After taking several steps back against the Kansas State Wildcats last week, the Texas Longhorns bounced back with needed 34-13 victory over the Texas Tech Red Raiders at AT&T Stadium in Lubbock that keeps bowl hopes alive for at least another week.
Paced by a season-high 242 rushing yards on 51 attempts, tough efforts by senior running back Malcolm Brown and junior running back Johnathan Gray helped open up some opportunities in the passing game and sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes mostly capitalized in averaging 9.1 yards per attempt.
Brown led the team with 22 carries for 116 yards and two touchdowns, while Gray added a touchdown of his own and 76 yards on 16 carries.
The game was close through three quarters with the Longhorns taking a 20-13 lead into the final frame, but two quick touchdowns in the fourth quarter put the game out of reach and accounted for the final margin.
Just as the team had to bounce back from the poor game against Kansas State, so too did Swoopes, who had regressed on the road in Manhattan. In another hostile environment on Saturday night, the Whitewright product was much more composed, even as he had to deal with consistent pressure from the Texas Tech defense early in the game.
He went 13 of 25 through the air for 228 yards and a touchdown, finding favored target John Harris five times for 165 yards, a career high for the breakout senior wide receiver. A 68-yard catch for Harris late in the second quarter set up a 17-yard touchdown run by Gray on the following play to respond to the only Texas Tech touchdown offensively on the evening.
It was hardly a perfect performance for the Longhorns, however, as has come to be the norm for this team. The most crucial mistake was a fumble by Swoopes in the first quarter when he tried to scramble and then throw the ball away while switching the football from his left hand to his right hand, but he lost the ball during his throwing motion. It was subsequently recovered by Texas Tech's Brandon Jackson in the end zone to give the Red Raiders an early 6-3 lead after missing the extra point attempt.
There were also some issues with ball security -- senior wide receiver Jaxon Shipley fumbled trying to pick up extra yardage on a promising drive for the Longhorns and Brown also lost the ball doing the same thing, though his mistake was covered up when senior tight end Geoff Swaim fell on it.
On the deep throws from Swoopes, there were also some plays left on the field. Early in the game, Harris couldn't get his head around on a slant and go that was dropped over his shoulder by the Texas quarterback and should have gone for a touchdown. Junior wide receiver Marcus Johnson dropped a long pass that would have gone for a significant gain later in the game and could have had a long touchdown catch, but the ball was slightly under thrown, allowing the Texas Tech cornerback to take a pass interference penalty to ensure the reception never happened.
And after the game was out of reach, freshman tight end Andrew Beck dropped a long pass down the sideline just before Swoopes overthrew an open Daje Johnson down the same sideline.
The junior wide receiver had his first significant impact of the season, though, carrying the ball twice on end arounds for 43 yards, including a 30-yard effort.
Defensively, Texas gave up 368 yards against a depleted Texas Tech offense that was down to third-string walk on quarterback after starter Davis Webb had to sit out the game due to an ankle injury he suffered last week and then lost back up Patrick Mahomes when he took a vicious hit from Texas senior cornerback Quandre Diggs and fumbled.
Mahomes ending up leaving the game, forcing walk on quarterback Vincent Testaverde into action for the first time in his career and he wasn't able to create the big plays that Red Raiders needed, finishing the game averaging 4.5 yards per attempt and throwing an interception.
On the scoreboard, the performance looked impressive, as the defense gave up only one touchdown, but there were some breakdowns in long down and distance situations once again that helped extend drives and the secondary missed several opportunities to come up with interceptions, though senior defensive back Mykkele Thompson was finally able to intercept a Testaverde pass late in the game.
More positive was the performance of sophomore cornerback Bryson Echols, who stepped in for his first significant action on defense in his career and mostly held his own.
The team needed to show improvement in the ability to avoid major mistakes, especially along the offensive line, and there were serious signs of progress for a team that will now face a tough road to win two of the final three games to reach bowl eligibility.
Against a Texas Tech team that was reeling from the blowout loss to TCU and the injury to its starting quarterback, Texas didn't play a complete enough game to beat West Virginia next weekend, but it was a step forward.
Over the next few days, that will be all that matters.