DALLAS -- The first words out of Charlie Strong's mouth were his most honest. Not coincidentally, they were his most blunt. No need to waste words now.
"No improvement at all," the third-year Texas coach said about his team's defensive effort in a 45-40 loss to Oklahoma.
It's hard to say he's wrong. In his first game calling plays full time after demoting defensive coordinator Vance Bedford this past week, Strong's team gave up 672 yards to the Sooners.
That's the third straight game in which Texas has given up at least 500 yards; in fact, it was the worst performance in each of those three games -- all losses, dropping the Horns to 2-3 on the season with Strong's seat growing ever hotter amid reports of disgruntlement among the university's higher-ups.
For Oklahoma, it was a record-setting day.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield had 390 yards passing, the most by any Sooners quarterback in the Red River Showdown.
Receiver Dede Westbrook had 232 yards on 10 receptions -- single-game and RRS records, respectively -- plus three touchdowns. And that was in three quarters of play.
But, if you can believe it given those numbers, Texas' defensive performance wasn't all bad. The Horns' defense had three first-half takeaways. The word "forced" would be liberally applied, however, as one of Dylan Haines' two interceptions came on a non-call for obvious defensive pass interference. Another fumble in the second quarter by Joe Mixon was a close call, but replay was not conclusive enough to overturn. (Mixon muffed a punt in the second half for OU's fourth turnover.)
Still, three times Texas' defense prevented Oklahoma from advancing the ball farther -- and this from a unit that forced one whole turnover all season. In the Big 12 where defenses should be graded with a curve, winning categories like turnover margin is paramount. Yet, the offense was able to gain only three points off of turnovers. That's not the defense's fault.
And while it won't show up directly in the stat sheet, tackling -- a long-time problem for Texas -- improved. It wasn't a thing of open-field beauty like it needs to be, but it was better.
But what good is that if Texas couldn't stop the long ball?
The first deep shot happened with a little more than four minutes remaining in the first half. Mayfield hit Westbrook for a 71-yard bomb down the field to go up 14-10. The third quarter was more of the same. Much, much more. Twice Mayfield and Westbrook, finally healthy, connected for touchdown passes of 42 and 47 yards. On another long pass to Dahu Green, defensive back Kris Boyd inexplicably stopped running mid-play.
"We were playing very well and give up the big play right before the half," Strong said. "Then coming out of the half, we gave up the big plays. One was a double move and the other [Boyd] stopped.
"We knew they were going to run the ball, but we gave up the big plays."
Strong flat-out disputed that defenses in the Big 12 are what they are: helpless bodies simply trying to keep the box score from literally catching on fire. "Defensively you can get better," Strong said. "If you look at the plays we gave up, you can't get home runs thrown over your head. Those are what hurt you."
But that's not true, either. Not entirely.
Two of Oklahoma's second-half drives spanning the third and fourth quarters combined for 28 plays, 153 yards and 13:25 of game time. When they wanted to blow the top off the Cotton Bowl, they did that. But when the Sooners needed to wear down Texas, they did that, too.
So if tackling and takeaways improved -- for one week anyway -- what's still lacking?
"You just have to keep coaching 'em," Strong said. "It's no excuse what their class is... junior... senior... whatever. It's fundamentals and we have to continue to work on 'em."
Boyd pulling up on his play was glaring, but too often Texas' secondary was torched by receivers while keeping their eyes on the backfield. "Their quarterback [Mayfield] is going to scramble," Strong said, "but you can't lose your eyes."
Thing is, fundamentals this bad makes one wonder whether Strong can ever turn the corner at Texas. The coach is now five games into year 3. Most of guys playing on Saturday were playing in this game last season, either in starting or backup roles. Fundamentals can always be improved, but the foundation should have been set by now.
That's been the biggest knock on Strong during his time at Texas: One day, the identity will be established and the wins will match the talent. But perhaps it took Strong too long to create that identity, and time is running out.
"I think coach Bedford and coach Strong are doing a great job with the scheme," Haines said. "We sat there at halftime and didn't see one play that we hadn't walked through or seen. It was just mental breakdowns. The game is 80 percent mental."
It was impossible for Texas to turn completely around in one week with Strong calling the defensive plays. Still, at best, this game netted nothing for Strong's team. Some things got better, other things got worse.
With seven regular-season games left, it's still possible for that proverbial corner to be turned. If Texas wins five of those games, it guarantees a winning season. Four gets bowl eligibility. What will Texas look like in those seven games, though? Will the mental lapses disappear? Will the defensive stats improve? The offense, though battling its own consistency issues, has unarguably taken a step forward in 2016.
We know this much: Strong has no one else to demote. The onus is on him now. After his first week as play caller, the status of Texas defense is unchanged. It's not worse, but it's not better. That leads to what we also know: With Texas, it's always something holding them back.
What if Strong's team remains unchanged against Iowa State? Kansas State? How much patience will Texas have? How many wins does he need?
"I need 'em all," Strong said.