regrouped for this week and we’re going to go and have fun. We definitely have to come out there with an edge and I think that’s what a lot of our guys have right now.
“I know there is a lot that is favoring OU. But that gives us a chip on our shoulder, and that’s going to make us very dangerous when we walk out there.”
As a recruit, Heard attended the 2013 game that Texas won as a two-touchdown underdog. Heard, a redshirt freshman, marveled at the composure of quarterback Case McCoy in that upset and plans to draw off those memories in the Cotton Bowl.
“I want that moment,” Heard said, reflecting on the postgame victory celebration that unfolded on the field.
To earn it, Heard must energize an offense that has scored only 10 points in eight quarters when playing away from Austin this season. Likewise, a defense that has surrendered an average of 507.2 yards per game must find a way to slow the Sooners, who have averaged 42 points per game under new quarterback Baker Mayfield, a transfer from Texas Tech.
Mayfield, an Austin native, has counseled his teammates about the dangers of overconfidence against the Longhorns.
“In rivalry games, it doesn’t matter the quality of the teams,” said Mayfield, who has accounted for 17 touchdowns and ranks second among Big 12 quarterbacks in passing efficiency (178.5 rating). “The (lesser) team is going to come in and they’re going to play up to the level of the other team … It’s always a good game.”
We know we can win this game.
Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops delivered a similar message this week. He specifically referenced the Sooners’ lack of emotion in 2013 and the danger of overlooking this Texas team, which absorbed its losses against four Top 25 opponents with a combined record of 19-1.
“The tough schedule is probably the most overlooked factor in regard to Texas and where they’re at right now,” Stoops said. “They have probably played the toughest schedule, to this point, of anybody in the country. You watch the tape and there’s a lot of great football players out there.”
21 Points by which Texas was favored in 1996 before losing 30-27 to winless Oklahoma.
But the bottom line shows Texas tracking toward its worst season since 1956, a 1-9 campaign marked by a postseason coaching change. Asked this week if he worried about returning next season, Strong said: “Every day’s a battle. So I have no idea.”
Strong also took full responsibility for the state of the program, although some of his supporters point to a dearth of talent at key positions (notably quarterback) on the roster he inherited from Brown.
“I never would say it was coach Brown’s fault,” Strong said. “It wasn’t ever his fault. It’s on me. You look at it, we have the players. It’s about us coaching. It’s about us working and getting them better. It’s on me as the head football coach.”
While pregame vibes do not favor Texas, Strong can at least point to past examples of stunning upsets in the Red River rivalry.
Texas vs. Oklahoma
11 a.m. Saturday, WFAA/Ch. 8