ONE BUOYED, ONE BRUISED

Tom Her­man’s gain from a lop­sided vic­tory proves to be a dam­ag­ing loss for Clay Hel­ton

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - MIKE FIN­GER mfin­ger@ex­press-news.net Twit­ter: @mikefin­ger

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 on­ce­ex­alted 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.

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