While many Texas fans were sitting in their living rooms or in their favorite sports bar yelling for Case McCoy to replace David Ash early in the game against Cal, the real issues in the early going stemmed from the inability of the offensive line to give Ash time to throw from a clean pocket and Mike Davis dropping passes.
Oh yeah, and the fact that the Golden Bears were daring the Longhorns to run into a box stacked with defenders. And co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin was obliging in his first bowl at Texas.
Watching a coordinator bang his head against the wall repeatedly and expecting something good to happen isn't exactly heartening, but Harsin at least owned his mistakes after the game:
Part of that is my fault. I needed to look to the outside more on some sweeps and probably pass earlier in the game on first and second down.
They were putting eight and nine guys in the box and I was still trying to run the ball. I should have switched the game plan earlier than I did. I think that had a lot to do with our struggles running the ball.
Just as importantly, Harsin made the necessary adjustments during the game, as Ash connected with Jaxon Shipley on first down on a possession midway through the second quarter, then hit Blaine Irby for 30 yards after another running play failed. After Ash caught the touchdown pass from Shipley on the reverse pass, the young quarterback seemed to settle down on the pressure by the Cal front seemed to subside somewhat as the Longhorns demonstrated that the defense would be punished for completely selling out against the run.
With the benefit of hindsight, the start of the game somewhat resembled Greg Davis going into a shell against Alabama after Colt McCoy went down with his injury. In an effort to protect his young quarterback, Davis tried to run the ball against a defense not only didn't respect the pass, but is essentially designed to always stop the run on first and second down. Instead of protecting Garrett Gilbert, Davis ended up making things worse by putting him in third-and-long situations that were obvious passing downs. When Davis finally did dial up a successful play, Gilbert overthrew an open Jordan Shipley.
Attempting to protect Ash was certainly understandable given his struggles with decision-making that have resulted in numerous interceptions, but it's also the case that jittery quarterbacks need some success to settle down in high-pressure environments and Harsin wasn't able to manufacture those opportunities for success early in the game, especially since Mike Davis decided that he wasn't particularly interested in catching passes in his vicinity. So when Ash had an open Jaxon Shipley down the sideline on a scramble, he wasn't in rhythm and missed the throw.
Eerily similar, eh?
Fortunately for the Longhorns and a fanbase on the verge of a collective heart attack, Harsin helped manufacture the scoring drive, and on the following possession a screen to DJ Grant and a swing pass to DJ Monroe helped build on the momentum established earlier, but a holding penalty negated a first down and killed the drive.
Still, when Texas got the ball in the third quarter following a long Cal touchdown drive, the defense was softened enough to allow two runs before Ash used the rhythm he established in the first half to hit Marquise Goodwin nearly perfectly in stride.
So while Harsin may have been slow to get it right in the game -- which could have been a much more serious mistake were the Texas defense not such a strong unit -- when it did matter within the specific context of the game, he made a lot of the right decisions and he was rewarded by Ash protecting the football.
In the end, it was a learning experience for both, but one that should benefit the team heading into the offseason.