From a bottom-line perspective, Texas’ frantic rally against California triggered similar emotions to a July Fourth fireworks display without a grand finale.
A missed conversion following Saturday’s final touchdown secured a 45-44 loss and prevented the Longhorns from sending the game into overtime after facing a 21-point deficit to start the fourth quarter.
But thanks to quarterback Jerrod Heard, a redshirt freshman who racked up a school-record 527 yards of total offense in the contest, the Longhorns (1-2) spent Monday focusing on confidence gained from the late surge rather than dwelling on a loss that could prove costly when bowl bids are handed out in December.
Coach Charlie Strong said the 20-point rally in the final quarter, and the effort shown while making it happen, “really gives you hope” that the team is on the verge of becoming competitive against Big 12 opponents after a 7-9 start to the Strong era in Austin. He even set a lofty expectations bar for the rest of the season.
“Our mindset is to go out and win the conference,” Strong said.
Heard, who broke the single-game total offense record held by Texas legend Vince Young (506), called the comeback against Cal “one of those things that’s going to build a team. We can really have growth from this and be a great team.”
Time will tell. But there is no disputing that these Longhorns witnessed the crunch-time emergence of two intangibles that have been missing for most of the Strong era: Hope and Heard.
For these Longhorns, that is way more than they had after a season-opening 38-3 loss to No. 6 Notre Dame with former quarterback Tyrone Swoopes at the helm. And the long-term value of the “Hope & Heard” mindset will be tested immediately.
Heard’s arms and legs must be the assets that carry this team through a stretch when Texas faces three consecutive undefeated, ranked opponents to start league play. First on the agenda is No. 24 Oklahoma State (3-0) as the Longhorns enter Saturday’s contest in Austin (2:30 p.m., ESPN) with a defense that ranks No. 118 among the nation’s 127 FBS schools in yards allowed (512.3 per game).
Texas also is next-to-last in third-down conversions allowed (56.3 percent) and tied for last in opponents’ fourth-down conversion rate (3-of-3, 100 percent). So the defensive numbers suggest more Heard-led shootouts are the best way challenge OSU, No. 3 TCU (3-0) and No. 15 Oklahoma (3-0) over the next three contests.
That marks a fresh mindset and one that tailback Johnathan Gray, a senior from Aledo, embraces wholeheartedly.
“I think we’re very capable of matching teams score for score. We have the right pieces to the puzzle now,” Gray said. “Having Jerrod back there is what this offense needs. You can see a different side of Texas football with the way everybody’s motivated now.”
Gray, Heard, Strong and others expressed a belief Monday that the Longhorns, despite their 1-2 start, can win this year’s Big 12 title by building on positive vibes and intangibles shown Saturday by their new quarterback in his second career start. The best example, Strong said, came before the team’s final drive, an 81-yard march capped by Heard’s 45-yard touchdown on a quarterback draw. Before taking the field, Strong said Heard turned to him and said: “I’ve got this. We’re going to score.”
That is the type of chutzpah the Longhorns have been lacking at quarterback for the past five seasons. It is the type of confidence once exuded by Young, who sent Heard a Monday text to congratulate him for breaking the single-game total offense mark he set in 2005.
“He told me he was proud of me, to keep my head up and keep going,” Heard said. “It was something special to get that text. I’ve always looked up to him.”
During Monday’s news conference, Heard mentioned that he battles sleep apnea and credited a recent move to sleeping while wearing a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device with boosting his energy level. He said the improved rest he’s gotten has gone “a long way toward helping me prepare and be ready to play” after being redshirted last season.
In turn, Heard’s dual-threat skills have gone a long way toward changing the mental approach of teammates who became frustrated by Texas’ offensive struggles during most of Strong’s 16-game tenure at the school. With Heard at the helm, defensive tackle Poona Ford said: “It was like a brand new offense out there. Even though we lost, it was a huge confidence boost because of what happened in the fourth quarter.”
Having comeback capabilities in close games, said Ford, changes the mindset for Texas’ defenders. For the first time in two seasons, Ford said defenders believe they have enough support from the offense to win any game.
“Yeah. We really do,” Ford said. “Heard’s a big factor with the things he can do for the offense. He’s just another confidence boost for us.”
Now, Heard is the freshman who knocked Vince Young out of the Texas record book for most yards in a game in his second career start. For his teammates and coaches, that offers a reason for hope.