mike finger step in right direction

September 16, 2018

AUSTIN — They say it takes one to know one. Sometimes it takes one to save one, too.

Sometimes validation comes only from within, or at the very least from one’s mirror image. And on a night when two once-exalted superpowers with similar wounds clashed Saturday at Royal-Memorial Stadium, they recognized themselves in each other, all right.

But only one of them was ready to be healed.

For once, it was not Texas that had to walk out of a stadium answering for ghosts, or explaining how the mighty had fallen, or vowing to rise again. For one night — a night a team and a coach and a fan base desperately needed — nobody was lamenting all of the ways the Longhorns had fallen short of their own tradition.

On this night, when UT pummeled 22nd-ranked USC and allowed a record crowd of 103,507 live in the moment at last, all of the doubt and the disappointment and dejection belonged to another blueblood.

Maybe this didn’t fix everything. Maybe it didn’t fix much of anything. But all we knew for sure before Saturday’s game kicked off is that one coach was about to dig an even deeper hole for himself, and Tom Herman was glad to let Clay Helton wield the shovel.

And boy did Helton dig. One week after his Trojans failed to score a touchdown at Stanford, they self-destructed against the Longhorns, a meltdown complete with the kind of horrific penalties and nightmarish special-teams plays that the fans at UT have grown to know all too well.

And now Helton will have to spend a week, and maybe a few months, answering for it. His players will be asked if their program has lost mystique. His fans will start to wonder how big of a rebuilding project they really have ahead of them.

For the better part of a decade, those questions had been as integral in Austin life as barbecued brisket and hipsters in skinny jeans. And even though an impressive romp like Saturday’s won’t make them go away forever, there was something fitting about what looks like Herman’s most important victory of his 21-month tenure.

This wouldn’t have meant as much if it came against a program that lacked USC’s name. And it’s exactly the kind of signature breakthrough that the Longhorns had been bestowing upon other schools for years.

Some of those teams wasted their big UT moments, and soon we will find out what the Longhorns do with their toppling of the Trojans. This is the sort of moment a relatively new coach can build upon, but that is also what people said after the Longhorns knocked off nationally ranked West Virginia on the road last October.

UT then returned home and laid a giant Thanksgiving-week egg against Texas Tech.

Still, there were signs this step forward might lead to more in the right direction. Sophomore Sam Ehlinger might not have convinced anyone he can be a long-term difference-maker at quarterback for UT, but he lived up to his dazzling performance at USC this year and proved capable of getting the ball into the hands of the Longhorns’ growing list of dynamic receivers.

Todd Orlando’s defense, which looked to be in for a rough evening after giving up two early touchdowns, found its bearings and started to show glimpses of the unit that was one of the Big 12’s best last season. Particularly impressive is Steele freshman Caden Sterns, who blocked a field-goal attempt and already looks like a future NFL safety.

Now, Ehlinger is the same quarterback who wilted against Maryland. The defense is the same one that nearly let Tulsa rally a week ago. And the Longhorns have lost plenty of games over the past eight years with undeniable standouts as highly touted as Sterns, Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey playing for them.

For one reason or another, talent has been wasted before. And it has been known to happen in other places, as the Trojans now know all too well.

Helton misused a bit of his Saturday, and the Longhorns were happy to take him up on it.

They needed saving. And this time, they figured the rescue might as well come from another version of themselves.


Twitter: @mikefinger

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