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November 12, 20121. Texas has strung 10 pretty good quarters of football together. This team is taking a mature approach to improving.
It was a 33-7 win over Iowa State at home. So the rest of the country will say, ho hum. But we know the struggles this team had in every game, win or lose, from Oklahoma State to Kansas.
How about this answer from senior DE Alex Okafor, who led Texas with 9 tackles, including 2 behind the line of scrimmage (and has been a monster in UT's four-game win streak)?
Here's what he said when I asked him about his comment three weeks ago that the defense "had zero confidence stopping the run" coming out of the Baylor game and where the defense is now?
"I'm slowly gaining confidence," Okafor said. "We're getting better. We still have a long way to go. Slowly but surely we're getting better in run defense."
Here's what senior TE Barrett Matthews, who scored a touchdown Saturday, told me about the team's progress:
"We have so much courage," Matthews said. "After the OU game, we felt like that wasn't us. You have to play to a standard, and we didn't do that. We felt like we let Texas down after that OU game. When we play to our standard on both sides of the ball, we can play with anybody."
How bad did it get after the OU loss?
"Coach Brown said we just have to get back to work in practice," Matthews said. "It got a little shaky, but we had to bring our focus back to getting a win for Texas and playing for the players around you. We did that, and there's been progress.
"I think there's still progress to be made. We're closing in on the last two games, trying to get into a BCS bowl game and get people talking about us again, trying to get people to notice we're improving. I think it's going to be good down the stretch."
Junior right guard Mason Walters said the players definitely heard the naysayers after the OU game.
"I've seen improvement, consistency and getting better each week, which has been really important," Walters said. 'During the middle of the season, people were talking about, 'This team's no good.' You get written off a little bit, saying there's not enough season to get better.
"But we approach every day the same way. We approach it like this team can get better and grow and get back to the way Texas is and should be.
"With that attitude, we can still do good things. We still have a lot of season left with three weeks of practice and a bowl game. This team can still continue to get better."
MY TAKE: I don't want to make too much of a win against Iowa State. But Texas was really smart about how it attacked this game. It knew Iowa State had a good front seven and run defense, so Bryan Harsin came out throwing it - from that first double pass out of the Wishbone - to the 61-yard TD pass from David Ash to Mike Davis on first down in the first quarter.
That's good, aggressive coaching that builds momentum and confidence and is clearly the recipe for success for this offense. Be balanced. Be multiple. If you have to throw to set up the run, so be it. You've got weapons all over the place. Heck, Texas probably left anywhere from 10 to 21 points on the field with a blocked field goal, a failed fourth down and some missed passes in the red zone.
But David Ash connected on his first 11 passes, including the TD pass to Davis, and didn't miss one until there was about 5 minutes left in the half. He finished 25 of 31 passing for 364 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Receivers Jaxon Shipley (8 catches for 137 yards) and Davis (7 catches for 113 yards and 1 TD) both went off while the running game averaged 4.9 yards per carry. It's a good day at the office when five backs get carries and 10 different players catch the football.
Walters may have said it best.
"We were able to do some things to loosen up that box," Walters said. "You want to do what's smart against a good defense like that.
"If it's smarter to throw the ball, do it. With the way our receivers and quarterback were playing today, we were able to loosen up that box, which really helped out the run game."
2. Carrington Byndom has strung a couple good games in a row with his big plays against Texas Tech (pass breakups and blocked field goal) and his interception against Iowa State Saturday.
Byndom opened up to me in a one-on-one interview after the game about how disappointed he was in his play earlier in the season, which included some missed tackles and getting beat for some big plays, and how he's been able to get his confidence back.
"I knew I needed to step up my game," Byndom said. "These past two weeks have been big for me. I try to contribute all I can to my team, and earlier this season, I didn't feel like I was doing my part.
"I was kind of being relaxed and I didn't have the confidence. It's been big for me these past two weeks to gain some confidence back and play with more swag."
