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August 31, 2008

Texas starts to form an identity

Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was bleeding from a 5-inch scratch on his left cheek after Texas' 52-10 victory over Florida Atlantic. When asked what happened, he mumbled something about a busted coverage in the first half and a headset getting yanked off.

"We didn't play well on third down," Muschamp snapped. "The bottom line is we're not satisfied. We've got a lot of mistakes to correct and we will."

Coach Boom was suddenly Coach Blood.

Last year, Texas opened the season with a 21-3 halftime lead and then was outscored 10-0 in the second half by the same Arkansas State team from the Sun Belt that knocked off Texas A&M 18-14 Saturday night in College Station. It was a bad omen for the season. Texas struggled the first nine weeks to find an identity.

Even with Texas giving up one huge play after another on third down to start the game, the 11th-ranked Longhorns managed to find an identity this season in Week 1.

Wild, woolly, young, resilient, fast, frenetic and physical.

"We played tonight like we did in the bowl game," Mack Brown said, referring to a 52-34 Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona State. "There was a huge carryover."


KEEPING PROMISES

Brown lived up to his promise to keep things wide open on offense and to put young players on the field. Texas ran a reverse pass by receiver Jordan Shipley that fell incomplete. But Shipley converted a fake field goal for a first down on fourth-and-2 from the FAU 14 in the second quarter. It helped set up a 2-yard TD run by Colt McCoy that put Texas up 28-3 with 3:25 left in the half.

McCoy and John Chiles were on the field together in the Q Package four times (those plays produced about 15 yards - six of those coming on a pass reception by Chiles - as well as McCoy's lone bad pass of the night, which was nearly intercepted).

Texas ran for 232 yards, led by McCoy (103) and Vondrell McGee (63). And Blaine Irby emerged as McCoy's new security blanket with seven catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. Redshirt freshman Malcolm Williams started at the No. 3 receiver and played well with three catches for 25 yards and some nice downfield blocking.

At least seven true freshmen played for Texas - including starting safety Blake Gideon from nearby Leander. Gideon sniffed out a screen on the opening drive and leveled tight end Jamari Grant as the pass fell incomplete.

RESILIENT DEFENSE

And while the defense got off to a rough start, giving up third-down conversion passes of 22, 15, 33 and 62 yards in the first quarter, the Longhorns bounced back and shut out FAU in the second half.

"With all the slide protection, they eliminated a lot of our pressure," Muschamp said. "The big play they hit in the first half, we pressured. They maxed it, and they hit (Cortez) Gent in the middle of the field (for 33 yards on third-and-7). We stayed doubled on him most of the game. That was the one play we weren't.

"We made some adjustments. We stayed out of the pressure (in the second half) because of their protections and because of our double coverage on the X (Gent)."

Florida Atlantic nearly had as many yards (239) at halftime as Texas (264), and the score could have easily been tied instead of Texas leading 28-10. Both teams averaged 6.6 yards per play. The difference was the Owls turned the ball over twice in the first half - both deep in Texas territory. UT had no turnovers for the game.

TWO HUGE TURNOVERS

Junior linebacker Sergio Kindle, in his highly anticipated first career start, showed up immediately. With FAU facing second-and-10 from the Texas 16 on its opening drive, there was a bad snap over the head of quarterback Rusty Smith. Kindle boxed Smith out from the ball and recovered it 23 yards up field at the Texas 39.

The Longhorns converted the turnover into an eight-play, 61-yard drive capped with a 1-yard TD plunge by fullback Cody Johnson. The score gave fans their first look at Texas' 2008 Jumbo Package, which included two tight ends and a full-house backfield of Johnson, Chris Ogbannaya and defensive tackle Roy Miller.

"I was excited about the effort tonight. Everyone was hustling," Miller said. "This team has raw talent that needs to be molded. Everyone needs to keep staying in the film room. That's how we're going to keep improving."

Redshirt freshman safety Earl Thomas' night was epitomized in a single drive. Facing third-and-10 from his own 30, Smith hit Grant for what should have been a 10-yard gain. But Thomas missed the tackle, allowing it to turn into a 62-yard catch-and-run to the Texas 8.

Two plays later, however, Henry Melton, then Thomas tipped a pass that even Ryan Palmer could catch for his first interception since 2006 in the end zone. FAU's second trip inside the red zone was snuffed.

"The first half, we were getting a feel for it and getting our feet wet," said Thomas, who later blocked a punt. "The second half, we knew what we were being thrown up against."

Added Palmer, "I gave Earl a big hug. What impressed me most was how calm Earl and Blake were back there. They were making calls. When we shifted defenses, they were making the audibles. Everyone's athletic, but when you're on top of your assignments like they are, the sky's the limit."

AN EXCLAMATION POINT

The defense put an exclamation point on the second half by stuffing Smith on a quarterback sneak for no gain on fourth-and-1 from the FAU 45 with 12:15 left in the third quarter. Lamarr Houston got penetration, then Rashad Bobino and Rod Muckelroy came flying in.

"That play was huge," Brown said. "Last year, it was 21-3 against Arkansas State and instead of stopping them on fourth down, we let them make it by six inches. I thought the interception in the end zone, the fumble recovery as they were moving the ball, the turnover game and all the things that make a difference in games I thought we did well tonight.

"Outside of the explosive plays we gave up on third down and getting out of some lanes on kickoff coverage, we played a near perfect opener for us."


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