Texas trending up in wake of victory; but weaknesses must be addressed

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By Bill Frisbie, Inside Texas Lead Writer
Posted Dec 31, 2012
Copyright © 2014 InsideTexas.com


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Major Applewhite and Mack Brown

For Texas, the future is now. Coach Mack Brown frequently points to 2013 as when the key ingredients will be in place for Texas to return to college football’s elite.  The Longhorns’ spirited 31-27 Alamo Bowl comeback against No. 13 Oregon State should be a springboard toward greater heights if coaches can iron out a few glaring wrinkles.

A glass half-empty perspective is that this was a senior-laden triumph: the game’s two MVPs (defensive end Alex Okafor, receiver Marquise Goodwin) have completed their eligibility, as did safety Kenny Vaccaro following what was, arguably, his top outing of the year.  Yet 17 starters return from Saturday’s game after twice erasing a double-digit deficit.  The Horns played 16 true freshmen in 2012, tied with TCU as the most in college football.

However, another 8-5 campaign on the heels of a three-game losing skid would have signaled that the program had fallen and can’t get up under Brown’s watch.  But the Instagram, following the bowl win, is that Texas football is headed in the right direction and will likely open the 2013 season on the cusp of Top 10 status.

The program’s biggest challenge has to do with an offensive line that struggled to run-block all season.  The group generally gave quarterback David Ash ample time in the pocket Saturday but will keep Texas’ elite running backs bottled-up until it can consistently pile-drive.  Save for Goodwin’s 64-yard touchdown run off the second-quarter reverse, Texas’ ground game managed just 53 yards on 30 carries.  The closest Texas came to a sustained running game was when Ash scrambled seven times for 35 yards.

Credit offensive coordinator Major Applewhite for dialing-up quarterback draws and for going up-tempo in the second half.  It gassed the Beavers and allowed Ash to play more instinctively. The rub on Ash is that the sophomore is hesitant in decision-making, and Applewhite has vowed to simplify the passing game this spring.

It was a tale of two halves for Ash, who has yet to receive Mack Brown’s unqualified endorsement. But the game’s final 30 minutes was HUGE for the soft-spoken, scripture-quoting signal caller who brought much needed fire-and-brimstone to a backsliding offense.  His scrambling, 15-yard touchdown toss to Jonathan Gray midway through the fourth quarter was one of the top two completions of Ash’s career (the other is his game-saving, fourth-down completion to tight end D.J. Grant at Oklahoma State in September).

Just as important on Saturday, Ash displayed the kind of fist-pumping, backslapping, demonstrative presence that we’ve not seen from a Texas quarterback since Colt McCoy was helped off the field three years ago in the BCS National Championship game.

Incredibly, the statistically-worst defense in program history sealed the deal with its Alamo Bowl record 10th sack while limiting Oregon State to less than 90 yards of total offense in the second half.  The defense also put Texas in prime real estate by forcing a couple of first-quarter turnovers.  It went a long way toward taking some of the heat off embattled coordinator Manny Diaz.

“It will be very important for us to understand that we, by no means, have fixed all of our issues and we have not arrived,” said Diaz. “We’ve talked about this being a step leading into what is a very, very important offseason for this program. It’s going to feel better coming off this bowl game, but the fact that we battled and won a very close ballgame doesn’t change the fact that this football team is going to have to grind to get to where it wants to go.”

Texas’ young linebackers showed flashes Saturday while Peter Jinkens’ star is clearly on the rise. The Achilles Heel remains at defensive tackle. The group has difficulty shedding blocks and remains vulnerable up the middle against the run and inside screens, but defensive tackle Malcolm Brown should be a force in 2013 during his second year in the system.  Longhorn cornerbacks were inconsistent this season, but overlooked in Saturday’s win was the masterful day at the office enjoyed by the UT secondary.  Beaver receivers Brandon Cook and Markus Wheaton entered bowl season averaging nearly 200 yards per game but were held to just 68 total yards Saturday.

Okafor notched one of his Alamo Bowl-record 4.5 sacks when he and counterpart Cedric Reed threw quarterback Cody Vaz for a six-yard loss on third down to set up Ash’s game-winning touchdown toss to Goodwin. But the most critical defensive series was when it forced a three-and-out following Texas’ ill-fated attempt at a fake punt and OSU looking to build on a 10-point lead with 12:22 remaining. 

It’s difficult to quantify the importance of a bowl win heading into the off-season, particularly since Texas twice came from behind to upend its highest ranked opponent in three seasons.  Numerically, the ninth win of the season will only go so far with a program expected to win at least 11 every year.  The biggest differences, however, are the intangibles within a program that clearly has the talent to win now.

Call it mindset. Call it attitude. Call it swag.  But Texas’ newest play caller calls it as he sees it.

“It’s not about the Xs and Os,” Applewhite said.  “It’s about the culture of our program and demanding more of our guys, more of our coaches, our strength coaches, our trainers, just getting our guys tougher. That’s where we’re going to improve as a ball club. You can call any play you want. We’ve got to be uncomfortable (during the offseason) as coaches, uncomfortable as players because that’s where you find your largest growth. These next eight or nine months are going to be vital for us. The good thing is that these young guys – you can preach that to them all you want – but maybe over the course of their freshmen and sophomore years, maybe now it’s starting to sink in.”

And, maybe, it will make all the difference as Texas trends back toward the top.

 

 

 

 

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