Sept 15, 2012; Oxford, MS, USA; Texas Longhorns quarterback David Ash (14) prepares to pass the ball against the defense of the Mississippi Rebels during the game at Vaught Hemingway Stadium. Texas Longhorns defeated the Mississippi Rebels 66-31. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE
Texas went on the road for a game getting hyped in ways you normally don't see until November, and gave Ole Miss students the excuse they sought to bail for the after parties midway through the third quarter, running away with a 66-31 win over the Rebels. The Longhorns offense erupted for 676 total yards by averaging a ridiculous 8.7 yards per play, and scored 59 points in just under 50 minutes of play before finally calling off the dogs, in the breakthrough offensive performance that UT fans have been waiting for since 2009, when the program's offensive decline began.
After struggling with slow starts in the first two games, the defense impressively shut down the Rebels in the first quarter and outscored them 7-0, only to suffer an epidemic of big plays in the 2nd and 3rd quarters that allowed Ole Miss to hang around and -- on the bright side -- David Ash and the Texas offense to keep piling on points.
Following the romp in Oxford and sitting at 3-0, Texas isn't without flaws but on the whole looks to be in the strong position that we hoped to see, and if it had to be one way or the other, it's preferable by an order of magnitude that the offense is outperforming expectations and the defense has work to do to improve.
David Ash dominates. Heading into this season, most Texas fans were hoping for David Ash to prove that he could grow into a solid, mistake-averse quarterback capable of keeping defenses honest with efficiency and timely playmaking. Few if any expected to see him epitomize that standard through three games, but that is precisely what he has done, and suddenly the biggest advantage the rest of the conference appeared to have over the Longhorns appears to have fully disappeared.
It's impressive if unsurprising that through the season's first three weeks, 6 of the Top 10 QB Ratings in the country are held by Big 12 quarterbacks, and while no one would have predicted before the season that David Ash would be among them while Landry Jones would not, thats precisely where we are:
Ash has been nothing short of phenomenal thus far, and his performance at Ole Miss on Saturday night looked like the big leap forward we were hoping he was capable of making at some point. Ash's decision-making continues to be stellar, but in Oxford we saw him take shots down the field when the opportunities presented themselves, and while that alone would have been progress, he connected on four of his six attempts, drawing a pass interference on another. His 45-yard strike to Mike Davis to the Rebels' 8 yard line was the prettiest long downfield bomb Texas fans have seen in a long time -- splitting two defenders to hit Davis in stride -- while on the other three Ash threw short and to his receivers' outside shoulders where they had an opportunity to make a play on the ball but weren't in danger of being intercepted.
As he's done with everything else thus far, it's likely Ash's downfield passing will only continue to improve, and with the ability for his quarterback to punish teams downfield we're finally starting to see the Bryan Harsin offense at it is designed to succeed. It's a particularly fearsome attack with Ash because of his mobility and -- still vastly underrated and under-discussed by fans -- his outstanding touch on short passes, as beautifully evidenced on his perfect touchdown to Ryan Roberson last night or on any of the dozen beautifully thrown screen passes he's delivered this season. Texas never had a competent screen pass during Greg Davis tenure, and it's a lot of fun to see us doing it exceptionally well with athletic linemen, an unfair stable of backs who can catch it and make plays, and a quarterback who has remarkably good feel, accuracy, touch, and timing on the play.
Goodwin and Davis strike big play gold. Early in the second quarter Marquise Goodwin took a sweep around the edge for a 69-yard touchdown to extend Texas' lead to 17-7, but the emphatic protest of a United States Marine notwithstanding, that was just the beginning. After a distressing sophomore season that raised questions about his level of engagement, Mike Davis built on his strong performance last week with a career-best performance against the Rebels. Along with the beautiful 46-yard touchdown reception, Davis had 4 more receptions totaling 78 yards, plus a pass interference call drawn on another, showing great effort fighting for the football on each pass thrown his way.
As for Goodwin, he did nothing but make big plays, with his two receptions on the night going for 102 total yards, the latter a 55-yard touchdown that provided the game's final margin. Ash has been the big story in the early going, but it doesn't happen -- not to this degree, anyway -- without above-expectations performances from his receivers, as well. It's one thing when the defense just has to figure out how to stop one of the Shipley brothers, but something else entirely if Texas is able to attack and punish from multiple fronts, with multiple big-strike weapons. That? That's just frightening.
Backfield brilliance. One of those fronts, of course, is Texas' ever-improving ground attack, which just overwhelmed Ole Miss pretty much from start to finish. In fact, my only two regrets last night were Joe Bergeron's injury and the fact that Mack Brown decided to take a knee at the end, which succeeded insofar as the broadcasters dutifully characterized the move as "classy" but failed in my book for denying Jeremy Hills the opportunity to score his first career touchdown.
