AUSTIN — Charlie Strong wanted to put the “T” back in Texas. Turns out, he inserted some “D” as well.
In 2013, the Longhorns struggled to deliver on defense, giving up a school-record 550 rushing yards to BYU in an embarrassing, second-week loss before Oregon ended their season and Mack Brown’s tenure with the team in an Alamo Bowl blowout.
But in Strong’s debut at Texas, the longtime defensive coordinator gave a potential glimpse of things to come as the Longhorns prevented North Texas from executing offensively, holding the Mean Green to just 94 yards in a 38-7 season-opening victory.
After the win, Strong, whose defense at Louisville gave up FBS lows of 251.5 total yards and 80.7 rushing yards per game last season, said the culture had to change.
“Nine months ago, I saw a team that had no identity,” Strong said. “I saw a team that was all individuals. It was a team that didn’t really care about nothing. They didn’t care about themselves or about the people they represented. They had no pride.
“I told them they were going to work harder in preseason camp than they ever had before, and they answered the challenge.”
Texas (1-0) allowed 25.8 points and 407.2 yards per game during 2013, but it was immediately apparent Saturday evening, there was a new mentality.
The Mean Green finished a scoreless first half with 31 total yards on 27 plays, while punting five times, and sophomore quarterback Josh Greer was intercepted three times as he guided North Texas to two first downs.
It was the beginning of the end for North Texas (0-1).
Senior linebacker Jordan Hicks picked off the first pass of his career early in the second quarter, setting up Malcolm Brown for his second short touchdown of the game with 9:13 left in the half.
Leading 14-0, Texas forced a three-and-out, allowing former Belton standout quarterback David Ash to cap off an eight-play, 53-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
Moments later, sophomore safety Adrian Colbert’s interception allowed the Longhorns to take a 21-0 lead into halftime.
Things did not improve in the third quarter for the Mean Green, who accumulated just nine yards in the period before Texas’ Demarco Cobbs recorded the team’s fourth interception late in the game, returning it for a 28-yard touchdown.
The Longhorns also posted seven tackles for loss, including four sacks and did not give up a play longer than eight yards.
While Texas’ defense was dominant, its offense was far from flawless.
Ash was adequate, completing 19 of 34 passes for 190 yards, and the Longhorns’ two-headed rushing attack of Brown (13-65) and Johnathan Gray (16-84) combined to produce a pedestrian 147 yards on the ground.
“On offense, we have to be a little more consistent moving the ball,” Strong said. “When the opportunities come, we have to take advantage of them.”
Against North Texas, though, it did not matter thanks to an unexpected breakout performance.
The star of the evening was senior receiver John Harris, who finished with 110 yards on seven receptions, including an 8-yard touchdown to put Texas up 28-0 in the third quarter. In 2013, Harris caught a total of five passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
“I told him when I came in, ‘You’re going to have to improve, and you have to get better,’” Strong said. “He told me it gave him a wake-up call, and he needed that.”
North Texas’ lone score came midway through the fourth quarter as cornerback James Jones recovered a fumbled snap in the end zone. The touchdown ruined Texas’ opportunity to post a shutout, but it was too little to save the Mean Green.
“We know we could have played better,” Strong said. “There are some areas we need to brush up and clean up, but it is all about getting better each and every week.”