DES MOINES, Iowa — Are we sure Texas will show up ready to play Thursday?
We can’t be. Not yet.
Fact is, the Longhorns had to show up for the USC game. The old heads from the 2005 national title team demanded they represent the winning tradition from the glory days. Shoot, Vince Young, Michael Huff and Matt Leinart were there as was Matthew McConaughey, who was spotted on the sideline with his arm draped around the shoulder of Reggie Hemphill-Mapps late in the game.
So the fact that the 17-point underdog Horns played with the type of fire and desire needed to pull off the upset didn’t come across as an entire surprise. They rose to the occasion and earned the respect of a team that may be playing in the college football playoff in a couple of months.
Texas lost but played an admirable role in what turned out to be a mini-classic.
Now here we are 12 days later and the Horns believe they have turned a corner. Will that corner lead to a revival of sorts under Tom Herman this season or will there be a brick wall awaiting out here in Middle America?
“I would be shocked if we didn’t come out and play with the same kind effort, energy, and togetherness that we did in Los Angeles,” Herman said Tuesday.
Sadly, some in his fan base would not.
Here’s why. ESPN isn’t devoting SportsCenter airtime to those great Texas-Iowa State games of yesteryear. The game will be nationally televised Thursday night but there isn’t any real buzz surrounding it. No historic significance. No real reason for people outside of these programs to get amped up for a matchup of two non-ranked teams that won’t win the Big 12.
And that, my friends, is what should worry Longhorn Nation.
Self-starting hasn’t been a strength of this group over the last few seasons and Jack Trice Stadium doesn’t evoke any warm fuzzies as far as road trips are concerned. The last Texas team to play here didn’t even get started. The 24-0 loss to the Cyclones in 2015 rivaled the Kansas deal-breaker of 2016 as the worst losses of the Charlie Strong era, and Chuck was about as mad as we’d ever seen him in the days following that game, criticizing the players for complaining about something as mundane as the traction on the field.
“They weren’t ready to play,” Strong said.
Texas was blanked by a 2-5 team that had given up an average of 52 points in its three previous games. Adding to the torture was a turbulence-filled flight back home. The plane landed safely but the season crashed and burned at 5-7, which would become a familiar refrain under Strong.
Two years later, these same Horns insist things are different though it didn’t go without notice that senior linebacker Naashon Hughes brought up the Jack Trice Stadium grass on Monday. They need this one and waist-high Bermuda grass teeming with rattlers and oil slicks shouldn’t be enough to stop the Horns. That is, if they’re as hungry as they say they are.
“We talk about it every day,” said defensive lineman Chris Nelson. “We put it in the back of our heads, remembering that it’s still there. We can’t go out there lackadaisical and think we’re going to roll the ball out and just win the game. We’re preparing the same way we prepared for the last game. We plan to go out there and play fast.”
Nelson invited fellow defensive linemen and several others over for his girlfriend’s hot wings on the bye week last Saturday, and getting back into the win column was part of the conversation. It’s a confident bunch even with the reality that this team is in a must-win situation just four games into the season. Call it an early gut check for a group that hasn’t beaten a really good opponent since Strong donned the golden hat after a win over Oklahoma two weeks before the 2015 Halloween Night no-show in Ames.
These are different times. We’re years removed from Texas teams rolling into Ames knowing a win will happen. Shoot, much better teams than this one have had some nice scraps with the Cyclones. Plus there’s something about that non-Saturday game. We all remember the night No. 2 Oklahoma State had its national title hopes dashed on a Friday night there. The current Texas team isn’t in that class.
No room for a slip-up here. Need you be reminded that if things go south, the Horns will be 1-3 with games coming up against No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 15 Oklahoma State, Kansas State and later suddenly viable TCU.
They can’t stub their toes on that Ames grass again, or the season will go six feet under in a hurry.