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Mental Toughness Greater Obstacle for Longhorns

While the Longhorns looked like a different team, physically, for the majority of their content against UCLA, mental mistakes cost them big. For the next 9 games to be positive, this can't become a recurring theme.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Collegiate student-athletes will make physical mistakes related to execution, and mental mistakes due to exhaustion, lack of discipline or even momentary lapses of concentration. Physical mistakes can be minimized through practice, through discipline of craft, through dedication to one's position to ensure when the time comes the play will be made. Mental execution, however, is a whole different animal and one not so easily tamed.

This is exactly what we saw of the Texas Longhorns in their narrow 20-17 loss to the UCLA Bruins on Saturday night. The physical execution was arguably the best its been to this point in the season, but the mental execution let Charlie Strong's team down at the worst possible times.

There's little doubt the Longhorns will continue to improve physically, in terms of drive-to-drive and how they deliver on both sides of the ball. Their bounce-back, overall sense of urgency, and level of emotion against the Bruins speaks volumes about Strong's ability to motivate, for one, but also about the difference in this team from others in years past who wouldn't have come out with as much fire after an embarrassing loss.

Tyrone Swoopes was impressive.

His ability to throw with ease and precision on the run was the big question mark many of us had entering into the game against UCLA. This ability will be tested all season long -- especially against greater competition -- as a youthful offensive line learns through trial by fire, and Swoopes showed on Saturday he has what it takes to make the Horns' offense productive through the air.

The running game was also decent. Shawn Watson's decision to use the running backs as quick wideouts to get them the ball in space worked well early, and Malcolm Brown and John Gray combined for 118 yards on 21 carries after getting some decent holes to run through in the second half. Obviously, this isn't the 200+ yards rushing Texas will need here in a few weeks to win games, but it's a positive sign the offensive line which many had buried after the BYU debacle isn't a lost cause. They still need to establish their will more often in the trenches, but their dominance seems like less of a pipe dream than it may have this time last week.

John Gray didn't look like the John Gray of a couple of seasons ago. This is concerning. There was limited burst there when holes were there to run through, and you have to wonder if the surgeries, the rehab, and the grind has started to degrade some of his ability to turn routine carries into big gains.

Let's hope not.

As a whole, the defense played with heart and with emotion on its sleeve, making big plays when they were needed. Malcom Brown showed everyone why he's among the nation's best interior defensive linemen, terrorizing a UCLA front four that had no answer. Jason Hall laid some big hits, showing why his three-star rating might have been a little short-sighted, but also made some critical mental mistakes which we'll get back to. Jordan Hicks had another solid evening as a whole, and proved yet again this defense can't play at the level it's capable of collectively without him on the field.

All-in-all, the physical execution was promising. It was an improvement, and a marked one, and with a team of this experience level, it feels like that's what will be reasonable to ask from here on out.

The mental, however, was another story.

It all began with a crucial mistake made by senior captain Desmond Jackson -- who later left the game with an injury -- when he deferred Texas' second half-opportunity to receive the kickoff after UCLA was awarded the coin flip win prior to the game. The result was UCLA earning one extra possession which they weren't entitled to start the second-half. As it turns out, that possession could have made all the difference for Texas in those final moments of the 4th quarter.

It's hardly fair to isolate Jackson as the lone mental letdown, however, when there were plenty of others. Jason Hall's desire to make plays on occasion backfired, as the freshman safety earned two running into the kicker penalties during the game. One did not result in a first down, but the other did, saving a possession for UCLA, and giving rarely-used Bruins backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel a chance for a few more throws. One of which would be the dagger.

It all ended with Duke Thomas.

While Thomas also played well, his inability to recognize, then cover UCLA wideout Jordan Payton on a late fourth quarter sideline wheel route led to the game-winning touchdown, and a heart-breaking loss for a Texas team so close to grabbing a huge victory.

It's one thing to make mental mistakes against a team like UCLA who may be highly-ranked, but has yet to play a full 60 minutes this season. It will be another to make the same mental mistakes in coming weeks against teams like Baylor and Oklahoma, who have played a full 60 minutes, and have shown a level of ability which ensures mental mistakes from their opponents will turn into points. The margins the Longhorns have to work with are small, and mental mistakes which make those margins larger just cannot be reconciled.

If the Longhorns' incremental improvement in physical execution becomes exponential over the next 9 weeks, they're going to be in plenty of ball games. If it isn't met with the same improvement mentally, however, this season could be a long one indeed.