Before Texas’s upset of Notre Dame on Sunday night, a little tempest occurred in Longhorns message board-dom that perfectly illustrates the puzzle of the Charlie Strong Era. Pressed several times to name his starting quarterback against the Irish, Strong declined. The website Orangebloods reported that Tyrone Swoopes — a good-running, bad-passing senior — was leading and, per a knowledgeable source, “it’s not even close.” A lot of reporters thought true freshman Shane Buechele was leading. But Strong maintained an air of mystery. As recently as last week, he insisted that even the quarterbacks hadn’t been told.
Here’s the puzzle: Is Charlie Strong that good? Could he execute a Saban-level troll before the biggest game of his career? Or was he just hiccuping along, with the swagger of a great coach but not the results? If Longhorns fans are being honest, Sunday night was the first time we could really believe — not hope but believe — that it’s the former. Maybe Charlie Strong is that good.
It was an amazing game, wasn’t it? A Texas team that was figuring out how good it was taking on a Notre Dame team that was really good and knew it. Texas felt like a real football team for the first time in about seven years. It had a real quarterback (if not two) for the first time in the same stretch. And minus a few nasty injuries, Texas 50, Notre Dame 47 was the kind of game that makes college football lovable: It was full of great plays and dumbass plays in equal measure.
Strong’s master troll continued all the way up to the last possible second. Asked by ESPN’s Holly Rowe to finally name his starter just before kickoff, he told the world it was Buechele, the freshman. But at that precise moment, ABC’s audio cut out, so viewers couldn’t hear what Strong said.
Strong switched QBs early and often. The most amazing shuffle came on Texas’s fourth possession, when the Longhorns got the ball on their own 12-yard line. Rather than throw in the freshman deep in his own territory, Strong brought in Swoopes. (Buechele had also gone three-and-out on two possessions in a row.) Swoopes led a running attack all the way to Notre Dame’s 44.
Then Buechele came in. But he missed a deep ball, so Swoopes was subbed in to pick up a first down. When Swoopes got himself into a third-and-7 — an obvious passing down — the Longhorns brought in Buechele to pick up a first down through the air. The drive ended with Buechele diving into the end zone.
For long stretches of the first half, it was Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly who looked like he was moving quarterbacks up and down his depth chart on the fly. Kelly brought in Malik Zaire for a series in the third quarter before he finally turned the conn over to DeShone Kizer. Kizer was brilliant (he threw for five touchdowns), never more so than when he threw the little 17-yard rainbow to Josh Adams. You wondered what Kizer could have done with two more possessions.
It’s worth pausing here to note how amazing this turn of events was for Texas fans. The Longhorns had come out with an offensive plan and, with a few bumps (a dropped pass by John Burt, say), they had executed it. This wasn’t the case before Strong hired Sterlin Gilbert as his new coordinator this offseason and installed a Baylor-style scheme. It wasn’t the case when Mack Brown rolled through two coordinators in his Nixon-style final years.
Yet there was Strong at halftime, talking to Rowe about rotating QBs. “We practiced it, Holly …” he said. “We’re able to run the football and we’re able to throw it over their head.” Easy, just like that. You knew Texas was going to have stretches when it played dumb football — when it seemed to honor the idea that there was no master plan, just a lot of boastful talk. Things started to go sideways when Kyle Porter, another freshman, took a kick out of the end zone and then swatted at a Notre Dame player, drawing a personal foul. (The Irish player had tried to strip the ball.) Three plays later, Buechele threw an interception. Kizer threw another touchdown. Notre Dame got within three.
The mother of all insanity came when Texas scored the go-ahead touchdown with 3:29 left on a superb balancing-act run from D’Onta Foreman. The special teams tried to beat the game clock on the extra point (why?), and wound up getting the kick blocked and returned for two points the other way. What should have been a three-point Texas lead turned into a tie. (Self-flagellating Texas fans will remember last year’s Cal game, when Texas roared back with 20 fourth-quarter points to get within one, then missed an extra point.)
But the notion that there was a master plan — a hiccupy, kismet-filled plan, to be sure — re-emerged in overtime. Texas and Notre Dame both scored touchdowns on their first possessions. Texas held Notre Dame to a field goal on its second.
Shane Buechele started Texas’s second possession and ran two plays. Strong started shuffling again. Swoopes came in on third down. He took multiple shots from Notre Dame defenders, shook ’em off, and made his way to the 6-yard line.
Two plays later, Swoopes stepped left to make a blitzing lineman whiff, then dove forward and stretched the ball into the end zone. Texas had its best win of the Strong Era. Texas is back, every person with a television show will declare in the next 24 hours. The QB platoon was a “brilliant changeup,” ESPN’s Joe Tessitore said. You could almost see Charlie Strong’s satisfied smile as his players threw him into the air.