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Texas upperclassmen step up in win over Oklahoma

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Many of the last men standing from the Mack Brown era played the best games of their careers in the Cotton Bowl last Saturday.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Just call them survivors -- after numerous busts, dismissals, and transfers from the 2011, 2012, and 2013 Texas Longhorns recruiting classes, a host of upperclassmen represent the final ties to the past, even as the program attempts to march into the future under new head coach Charlie Strong.

The juniors and seniors have come under heavy scrutiny this season and in the past for failing to live up to expectations, failing to adequately lead, and for flat-out failing to make plays on Saturdays.

But on one beautiful fall Saturday in the Cotton Bowl, they combined with the underclassmen with whom they've had beef to turn in one of the most cathartic performances in the recent history of Texas football.

Senior wide receiver Marcus Johnson

The one single play that set the tenor for the entire game was the first touchdown by Johnson against Oklahoma. There was the stiff arm to take the edge, then the hard running down the sideline to break several poor tackle attempts by Sooner defenders.

More than that though, Johnson gave one of his best efforts in burnt orange as a blocker and came up with a critical third-down catch that helped extend a drive. How many times did Johnson drop contested passes exactly like that one last season? Too many, to be sure.

On Saturday, however, Johnson was an inspiring presence in turning in his most complete game at Texas.

Junior tight end Caleb Blueitt

No one can ever accuse Bluiett of being anything less than a team player -- this is now the third time that he's been at tight end during his four years in Austin. No one can question his toughness after he battled back from a bad knee injury late last year to return ahead of schedule.

And just watch his effort and intensity out on the field. After several snaps it will become apparent to even the most novice football fans that he cares deeply.

As the only healthy tight end on the roster with the size and mass to block effectively in in-line situations, Bluiett actually did some of his best work against Oklahoma as an H-back, as his ability to acquire defenders in space has helped Texas develop an identity as a team that can run Counter and Quarterback Power with consistency.

Go back and look at his lead block on sophomore running back D'Onta Foreman's sprint draw that resulted in the game-changing 81-yard gain -- it was arguably the most key block in the entire game, with honorable mention going to sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Joe's effort on senior wide receiver Marcus Johnson's run down the sideline for a touchdown.

Few things are more rewarding as a fan than seeing players who work hard get rewarded with opportunities in big moments, so it was a truly special thing to see Bluiett catch the first pass out of the Swoopesdozer package that provided the winning margin for the Horns.

There's no question that Bluiett could help Texas out at defensive end, but his blocking ability right now is too valuable to justify the move.

Senior fullback Alex De La Torre

Once a questionable take at linebacker to kickstart a Texas Junior Day back in 2011, De La Torre has blossomed into an effective lead blocker for Texas and has even been able to hold his own as a tight end despite his lack of height. Like Bluiett, he's a blue-collar guy who gives his best effort on every play and grades out at a high level because he understands his assignments. Having De La Torre lead the way in the Swoopesdozer has been a major reason why the package has found consistent success and the Oklahoma game was a perfect example of his steady execution.

Senior offensive tackle Marcus Hutchins

Called out by fellow senior Sedrick Flowers for his abysmal effort after replacing injured junior Kent Perkins in the Oklahoma State game, Hutchins clearly re-engaged against Oklahoma after more shaky moments against TCU. Having to pass protect less often with Texas only throwing 12 passes on the game clearly helped, but the senior's effort level was much better in the passing game and the running game.

Junior defensive tackle Paul Boyette

When Boyette flashed at times last season on his way to 3.5 tackles for loss, it looked like he was poised to become a bigger contributor with the departure of Malcom Brown to the NFL. Instead, he consistently lost the line of scrimmage and couldn't win one-on-one battles in the early season, failing to post any disruptive stats at all through the first five games.

Then, all of a sudden, he came alive against Oklahoma, pushing the pocket, showing some pass-rushing moves, and generally playing like a guy who wanted to change the game. The result? Two tackles for loss and a big sack.

Welcome to the 2015 season, big guy.

Senior linebacker Peter Jinkens

Throughout the fall, the oft-benched Dallas product has been trying to do and so the right things in the locker room and on the practice field, Unfortunately, his well-chronicled issues in pass coverage, in defeating blocks, and in consistently making open-field tackles all undermined those efforts.

Against Oklahoma, though, Jinkens looked like a different player, finding opposing wide receivers on crossing routes and eliminating them as options in addition to taking on and defeating offensive linemen to limit the Oklahoma running game. Since Texas played much more dime than it has all season and used freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson off the edge, Jinkens was often the only player who could keep the Sooners from consistently gashing the Longhorns. In that high-pressure role, Jinkens excelled.

At the end of it all, the always-emotional senior had spend a few moments collecting himself in the end zone. It was an understandable and completely human reaction to a performance that saw him leave it all on the field.

Just like so many of the upperclassmen on the team.