AUSTIN — Charlie Strong has mastered the art of coachspeak. No game is bigger than another, Texas’ new coach swears. The Aug. 30 season opener against North Texas is the only game that matters right now, allegedly.
But according to those who have been around Strong inside the Texas football complex, he’s watched one game over and over — last year’s embarrassing 40-21 loss at BYU that triggered former coach Mack Brown’s downfall.
If Strong is the defense-first coach many believe him to be, that game film should make his blood boil.
“Oh, man, that’s all we hear about is BYU,” senior defensive end Cedric Reed said.
The Longhorns will report to camp today, and practice will begin Monday. Strong inherits a defense that posted the worst numbers in school history in 2012 … only to be topped by even worse numbers in 2013.
No single lowlight comes close to matching what happened last September in Provo, Utah, though. It was easily one of the worst nights in the modern era of Texas football.
A year later, Strong and his coaching staff won’t let the Longhorns forget it, either.
“As a pride factor, that ought to be something you have circled on your calendar — if you’re a man,” senior cornerback Quandre Diggs said at the recent Big 12 media days. “We got beat down that day. Y’all want me to keep it real? We got beat down. Those guys played a better game, and they beat our tail.”
Strong is curious to see how much pride these Longhorns have, too. “We’ll see if they answer the bell,” he said.
The statistics were bad enough. BYU piled up 550 rushing yards on 99 total plays, the most ever allowed by a Texas defense. Quarterback Taysom Hill averaged 15.2 yards on 17 carries and scored three rushing touchdowns.
It was the second-best rushing performance by a college quarterback in the past 10 years, behind only Vince Young’s 267-yard night for Texas against Oklahoma State in 2005. And it was one of the most prolific individual outings against a Longhorns defense since Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam went wild in 1994, a 317-yard performance that helped him capture the Heisman Trophy. Graybeards joke that Salaam still hasn’t been tackled.
Sure, Texas quarterback David Ash suffered a concussion late at BYU, an injury that temporarily sidetracked things. But only a glutton for punishment would dial up YouTube and watch the clips again. Missed tackles. Hands on hips. Shots of then-defensive coordinator Manny Diaz looking exasperated; he was fired the next day.
“As I was standing on the field and looking at body language of both teams,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall told the American-Statesman this summer, “I did not think Texas was going to rally and return in that game. But I did think they were capable of having a strong team and a strong season.”
The Cougars went into last season trying to implement a new up-tempo offense. BYU lost the season opener to Virginia, a 19-16 affair played in a messy rainstorm that turned the field into a swamp. Hill said the weather that night made it difficult to ascertain whether BYU’s new style would work.
“So going into the Texas game, we didn’t know what to expect,” Hill said. “We didn’t know who we were or what we did well. But after the game, we knew that we were one of the best rushing offenses in the country.”
Thinking about that game now, Reed is still amazed at how UT didn’t respond despite a rain delay.
“It was like BYU drank a lot of Gatorade and we didn’t. I don’t know what happened,” said Reed, whose 14 tackles were second-most for Texas that night, behind Jordan Hicks’ 15. “They came out and whatever their coaches did or schemed up, it worked to a T, man.”
Mendenhall went back and watched a TV copy of the game and said he cringed at some of the commentary. He said he hated how the game reflected on Brown. “Man, if you’re looking for the president of his fan club, I would be a strong candidate,” Mendenhall said.
The Longhorns did go on to have a strong season, just as Mendenhall predicted. Texas won six straight Big 12 games and was in contention for the league title on the final day of the regular season. But an 8-4 finish wasn’t enough. Brown was forced to resign on Dec. 14, and Strong was hired three weeks later.
Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford were in Louisville that day of the Texas-BYU game as their Cardinals whipped up on Eastern Kentucky 44-7. They had no idea then that they’d be working inside the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center less than a year later.
Still, Strong includes himself in the group that owns the 2013 BYU loss, as the head coach at Texas should.
“When you’re looking at last year’s game, you have to play well on the road, and when you go on the road, you need to pack your defense,” Strong said. “We didn’t pack our defense.”
And therein lies Strong’s challenge as the curtain rises on the 2014 season. Rebuilding the defense should be a top priority this August. Strong knows it; so do the players.
“We lost a man his job, his way of making income,” Diggs said. “We lost coach Brown his job. That’s just how it is. You have those off games, and things can change just like that.
“As a man, you should want to go out and beat those guys (BYU),” Diggs added. “But the right way to look at things, we’ve got to start off with North Texas. That’s the most important game on the schedule right now.”