Texas is where it wasn’t supposed to be. The challenge is staying there.
The Longhorns’ season got off to a perfect start. With over 11 million watching on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, the Longhorns knocked off No. 10 Notre Dame in double overtime. In four hours, the Texas brand went from tarnished to burnished.
For the first time since 2013, the Longhorns are ranked, jumping from “others receiving votes” (12) to No. 11 in this week’s Associated Press rankings. Texas is favored by four touchdowns Saturday when UTEP visits Austin.
When everything is going great, what do coaches worry about? They worry about everything going bad.
“You go from being in no-man’s land to a top-50 football team,” Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. “One day they love you, the next day they put you in the outhouse. Guys, I don’t believe the hype. I’d put us at 50. We didn’t beat the No. 1 team in the country. We’re not 11th, we’re not 20th, we’re 1-0.”
A large percentage of the college football world thinks that Texas will be 2-0 after defeating UTEP. The Miners are 0-15 against Big 12 Conference teams. Coach Sean Kugler had a 14-23 record in three seasons going into 2016.
Bedford is convinced that Kugler’s team is planning an ambush.
“I can hear the coach from UTEP: ‘They’re on Sixth Street right now, still celebrating the Notre Dame game,” he said. “We’ll sneak in there quietly, we’re gonna run the football, we’re gonna keep that offense off the field, we’re gonna hit them in the mouth and they’re not gonna be ready for what we bring to the table.’
“I can hear what they’re saying right now. You know why? I’m saying that to our guys right now.”
As Bedford hinted, the Miners are a ground-oriented, grind-it-out team. Kugler loves to control the clock. UTEP has finished in the top 15 in time of possession in his three seasons as the team’s coach, averaging over 33 minutes per game.
Junior running back Aaron Jones had 249 of UTEP’s 289 rushing yards in the team’s season-opening victory over New Mexico State. In 2014, Jones finished with 1,321 yards rushing, including 144 against Texas Tech. Last season, he was sidelined after the second game with a foot injury.
“I don’t care who he is going against, he rushed for 249 yards,” Bedford said of Jones. “He’s wide, he’s quick, he runs downhill, he rushed for 249 yards. That’s all I could think about when I woke up at 3 o’clock in the morning: How are we going to slow this cat down?”
Another hint that UTEP’s offense will be run-oriented is this: Backup quarterback Kavika Johnson, a sophomore, has been named the starter against Texas. No. 1 QB Zach Greenlee is expected to be out two to three weeks with injuries he suffered in the opener. Johnson attempted one pass last week, was used to run the UTEP wildcat package, and lined up at wide receiver.
UTEP would be foolish to get into a shootout with a Texas offense that looked potent against Notre Dame. The best way to keep the Longhorns from scoring is to keep the offense on the bench. If the Miners are able to dominate time of possession, it’s not hard to imagine UT’s young offensive players becoming anxious and panicky when they do get on the field.
That means UT’s defense will need to be primed to stop the running game. Last season, the Longhorns were below average, allowing 219 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per attempt. Notre Dame had a 54-yard run on its first possession and a 29-yard touchdown run from quarterback DeShone Kizer. Other than those two plays, the Longhorns limited the Irish to 123 yards on 44 carries (2.8 yards per carry.)
Texas coach Charlie Strong doesn’t have to dig far to give his team an example about how quickly a team’s fortunes can U-turn. Last season, the Longhorns started 1-4 but stunned Oklahoma and beat Kansas State in consecutive games. The good times ended with an embarrassing 24-0 loss at Iowa State.
“When you talk about people believing in you, you have to give them a reason to believe. [Sunday] night we took a step forward,” Strong said. “This can’t be a one-night wonder. It won’t be.”
Bedford is doing all he can to make sure his defensive players are primed to follow their assignments, read their keys and tackle well.
“If you’re in the defensive meeting room, there’s not a doubt in their minds they’re not back,” Bedford said. “I can tell you that right now.”