AUSTIN - Texas couldn’t get out of it's own way for the first 28 minutes in it's season-opener Saturday.
It couldn’t be stopped the rest of the way in a 56-7 thumping of New Mexico State at DKR-Memorial Stadium. By the time it got clicking, Texas’ point-a-minute offense set a school record with 715 total yards.
It sure didn’t seem that way, offensive coordinator Major Applewhite conceded. At least, not at first.
“We were our own worst enemies,” Applewhite said. “I’m not happy with the way we played in first half, but it’s a sign of a good team to compartmentalize and move on. I’m proud to see them do that. I don’t think they would have done that two years ago.”
One of the biggest questions early on -- it’s been asked since January -- was how QB David Ash would respond to adversity. The junior had a rep for allowing one bad play to snowball into another, and then another. However, few expected him to face hard times so early against such a lightly-regard foe. But with 2:22 left until halftime, Ash was up to his chinstrap in troubles.
His first two series of the second quarter ended with consecutive interceptions. There was a smattering of boos from the rafters, but Ash may have silenced some of his critics, including the ones in his own head, with back-to-back TD bombs. He followed his 54-yard TD toss to John Harris for Texas’ first score of the season by hitting speed demon Daje Johnson in stride in a one play, 64-yard drive just before halftime.
“We had to fight and had to overcome some things,” Coach Mack Brown acknowledged. “That was one thing we’d been working on with David to do better. I thought he kept his composure.”
Ash finished 20-of-28 passing for 343 yards and four TDs. He also rushed nine times for 91 yards, including a 55-yard scramble down the right sideline to make it a 28-7 scoreboard with 10:27 left in the third.
The highly publicized, newfangled offense was more broken than fast-break for nearly two quarters.
Texas’ (1-0) most impressive play of the first quarter was Anthony Fera’s towering, 68-yard punt that Bryson Echols downed at the one. Until then, the home crowd had seen a drop from Jonathan Gray, a Mike Davis fumble at the end of 21-yard catch-and run, an overthrown ball to a wide-open Davis, Ash mishandling a shotgun snap and Gray going nowhere out of the ‘wild’ formation on 4th-and-two on the Aggie 45. The Horns struggled mightily to get into a rhythm, settling for just 29 snaps during the first half while the visitors notched 47 plays.
“There was no hollering and yelling, no panic buttons pushed, no game plans thrown out,” Applewhite said.
The defense had given Texas a much-needed shot in the arm when DE Reggie Wilson forced a fumble that Quandre Diggs recovered at the UT 29. Texas’ first trip inside the red zone, however, saw FS George Callender step in front of Ash’s left sideline pass for an end zone pick. The Horns took over in prime real estate at it's own 45 after the defense forced it's third three-and-out of the ball game. But Ash’s second INT in as many series meant Texas had turned the ball over on three of its first five possessions.
“We were getting yards but we weren’t capitalizing because of turnovers or penalties,” Ash said. “It’s something we have to cut out. It’s a game of keep-away.”
By then, the behemoth Jumbotron in the south end zone went dark for about five minutes late in the second quarter. Presumably, very few of the 99,623 in attendance cared for a replay any of NMSU’s 64-yard scoring drive that saw a 42-point underdog take a 7-0 lead with 2:28 left until halftime.
If there was a turning point in an eventual 49-point rout, it was the 54-yard right sideline TD toss to Harris. The junior has battled injuries and worked at tight end this spring but appears to have found a permanent home at WR.
“The cornerback bit on Jaxon (Shipley) on a quick out-route,” Harris said. “It was a quick instant. I sidestepped that way and, once I had it, I knew I couldn’t get caught.”
It was a harbinger of things to come. It marked the first time in the Mack Brown era that Texas scored at least four times on plays of 50+ yards. The Horns averaged 54.6 yards per play on those scores. After managing 136 yards on its first 27 snaps, Texas posted 342 yards on it's next 15 plays.
Daje Johnson lived-up to preseason hype and lined up all over the field. He finished with a career-high 139 all-purpose yards, including 24-yard TD run to complement his 66-yard TD reception. His star is clearly on the rise.
“The more you do,” Applewhite said, “the more we invest of you. But this is just the first round of a 12-Round battle.”
Jalen Overstreet led all rushers by notching 92 yards and a couple of TD's on nine touches during mop-up time. It was a relatively quiet night for Malcolm Brown, but his 74-yard TD on an Ash swing pass will likely be the easiest score of his career. By then, the offense had rolled to a 35-7 advantage.
“It showed us what we, as an offense, can do,” Brown said. “We got off to a slow start, but the defense kept getting us stops. The offense wasn’t rolling at first, and then the offense clicked. That’s something we can be all year.”
Joe Bergeron was a battering ram on a couple of carries early in fourth quarter before the replay booth awarded Davis a 25-yard TD catch after he fought through pass interference and dragged his right foot just inside the left corner of the north end zone. The four-play drive made it a 42-7 blowout with 11:51 left.
“When you hold any team to just seven points that’s a success for the defense.” said DE Jackson Jeffcoat.
The defense generally imposed it's will against an overmatched foe but yielded 242 yards through the air. There plenty of missed tackles in space and, at times, the defense played as if it had never seen a quarterback keep on a Zone Read.
Still, the yards-per-play (4.1) were low considering NMSU logged 82 plays, said embattled coordinator Manny Diaz.
“The YAC (yards after contact) were pretty low,” said Diaz, after his unit forced nine punts. “Our guys were flying around the ball. They weren’t able to get anything explosive against us.”
Indeed, the explosions belong to Texas once it pushed through its first-half implosion.
“The tempo definitely showed up in the third and fourth quarter,” Applewhite concluded.
Indeed, it was a tale of two halves. In the end, the burnt orange glass was half-full.