AUSTIN — Growing up in Batesville, Ark., Charlie Strong has a lot of memories of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ rivalry with the Texas Longhorns.
Now he has a chance to add to that legacy when the first-year Texas head coach leads the Longhorns into the Texas Bowl against Arkansas.
“You can always think about the history, how long this game’s been played and the memorable moments going back to 1969,” Strong said. “That game’s always had a lasting impression on everyone’s mind,”
Kickoff from NRG Stadium in Houston is set for 8 p.m. today and the game will be televised on ESPN. Both teams come in with a 6-6 overall record and Texas leads the all-time series 56-21.
The game will wrap up a tumultuous season for Strong that featured numerous player dismissals, inconsistent quarterback play and tough losses to the Big 12’s elite.
“Those players are gone. Still, we lined up with a football team that we could have played a lot better and it had nothing to do with the guys we didn’t have,” Strong said. “You’re going to win with the guys you have, not the ones you don’t have. We were good enough; we just didn’t play well at the right time.”
The Razorbacks bring in a run game that would do the old Southwestern Conference proud. Arkansas averages 220.3 rushing yards per game and features two 1,000 yard rushers in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
UT’s defense allows 162.1 rushing yards per game and is led by senior linebacker Jordan Hicks, a Bednarik Award finalist.
“It’s a personal challenge for this front seven,” Hicks said. “We’ve done really well this season with teams that try to run the ball inside on us.
“It’s going to be a challenge; it’s going to be fun. We’ve got to be 100 percent prepared, 100 percent on our keys and excited to play this game.”
The Longhorn defense also has some local flare with junior cornerback Duke Thomas, a former Copperas Cove standout, and redshirt freshman Naashon Hughes, a former Harker Heights star.
“He’s a great teammate to have. I love competing with Duke all the time,” senior wide receiver John Harris said about Thomas. “He never wants to let anyone get the edge over him. He’s always running his mouth, like Quandre (Diggs).”
Thomas leads the team with eight pass breakups to go along with three interceptions and 47 tackles. Hughes finished the season with 26 tackles, including five for loss.
“He’s one of the most receptive young guys that I’ve seen in awhile,” Hicks said of Hughes. “He’s so involved and wants to be the best he can be, you can tell.”
Texas’ offense will be spearheaded by running backs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, who have combined for 1,311 yards. Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes will get another chance to show what he has under center after throwing for 2,352 yards and 13 touchdowns in 12 games this season.
“It’s another shot at redemption, another shot to get a win,” Swoopes said.
“We’re going to go in prepared like we have been all year.”
Former Harker Heights star Camhron Hughes will miss the game with an injury. The sophomore offensive lineman started the final six games of the year and his absence will give the Longhorns their sixth different offensive line combination this season.
The schools last played in 2008, a 52-10 Texas win in Austin, and Strong knows a good performance against an SEC team would do wonders for the program heading into spring football and 2015.
“We didn’t end it right with TCU and now we have a really good opponent in Arkansas, but also just to give us a jump-start into the offseason,” he said. “We just want to finish up the right way this season.”