Austin, Texas The Texas Longhorns passed the first test of their big rebuilding project.
Now comes a much more difficult one.
Back in the Top 25 after a season-opening victory over Rice, the No. 24 Longhorns (1-0) play host BYU (1-0) on tonight. They will face a team that has already proven it can scrap out a tough road win by rallying from 13 points down to beat Mississippi.
For the Cougars, another barnstorming win in one of college football’s power conferences would force the rest of the country to take note of a program playing its first season as a football independent after leaving the Mountain West.
“We don’t get intimidated,” BYU linebacker Jordan Pendleton said. “We’re excited to be able to play these types of teams being independent. We want to go show we can play with anybody ... If we start 2-0, it will build a lot of momentum for this team.”
After a 5-7 season in 2010, Texas has a lot to prove.
Nine consecutive years of 10 wins or more collapsed in a heap last season. The Longhorns were routinely run out of their home stadium, losing five of seven home games by an average of 12 points. Opponents beat them up at the line of scrimmage before outrunning them to the end zone.
And that’s why beating BYU would be so important: A win would be a sign the Longhorns can take a punch from a team on equal footing and deliver one right back, while a loss could seriously damage the Longhorns’ fragile confidence.
“This will be an old-fashioned street fight,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “It’s going to be about who’s the toughest.”
The win over Rice unveiled a promising group of freshmen and sophomores, innovative play calling by Brown’s new staff and had to be a boost for junior quarterback Garrett Gilbert. But it also exposed familiar problems of a soft defensive interior and special teams that didn’t create field position or score points.
BYU held Ole Miss to 208 total yards and no offensive touchdowns. The Cougars won the game in the fourth quarter by forcing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
“We learned our team has a lot of fight,” BYU wide receiver McKay Jacobsen said. “We could have given up.”
That the Cougars were able to handle an SEC team at the line of scrimmage grabbed Brown’s attention.
“We’ve been concerned about how tough we were in both lines the last couple years,” Brown said. “We’ll find out how tough we are Saturday night.”
Texas is still closely watching Gilbert. He threw 17 interceptions last season and satisfied Brown’s most important requirement against Rice by not turning the ball over. He also led three long scoring drives and had two passes over 50 yards to Mike Davis.
“We are hungry,” Gilbert said. “We got win No. 1. Now we want more.”
BYU quarterback Jake Heaps took his share of lumps last season when BYU started 2-5, but then helped rally the Cougars to a 7-6 finish. Against Ole Miss, he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, but started the BYU rally with a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
The Texas-BYU matchup comes at a time when the Longhorns are monitoring the delicate future of the Big 12 and the Cougars are being mentioned as possible candidates to replace Texas A&M, which is planning to leave the conference.
BYU administrators won’t comment on a possible courtship from the Big 12 but coach Bronco Mendenhall has said he likes BYU as an independent.