The formula for the Texas Longhorns in new head coach Charlie Strong's debut went exactly to plan -- a tough defense limited the North Texas Mean Green offense, setting up an opportunistic offense to come out with a 38-7 victory in front of just more than 93,000 fans at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.
The defense came up with four interceptions -- with one returned 28 yards for a touchdown by resurgent senior linebacker Demarco Cobbs -- while consistently harassing North Texas quarterback Jake Greer, who went 2-for-11 passing with two interceptions. Back-up quarterback Andrew McNulty threw two more interceptions for the Mean Green, which failed to record a play from scrimmage over eight yards.
The 68 interception return yards for the Horns completely dwarfed the 15 yards passing by North Texas.
Against a North Texas offensive line that featured 123 combined starts coming into the game, the Texas defensive line was extremely impressive, limiting the Mean Green to 79 yards rushing on 43 carries. Several sacks helped those numbers, but sacks had been hard to come by for opponents in recent seasons, as that experienced line had only given up 17 total in the last two seasons.
But the Horns stymied the two leading rushers for the Mean Green, as well, as the two lead backs both averaged 3.3 yards per carry.
The linebackers stepped up to help out a secondary that struggled to produce interceptions last season, as senior Jordan Hicks added his own interception to the return from Cobbs. Sophomore safety Dylan Haines added another, as did fellow sophomore safety Adrian Colbert, who surprisingly ended up receiving most of the snaps opposite senior Mykkele Thompson after it seemed that Haines and freshman safety Jason Hall were ahead in the competition just days ago.
Overall, the defense was quick to the football, especially Hicks in his return, and tackled well in the open field. Even Thompson, a favored fan whipping boy, looked more physical than he has in the past. It's truly a new era.
However, it wasn't all great news for the Horns, as senior center Dominic Espinosa went down in the third quarter with a sprained right ankle when he was rolled up in. Strong didn't have an update on Espinosa after the game, but did say that the next step for Espinosa is an X-ray on Sunday, which suggests that it wasn't a sprained ankle and could be something more significant.
Redshirt freshman back up Jake Raulerson held his own replacing Espinosa for a handful of snaps before a fumbled exchange resulted in a turnover, as did another issue in the end zone that resulted in the recovered touchdown accounting for the only Mean Green score of the game.
More positive was the performance of junior quarterback David Ash, who played his first game since last September and was solid if unspectacular in going 19-for-34 for 190 yards and a touchdown, along with a rushing touchdown on 4th and goal from the one-yard line. The numbers could have been better for Ash, but two dropped passes by senior wide receiver John Harris hurt Ash early.
An attrition candidate not so long ago, Harris turned in what may be a breakout performance once he recovered from the dropped passes, hauling in seven receptions on the day for 110 yards, including a touchdown catch of eight yards dragging behind the formation on a play-action pass before turning the ball upfield and breaking several tackles to find the end zone.
Trimmed down from last season, the celebration from Harris after his score was evidence of just how much the one final opportunity means to the senior who has struggled to contribute in meaningful situations during his career.
However, despite several attempts downfield in what was a positive development concerning the vertical aggressiveness of the Shawn Watson-run offense, it wasn't clear that Ash has found a favored target in that area of the field -- Harris was good as a possession target, but there's no Mike Davis on this team right now and that could limit the offense.
Strong had preached the need for an effective running game coming into the contest and the reviews were much more mixed along the front. The unit blew several pass protections in the first half against an undersized North Texas defensive line and sometimes struggled to open up holes in the running game.
Notable was the lack of stubbornness in that regard from Watson, who was content to run play-action passes out of heavier formations, especially the bunch look that the Horns will apparently use consistently this season, breaking tendency before he even established tendencies.
In the end, the fact that junior running back Johnathan Gray looked completely healthy in his return from the Achilles injury that ended his sophomore season was incredibly positive news for a team that came into the game with three healthy scholarship running backs. Gray had 16 carries for 82 yards, with an impressive 42-yard run down the left sideline that truly heralded his return.
His counterpart in the backfield, senior Malcolm Brown, didn't look any more explosive than he did last season, but reeled off a 26-yard run and continued the tough running that characterized his junior season.
Even freshman D'Onta Foreman got into the act late with a 34-yard run. As expected, freshman Donald Catalon wasn't dressed for the game as he attempts to recover from an injury sustained during fall camp.
The offense is a work in progress, especially along an offensive line that may not feature its top unit this season with the injury to Espinosa, but the defense has clearly made big strides and if that continues to be the case, the Horns should be able to hang in most games this season.
Horns up for a strong debut from the new Texas head coach.