I asked Byndom how the defense was able to pull itself out of what seemed like a nosedive after giving up huge plays through the first eight games.
"A lot of pride," he said. "We have a lot of pride in ourselves and our defense. We said it to ourselves, 'This needs to stop.' And everyone has continued to work each and every week.
"Each week, we'd look at the film from those games, and as each week goes on, we're fixing those things and making fewer mistakes. It was really bad early in the season with the missed tackles and giving up big plays. I think we've done a great job of fighting through the adversity to improve."
I asked about the struggles at the linebacker position early in the season.
"It's not just them," Byndom said. "It's the defense in general. We still have improvement to make in the secondary and along the defensive line. It's a total team defensive improvement. I'm proud of all our guys for working hard and it showing on the field.
"The linebackers are definitely stepping up. Those guys haven't had many reps and are being thrown in the spotlight. But they are handling it and are gaining more knowledge each week and gaining more confidence."
MY TAKE: When guys are struggling, and everyone knows it, it's fascinating to see how they handle it. And, at times, it seemed like Byndom was in denial during that stretch from the OU game to the Kansas game about how bad things were.
But the players and coaches had to hang onto something. And, ultimately, they hung onto each other. Saturday wasn't perfect for the defense by any stretch. Iowa State averaged 4.6 yards per carry and surpassed its rushing average of 137 yards per game (144).
But the defense held Iowa State to a touchdown. And after what teams like West Virginia, OU and Baylor did to this team in the run game and putting up points, that's a big step forward.
Texas dominated third downs. The Longhorns were 8 of 14 on third down, and Iowa State was 3 of 12.
"They couldn't get us off the field on third down," Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. "And they couldn't stay on the field on third down."
3. Speaking of guys making progress, freshman Peter Jinkens got the start in place of Kendall Thompson (concussion), who was available if needed.
So Steve Edmond and Peter Jinkens were on the field together a bunch and held up well enough that Texas didn't need to rush Thompson's return.
Granted, Iowa State's offense is not going to be confused for Oregon.
And Texas still gave up too much ground on the ground. But Jinkens finished with the second-most tackles on the team (6) and made his presence felt in the game.
It was exciting watching him run around out there," Manny Diaz said of Jinkens. He can make some plays. He made a nice play late in the fourth quarter.
"For a true freshman to step up in a game like this - they were a lot more dynamic in the running game compared to the teams we've played the last two weeks in terms of the quarterback run game.
"There will be some things we want to correct. But overall, I'm very pleased with the way Peter handled the occasion of what today meant and hopping into the starting lineup and acquitting himself very well."
MY TAKE: More and more plays are being made the past 10 quarters by guys like freshman DT Malcom Brown (beautiful tackle behind the line in the first quarter);
Sophomore S Josh Turner (half a sack and INT late in the game);
Freshman DE Shiro Davis, who had a huge tackle behind the line of Iowa State running back James White for a 5-yard-loss almost before White could take the handoff in the fourth quarter.
These are little glimpses of plays being made by guys the program will count on in the next two years.
Honestly, Malcom Brown should be playing as much as any defensive tackle on the team. He always gets push and has good instincts as he showed on that tackle for loss in the first quarter. He is better against the run than Chris Whaley and plays lower to the ground than DT Brandon Moore.
Texas needs them all, but they need Malcom Brown to get better as fast as he can, and to do that, he needs game action.
4. The field goal kicking has been a mess this season.
Anthony Fera's missed 41-yard field goal against West Virginia will go down as one of the bigger opportunities missed this season.
Fera had a 32-yarder blocked on Saturday and missed an extra point. He was replaced by freshman Nick Jordan, who opened the season 3-of-7 but hit a 37-yarder after replacing Fera on Saturday.
MY TAKE: That job is up for grabs, and that's disappointing after waiting four games to see Fera, who hit 14 of 17 last season for Penn State. If Texas is serious about having a chance to win out this season, you have to think field goals will play a role.
And right now, the answer is unknown.
