Strong Start

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By Bill Frisbie, Inside Texas Lead Writer
Posted Aug 30, 2014
Copyright © 2017 InsideTexas.com


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Texas methodical 38-7 win Saturday against overmatched North Texas to launch the Charlie Strong era was a foregone conclusion, but what can be concluded about the 2014 Longhorns now that the season-opener is in the record books?

AUSTIN --  Lets start with this: the D-line looks world-class, but the O-line is in a world of hurt.  

Dominic Espinosa made his 40th start before injuring his right ankle and carried off the field with 6:40 remaining in the third. His absence from a piecemealed line was painfully obvious. There were two lost fumbles following botched exchanges between David Ash and RS freshman Jake Raulerson, including one that North Texas recovered in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter for its only TD.


“If Dom isnt able to play,” Strong said, “then were going to have to restructure the offensive line.”


Again.


Marcus Hutchins not only made his first career start but was also playing defense just three weeks ago. (Strong has yet to publicly lift the suspension of LT Desmond Harrison). The left side of O-line appears to be the weakest link on a team that, otherwise, has a formula for success with its solid running game and stellar defense. Hutchins and Kennedy Estelle switched positions to open the second half.


O-line coach Joe Wickline conceded during the preseason that his unit wasnt near where it needed to be.  Case-in-point: his big uglies on the left side could not generate the surge needed to hit pay dirt late in the first half given three shots inside the three-yard line. Ash took matters in his hands on fourth down when he rolled right and extended the ball across the plain – barely  to go up 21-0.  


Conversely, Texas put up some of its best defensive numbers in school history.  


We had great effort and we had great pursuit,” said defensive coordinator Vance Bedford. “We had numbers to the ball.  When a guy had a chance to make a play, he did make those plays.”


The 94 total yards surrendered ranks No. 12 on the schools single-season list; the 15 total passing yards ranks No. 8. The defense forced four interceptions (the most since the 2009 win at Oklahoma State) after totaling 10 all last season. Two North Texas QBs combined for just 3-of-17 passing with no completion longer than seven yards. Texas did not give up a run longer than eight yards after ranking 102nd nationally in 2013 with 198 plays that netted 10+ yards. 


Bedford concedes that the stats are “exciting” but come with a caveat. 


“We played a team that was very young on offense,” he said. “The type of offense that they have, with two backs and 12-personnell, you can really get after that. Were going to find out more about our defense starting next week to see if we can tackle in space.”


Ash is still shaking off the rust from a years absence, but he showed enough polish and poise to give further evidence that this team is lost without him.  He finished 19-of-34 passing for 190 yards, one TD and no INTs. His new best friend is wide receiver John Harris, who put up a career night with 110 yards on seven grabs.  


The senior considered quitting football following several unproductive seasons but found a new lease on life in Strongs more structured environment. Harris matched last seasons catch-total (five) by halftime and, most impressive, were his blue collar, yards-after-contact. His Come-Home-To-Jesus chats with Strong during the off-season are starting to pay off.


“A lot of people dont get second chances,” Harris said. “When you do get a second chance, you have to take the opportunity and grasp it.”


Texas generated a balanced, if not pedestrian, 353 yards of offense. Johnathan Gray led all rushers with 84 yards on 16 carries while Malcolm Brown added 85 yards on 13 totes.


“I feel this system is more balanced with the run and the pass,” Gray said. “Its more balanced and more systematic.”


Sophomore Adrian Colbert logged his first start at the depleted SS spot after freshman Jason Hall was listed atop the preseason depth chart. It was walk-on (now on scholarship) Dylan Haines, however, who came up with a tip-drill INT on the Mean Greens second possession. The sophomores 22-yard return put Texas in prime real estate at the 18, but the Horns came away empty when Nick Roses 38-yard FG attempt drifted wide right. 


Next series, Texas benefitted from a personal foul penalty on 3rd-and-6 following John Harris' second drop of the opening frame.  


“There were a little bit of nerves,” Harris said. “I saw some open field and wasnt looking for the ball.”


Harris atoned three plays later when a scrambling Ash found him down the right sideline for a 27-yard hookup. ( Gray was clearly confused about the play call and missed his block). The first score of Charlie Strong era came courtesy of a 1-yard Brown plunge off right tackle.  It was a 7-0 scoreboard at the 4.06 mark following the nine-play, 63-yard drive. 


The visitors faced 2nd-and-7 from their own 43 when Jordan Hicks re-introduced himself to the announced 93,201 on hand for the season-opener. The 5th-year senior stepped in front of QB Josh Greers right sideline pass and returned his first career interception (his first!) 18 yards to the North Texas 31. 


Ash immediately went up-top on a 28-yard, play-action pass to Harris. Next snap, Brown tallied his second TD from three-yards out to extend the lead, 14-0. QB Andrew McNulty replaced Greer on UNTs next series but didnt fare any better against a Longhorn D-line that lived up to billing.  On 3rd-and-five from the 36, DeMarco Cobbs and a blitzing Mykkele Thompson leveled the junior for an 11-yard sack to force the fifth punt of the half.


Ash converted on 3rd-and-7 from midfield when he found Harris over the middle for 20.  Espinosa was whistled for a personal foul at the end of the play, but Gray got those yards back, and then some. The junior bounced outside left end for a career-best 42 yards all the way down to the Mean Green 3. It took four cracks at the end zone before Ashs scamper around right end capped the eight-play, 53-yard scoring drive. 


North Texas crossed midfield for the first time following an unnecessary roughness call against Duke Thomas. Colbert ended the drive with his sliding INT at the Texas 25 with 51 seconds left until intermission.


Texas first series of the second half was its crispest of the evening. The nine-play drive included a 17-yard Harris reception and Browns churning, 26-yard run. Ashs eight-yard TD toss to Harris off play-action capped the 75-yard march. Texas answered the fumble recovery for TD with Nick Roses 34-yard FG and Cobbs' 28-yard pick-6.


Strong dismissed any particular emotion that might be associated with his first win at the 40 Acres.


“More than anything, I just wanted to get this one out of the way,” he said.


Most important of all, Texas finally played like it gives a damn.  (Strong said during his post-game interviews that he inherited a team that was “all individuals” that lacked “pride” and “identity”.)  


“This team has done everything weve asked them to do,” Strong concluded. “We know we could have played better. There are some areas that we need to clean up. Its all about, each and every week, getting better and better and better.”


It better. 

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