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Texas Longhorns special teams finally contribute to a win

After a week spent discussing the failures in the Cotton Bowl, the Texas special teams were finally special in a good way against Iowa State.

Cooper Neill

Entering a home contest against the Iowa State Cyclones that would either sink or buoy the bowl eligibility hopes of the Texas Longhorns, the Texas special teams were a prominent subject in almost every media availability.

Beat writers asked head coach Charlie Strong about the division of responsibilities among the coaches, asked players about the continued issues and which special teams units they participate in, and recapped all the struggles this season.

Those struggles include the key punt return late by UCLA,  the blocked kick returned for a touchdown by Baylor, the fake punt that resulted in a big touchdown in the same game, the kickoff returned for a touchdown by Oklahoma, and a mindless personal foul on a fair catch by sophomore safety Adrian Colbert against the Sooners.

Strong said last week that the special teams needed to get better, including better effort by the coverage teams and return teams and better attention to detail.

For instance, the Texas head coach said that the keys were there for a middle return by Oklahoma's Alex Ross on the big play in the Cotton Bowl, but the unit as a whole didn't read them and two players fell down in the hole and didn't get back up in time to make a play.

After better effort across the board against Iowa State, Strong assessed the current state of Texas special teams on Monday.

"The punt team, it's all about the punter, and he did a great job of just putting the ball in the right place, and then Nick Rose stepped up and hit the two big field goals for us," said Strong. "But it's all about challenging and us sending a message to our special teams where we have to play better because we're not getting what we needed."

The big progress came from aforementioned junior place-kicker Nick Rose, who has struggled at times in his adjustment to the position -- he hadn't attempted a field goal in a collegiate game entering the season. But against Iowa State, he provided a major boost and earned Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week for his efforts.

In the third quarter, Rose hit a 45-yard field goal to put Texas up 31-28. The kick was the longest of his career, but not as pressure-packed as his other attempt, the 21-yarder to seal the victory in regulation that was the first game-winning field goal for the Longhorns since Texas legend Justin Tucker nailed a 40-yard attempt against Texas A&M that still resonates to this day.

After suffering through two blocked kicks and several other poor attempts, Rose is now 7-of-11 on the season after making his last four. Texas still ranks tied for No. 90 nationally at 63.6 percent on kicks, but at least the Horns are now threatening to move into respectable territory nationally if Rose can continue improving and connecting on the attempts that should be high-percentage.

Where Rose continued his excellence this season was on kickoffs, sending eight of nine into the end zone, with the lone exception a squib kick that ended the game. In that area, he's been as good as he was through his first two seasons on the 40 Acres -- his touchback percentage of 77.1 ranks tied for first nationally, even though it seems that the coaches asked him to keep several kicks in play early in the season to test the kickoff coverage unit.

Based on that percentage, it would be fair to say that Rose possesses one of the best legs in the country, albeit one that he is still working to harness on field goal attempts.

Senior punter Will Russ has also come under criticism this season for some inconsistent efforts, including the punt against UCLA that allowed the long return in part because the ball was supposed to be kicked left, but ended up in the middle of the field.

In recent weeks, however, Russ has been much better, with the only real criticism recently a 63-yard punt that out-kicked his coverage against Iowa State, allowing Aaron Wimberly to return the kick 27 yards. The good news, though? Texas junior cornerback Duke Thomas erased the good field position with an interception that led to a Longhorns touchdown.

Overall, the efforts by Russ against the Cyclones were good enough to earn him National College Punter of the Week by the College Football Performance Awards after he averaged 50.7 yards per punt on six attempts. The 63-yard boot was the longest of his career and he also helped out the defense by pinning two kicks inside the iowa State 20-yard line.

On the season, Russ is now averaging 43.9 yards per kick, which ranks second in the conference and No. 29 nationally. More than a quarter of his 46 kicks have traveled more than 50 yards and 18 of them have landed inside the opposing 20-yard line.

On the punt return team, senior wide receiver Jaxon Shipley had a 15-yard effort to boost his 2014 average to 10.9 yards per attempt. It's not as strong as his average of 13.5 yards last year, but it is good enough to rank him No. 20 nationally this season.

Significant strides were almost made on kickoff return this week, aided by plenty of reps due to the poor defensive effort. Freshman wide receiver Roderick Bernard has been back there for two weeks now and appeared to be getting closer to breaking a long return.

Unfortunately, some of his own players were getting in his way.

"I hope it can last more than one week, but what we did is our guys try to follow him to go back to block," Strong said on Monday. "I said, just get out of his way and he runs in there, and if he gets out of his way, he's still the safety, and I know this, he's going to make that kicker miss, and there's no telling how far he's going to run. But he's such an explosive runner."

In terms of pure track speed, Bernard struggled to run the 100m in less than 11 seconds in high school, but he did claim a 4.2 40-yard dash and has better short-area quickness than long speed.

The Sharpstown product who is the first member of his family to attend college only averaged 19 yards per return against Iowa State and is sitting at only 18 yards per return on his eight overall attempts. However, his 26-yard effort on the final kickoff return of the game was crucial to the final outcome.

In fact, Strong had been ready to head to overtime.

"I said let's see where the ball ends up," the Texas head coach said. "I was going to go into overtime. I was going to say take a knee to overtime, because I didn't think they could stop us on offense, but once we ended up where we did with the kick-off return. I said, let's take a shot."

The rest, as they say, is history.

If the Texas kickoff return unit can start blocking better or merely get out of Bernard's way, he could break a long return at some point this season, which has been a rarity for the Longhorns over the last two years.

So in a week after all the units came under intense scrutiny for all the previous mistakes, the team responded with much better play.

Now, as Strong said, the hope is that it can last more than one week.