College football is like James Burke's Connections. You can trace an event, hire, or coach's philosophy back through history as a connected series of events. And you can trace Texas’ 50-47 season-opening win over Notre Dame back to a Houston summer camp.
While preparing to serve as an assistant at Springtown High School in Texas, 24-year-old Sterlin Gilbert, a recent Angelo State graduate, volunteered at a camp arranged by Houston head coach Art Briles. He did it for two summers (2003-04), then landed a gig as Briles' graduate assistant at UH in 2005.
Armed with the template of a wonderful, fast, spread offense, he went back to the high school ranks. He served as an offensive coordinator at Abilene Cooper and Temple for three years and as head coach of his high school alma mater, Lake View, for three.
Gilbert's success, along with his Briles ties, earned him a gig as Eastern Illinois' offensive coordinator under fellow former Briles assistant Dino Babers in 2012. He followed Babers to Bowling Green, then moved on to take the Tulsa OC gig in 2015 under another former Briles assistant, Philip Montgomery.
This was a comfortable career path. He was walking up the career ladder with reasonable pace — he only recently turned 38 — and there were likely bigger jobs in his future. But when TCU's Sonny Cumbie turned Texas head coach Charlie Strong down, Gilbert got the opportunity to skip a few rungs on the ladder and take on the title of Longhorn offensive coordinator. And he almost didn't take it.
It took a monstrous salary offer and a home visit from not only Strong, but also athletic director Mike Perrin and school president Greg Fenves, to sway Gilbert. And Gilbert got to bring offensive line coach Mike Mattox, a fellow Babers/Montgomery guy, to Austin.
If he asked for a raise Monday morning, he'd probably get it.
From the moment Colt McCoy got injured early in 2009's BCS Championship game, the Texas offense lost its mojo.
Over the previous six seasons, the Longhorns have only once ranked in the Off. S&P+ top 50 (2012), and in Strong's two seasons, they have ranked 80th (2014) and 73rd (2015).
Under Strong, the Longhorns are now 12-4 when scoring at least 23 points (a low baseline), but fell below that mark 10 times and finished under .500 both years. While a young defense had its glitches in 2015, falling from seventh in Def. S&P+ to 68th, defense hasn't been the issue for Strong, just as it wasn't in Mack Brown's later years.
Strong desperately needed to breathe life into his offense last winter, but it took him a while to find anyone. Coaching is a job, after all, and it's hard to find someone willing to jump aboard a sinking ship. Conventional wisdom is that Strong needs a solid 2016 to keep his job.
That campaign couldn't have begun any better than this.
Averaging 6 yards per play over 86 snaps, Gilbert's offense showed power, explosiveness, and, most importantly, resilience. We saw aspects of the Briles offense, to be sure, like Shane Buechele’s gorgeous deep passes taking advantage of a stressed, stretched-out Notre Dame secondary. Gilbert himself was a swash-buckler as quarterback at Angelo State, completing just 45 percent of his passes but averaging 13.4 yards per completion with 30 career touchdown passes. You know he likes to go deep, and that was probably part of the draw when he went down the Briles road to begin with.
You also saw some of the power principles that Strong seems to prefer. D’Onta Foreman’s balance and second-effort strength (he finished with 24 carries for 131 yards, much of which came after first contact) punished a solid Notre Dame front seven and opened up opportunities on the outside. Buechele completed a 72-yard bomb to John Burt and a 68-yarder to former quarterback Jerrod Heard and nearly completed a third, as well (it was dropped).
If you can punish defenses with both efficiency and explosiveness, while mastering the art of tempo, there’s little that can be done to stop you.
Throughout the country, coaches suffered dramatically in Week 1 from overthinking at the quarterback position, and while Texas was in some way no different (the Longhorns listed two starting quarterbacks before the game), Gilbert and Strong balanced their two-QB approach better than just about anybody else.
It helps when the QBs complement each other. Notre Dame's Malik Zaire torched Texas a year ago, getting his name on Heisman lists, then suffering a season-ending injury the next week. He was replaced by DeShone Kizer, who thrived. On Sunday in Austin, Kelly vowed to establish a rotation between the two and did so well into the third quarter. The problem: Kizer and Zaire have similar skill sets — Kizer's a better passer, and Zaire's probably a better runner, but there's a lot of overlap — and Zaire's entry meant fewer possessions for Kizer, who was dominant for much of the game.
For Texas, Buechele handled most of the passing and Tyrone Swoopes established a physical run presence. Swoopes was used to soften Notre Dame up on an outstanding, 17-play second-quarter touchdown drive and scored three touchdowns as a short-yardage option. Buechele threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 33 yards of his own.
It's easy to start thinking big here.
Big 12 favorite Oklahoma lost to Houston on Saturday, while TCU labored to get past South Dakota State. Granted, Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Texas Tech looked fine against FCS opponents, and West Virginia looked the part of a top-25 team against Missouri. Still, it's not hard to find yourself thinking of Texas a conference title contender.
To say the least, though, hurdles remain.
After going up 31-14 early in the third quarter, the Longhorns gained 16 yards in four drives, generating just one first down, turning the ball over on an errant Buechele pass, and punting three times. These four possessions occupied 10 plays and just 6:24 of clock, and in response, Notre Dame scored twice and had a field goal blocked. They were done in by sudden inefficiency and a couple of bad snaps.
That Texas rebounded from this slump was obviously a good sign. The Longhorns forced two punts to finish regulation, and Buechele completed three of four passes on what ended up being the game-tying scoring drive. (It should have been a go-ahead drive, but Notre Dame blocked the PAT and returned it for two points to tie the game at 37-37.)
But the drawback of tempo and youth is sudden failure. And with a defense that is still figuring things out itself — the Longhorns did tumble last year and allowed 6.9 yards per play on Sunday when Kizer was in the game — it is almost guaranteed that droughts and mistakes will cost them. The question is whether it backfires a few times or a couple ... and whether those droughts come against good opponents or bad.
When you’ve got a talent advantage, it doesn’t matter as much if opponents know what is coming.
Still, the package of plays run when Swoopes was in the game was basic and predictable. Maybe it continues to succeed in short-yardage situations.
But Swoopes was also asked to start drives at the Texas 12 and 10, likely to pound out a first down or two and protect Buechele from awkward field position. It worked the first time — Swoopes helped to generate three first downs before ceding to Buechele on the 17-play scoring drive — but created a third-and-long the second time; Buechele came in and threw an interception.
The key to further success will likely be blurring the lines: getting a little passing success out of Swoopes while continuing to utilize Buechele’s decent legs. It is certainly possible (Swoopes has, after all, now thrown 491 passes in his career).
Five years ago, Baylor’s breakout year began with a classic 50-48 win over TCU. It ended up being the best game of the season and sparked a 10-win campaign. From his post as Temple (Texas) High School’s offensive coordinator, Gilbert was likely rooting for the Bears that day.
Gilbert’s tenure at Texas began with 50 points and a win in a game-of-the-year candidate. Now we’ll see if nine more wins are on the way.