5. There's no doubt the team felt the presence of Darrell K Royal on Saturday. And Mack Brown deserves credit for that.
Guys like Jaxon Shipley, David Ash and Bryan Harsin didn't get to know Darrell Royal, who was already in poor health when they arrived on campus last year.
But to hear them talk about Royal, as expressed to them by Mack Brown, it's clear the team was motivated to win one for Royal on Saturday.
"I had a lot of fun today," Shipley said. "Games like this remind you of how much fun it is to play football. I'm just glad I can be a part of a team with the camaraderie we have, and everyone was just firing on all cylinders.
"I just felt like it was a really good time for us today. A lot of it had to do with the passing of DKR. We really needed to win this game, not only for us, but for him. We needed a proper tribute for him. That played a key part, and we were really motivated."
No one had more pressure on him to start the game than TE Greg Daniels, the target of a double pass on the opening play out of the Wishbone in the ultimate tribute to Royal.
Not only was the play out of the Wishbone, but it was a deep pass to a tight end, reminiscent of "right 53 veer pass" - the play James Street connected on a deep pass to TE Randy Peschel on fourth-and-3 to help win the Game of the Century against Arkansas in 1969.
"It was an early game, so we knew we needed to get the game started on a good note, and I think we did," Daniels said. "It was backed up and everyone was like, 'Should we run it or not run it?' And the coaches said, 'We're going to run this play.' I'm glad it worked out. We knew they probably wouldn't see it coming.
"When I went to the line, I was thinking, 'Sell the run hard, and get open.' And I got open."
David Ash took the snap with the Wishbone backfield behind him and gave it to Shipley, who threw back to Ash in the end zone. Ash then threw downfield to Daniels for a 47-yard gain.
"It's obvious how many lives Coach Royal touched," Ash said. "To be a part of honoring him with that play, humbles you. Just being a part of that was something special."
MY TAKE: The reason this program and these players felt anything for Darrell Royal is thanks to Mack Brown and the way he has made sure everyone reveres what Royal has meant to Texas.
Mack said after the game he just got down on the floor and cried upon learning of DKR's death.
"He was like a father to me, and I just wasn't ready for it," he said.
When asked about Royal, Harsin said Mack "does a great job of relaying the history of what Darrell Royal has meant to this program."
Mack can talk about anything with anybody, sometimes to the point of disbelief. But his feelings about Royal have always been from the heart. Mack really did look at DKR as a father, and you could feel it in Mack's words.
So kudos to Mack Brown for bringing Royal back into the heart of the program when he was hired to replace John Mackovic, who rarely paid any attention to DKR or to the program's lettermen. Mack made it a point to lean on DKR at every turn and to involve him at every turn.
It meant a lot to DKR and to a lot of Texas faithful. Kudos to Mack for preparing his team to pay proper tribute to DKR on Saturday.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Texas has next weekend off to get some guys healthy and then faces TCU on Thanksgiving night.
That's a scrappy Horned Frog team that will continue to test the resolve and resilience of this Texas team. But if the Longhorns can hold serve at home, they might actually go to Kansas State believing they can pull the upset.
The key in all of this is improvement. Big-time programs like Texas have to get better from week to week, and that was the problem earlier in the season. There wasn't improvement, especially on defense. In fact, there was regression against Oklahoma.
And that's when a lot of patience with this coaching staff and team snapped. The progress we've seen in this four-game win streak has been about 10 quarters long (since the second half of the Kansas game, when the defense started to improve).
Considering six of those quarters came against Kansas and Iowa State, two teams that will finish in the bottom of the conference, it's hard to get overly excited.
Nothing is going to wash away 63-21 or the 48 points given up at home to West Virginia. But at big-time programs like Texas, you have to see improvement from week to week. Period. It may not always be victory. But the improvement from week to week has to be there.
And it's finally happening. Now, the players believe the next 10-11 days can lead to substantial improvement. If so, Texas might be 9-2 heading to Manhattan, Kan., with a BCS bowl berth on the line. A month ago, that seemed preposterous.