- Max Olson, ESPN Staff Writer
The last low point of this Texas season might not be easy to remember these days, not with the Longhorns sitting comfortably at 8-2 with a seemingly deserving No. 15 BCS ranking.
But let us not forget the game in Lawrence, Kan., that nearly lived in infamy. You know, when Texas came oh-so-close to losing to a Kansas team that’s currently 1-9.
A remarkably flat showing against KU raised legitimate questions about whether Texas could be trusted going forward. An 0-4 finish to the regular season seemed as plausible, if not more so, as 4-0.
That was Oct. 29. Since then, Texas has bounced back with convincing victories over Texas Tech and Iowa State and enters its final bye week brimming with confidence.
This week’s film review offers a look at five reasons why Texas is 8-2 today and not 6-4. There are far more than five, but these are some of the critical ways Texas got better in two weeks.
1. A locked-in David Ash
A 13-yard pass to Johnathan Gray was impressive as any of his first-quarter completions.
As he’s done several times in recent weeks, Ash was unfazed by a pass rusher. He stepped forward, scrambled right and found the perfect moment to hit Gray with a short pass. That play picked up a first down, and Texas scored two plays later.
Ash was wrongly labeled as a dual-threat QB last year, but his ability to extend plays with his feet have made him all the more dangerous.
Two weeks ago, a shaky Ash got benched for Case McCoy. His confidence right now is unmistakable.
2. Fundamental defense
Another little play that didn’t change this game but spoke to Texas’ two-week improvements:
Gary had Kenny Vaccaro beat by a good two steps on his out route, and he caught it two yards from the first-down marker. As Gary turned, Mykkele Thompson blasted him right up the middle. Perfect angle, perfect form, perfect stop.
Thompson and Vaccaro were as guilty as the rest when it came to missed tackles. By playing solid assignment football, they’ve put themselves in position to start making those stops.
3. Stopping what’s easiest
Iowa State hoped to follow in the footsteps of the first five Big 12 teams Texas faced and hit UT hard with the run.
Paul Rhoades dialed up 13 run plays in the opening quarter and 24 in the first half. Early on, those rushes gashed Texas for 111 yards.
But just as they did against Tech, the Texas front seven adjusted and got its act together to hold ISU to 33 rushing yards in the second half.
After limiting Kansas to 2.5 yards per carry in the second half, Texas has been just as stingy these past two weeks. Texas Tech and Iowa State combined for 84 second-half rushing yards against UT.
4. Identity discovery
When Gray took over as starting running back, Bryan Harsin began leaning on running out of pistol formations.
Those seem to best fit Gray and Daje Johnson. Both have maximized their explosiveness when lined up in shotgun behind the quarterback.
In the preseason, Harsin and Major Applewhite said the key to getting Gray involved was finding packages that showcase his talents. They’ve found it and haven’t strayed from it in recent weeks.
And once Gray really gets going, the formation doesn’t matter. He can line up in single-back and shotgun sets and run with authority when he gets on a roll, but the pistol continues to be what gets him there.
Mike Davis is living up to his “Magic” nickname.
The junior receiver has 11 catches for 278 yards and three long scores in these past two weeks. That 25.2 yards-per-catch average bumped up his season clip to 18.6, second-best nationally among wideouts with 40-plus catches.
Against ISU, there was no better testament to Texas’ increasing faith in Davis than on third-and-6 at midfield in the second quarter.
Ash fired a pass to Davis over the middle that, had he been tackled, would have gained only 1 or 2 yards. But Davis avoided the first tackler, juked a second out of his shoes and made a third defender miss with a hard cut.
Davis turned a whole lot of nothing into a 14-yard gain that saved an eventual scoring drive. Those tricky short third-down receptions typically belong to Shipley and Marquise Goodwin in this offense. Davis has established himself as not only a playmaker, but a trusted one.