Beyond that, Texas' rushing attack looked as strong as it has since 2005 in overwhelming Ole Miss. Before he got hurt, Joe Bergeron was doing a great job pounding the Rebels between the tackles, where after last night he's now amassed 194 of his 207 yards on the ground. Some fans have grown impatient with starting Bergeron and having to wait for Malcolm Brown, but I actually love the tactic of having Bergeron pave the way forward initially, which increases Brown's effectiveness in getting to the edge. Both backs are excelling doing at what they do best, and outside of Tuscaloosa the Longhorns running back duo is second to none.
And that's to say nothing of DJ Monroe, Daje Johnson, and Jonathan Gray. Johnson's already broken a long one, but while Gray hasn't just yet, as I said last week and as was evident in last night's 9 carries for 50 yards, he's an incredibly impressive runner in terms of his feel and ability to accelerate when it's there and fight for optimal gain when it's not, and it's just a matter of time before he breaks one.
As for Monroe? The final tally: 1 carry, 10 yards, 1 touchdowns -- and yes, 1 defender trucked to get there.
"Just give it to DJ and let him go get it." I hear you loud and clear, Mr. Denius. Loud and clear.
Blocking Brigade (now with Tight Ends!) The offensive line mostly gets noticed when it screws up, which is why Texas fans have spent so much of the last four-plus years talking about the team's guys up front. Ole Miss' defense was thin on depth and undersized at every position, but boy did this group of Longhorns look good controlling the line of scrimmage, asserting their superiority both as rush and pass blockers.
In particular, this group continues to impress more and more with its ability to operate in space -- from Donald Hawkins perfectly sealing the edge on a Malcolm Brown rush, to the full brigade setting up a picture-perfect downfield escort on a screen pass to Joe Bergeron. This is an athletic group that's playing well together and is well-suited to doing the multitude of things Bryan Harsin wants out of his offense. On a staff full of coaches doing impressive jobs, Stacy Searels is second to none.
Last but not least, I'd be remiss not to at least mention the rapidly improving blocking that Texas is getting from its tight ends. In particular, Barrett Matthews was a difference-maker all night on Saturday, delivering fantastic work on the edge all night long in one of the quietest but most encouraging performances on the team.
Enjoy the process. Although the intent was to cover the entire team in this post, it's already 3:30 AM and we're 1,500 words in with just the offense already, so let's recognize that there's plenty of time in the upcoming bye week to discuss the defense and special teams and end this thing on a high note.
Ole Miss scorched Texas for 159 yards across 3 plays that netted the Rebels 17 points (and probably should have been 21). It was painful to watch, and disturbing to see given the letdowns in the opener versus Wyoming, but the silver lining I mentioned last night is important: a good bit of the defense's problems thus far are of the "capable of better" variety, as opposed to just "incapable."
That was evident across a number of impressive stretches -- most notably across the Rebels' first three drives, when the defense limited Ole Miss to 25 yards on 11 plays, with two punts and an interception that it returned for a touchdown. Edmonds looked great reading the quarterback and stealing in front at the last moment to snag the pick six, Brandon Moore made a brilliant read on a screen, halting his pass rush to provide the coverage that allowed his teammates to sack Wallace, Adrian Phillips made two impressive open field tackles coming up in support. Texas' defensive line played well all night long, and Alex Okafor delivered a performance that recalled some of the stuff we saw from Brian Orakpo during his senior year.
Texas' inexperienced linebackers are making a lot of mistakes in terms of positioning themselves properly to flow to the ball and avoid blocks, and Jordan Hicks' injury status is a critical development to monitor, but the secondary is just making the football equivalent of a double fault in tennis. There's no way to sugarcoat the sloppiness of the performance thus far, but while the defense has not been good, there's plenty of evidence to believe that there's a good defense in there.
All of which is to say that as far as struggles go, Texas is in about as good a position as possible in terms of opportunity to improve. While there wouldn't be much reason to feel optimistic if David Ash had gotten off to a slow start, it's a different thing altogether to hope that Carrington Byndom, Quandre Diggs, and Kenny Vaccaro start playing up to their demonstrated capabilities.
Expectations are a tricky thing, but I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who isn't enjoying watching this program start to come together under the outstanding work done by this staff, and isn't finding themselves excited by how high the ceiling is for Longhorns football again, and hasn't been fascinated to watch the process from the ground up.
Yes, this is Texas, and yes, we play for championships... but for far too much of its history Longhorns fans have simply wanted to decree it. Instead of build it.
Darrell Royal built it. Mack Brown built it, then slipped. And with his current staff, he's building it again.
Enjoy it. Or you really don't have any business demanding it.