Kansas State linebacker Tre Walker's comment at Big 12 Media Days echoed through the league media, and it certainly resurfaced again this week as the Longhorns prepared for their conference opener against the Wildcats.
"They kind of laid down a little bit," Walker said. "That's nothing to say about their character. That's just what they do."
Saturday, a Longhorn team wrecked with injuries, playing for a defensive coordinator in his second week on the job and facing a stubborn opponent with a recent history of beating the 'Horns' brains out, had every reason to lay down. Instead, Texas fought. The Longhorns battled up front, filled gaps with aggression and gusto and came away with a 31-21 win, their first win over the Wildcats since 2003, Vince Young's redshirt freshman year.
"Of course," said senior safety Adrian Phillips, when he was asked whether the Longhorns discussed Walker's comments. "That was one of the main talks and we let them feel it tonight. But what is big for us is knowing that the next teams we play get the same feeling. We can't let this be a one-time thing just because of a quote."
"We told them in the dressing room, this is a start, this isn't the end," said Texas coach Mack Brown. "We had to get this game tonight. We had to get back on the right track. We had to get 1-0 against the Big 12 champs from last year that we have not been successful against in a very physical ballgame. All those things were good for us because nobody thought we could do it in any of those categories. We did it. I'm really proud of the guys."
Indeed, the start that Brown talked about was pegged as the end by many. Texas was hot off consecutive blastings at the hands of BYU and Ole Miss, the kind of losses that called everything into question: effort, grasp of fundamentals and — in Brown's case — coaching. All week, Brown talked about having a laser-like focus on Big 12 play, opining that he didn't have time to worry about his own future, because he was focused on Kansas State.
Some rolled their eyes. Others simply wondered how long it would take for Texas to "fix it", in Brown's words. And while "it" could have referred to the Texas team as a whole, the primary target was the Longhorn defense, strafed for a combined 822 rushing yards in the past two weeks. The first of those two games, a 550-rushing-yard output by BYU, was enough for Brown to fire then-DC Manny Diaz midseason, promoting Greg Robinson from the Longhorns' player personnel department, where he was a "football analyst." And while Ole Miss wasn't quite as bad, the Longhorns were still blown out of the water and unable to adjust to the Rebels in the second half. Why? Because Robinson hadn't had enough time to program in those adjustments.
Fast forward to Saturday night's game against Kansas State. The concern, yet again, was whether Robinson would have enough time to input the answers to the questions posed by the Wildcats' offense. And while Saturday's result wasn't perfect, it was a serious step in the right direction.
I don't call them by their numbers anymore … starting to call them by their names," quipped Robinson about improvements from Week One to Week Two.
Senior defensive tackle Chris Whaley gave a more serious reply.
"The first week we didn't know very much about Coach Robinson," Whaley said. "He's a great guy and came out the second week with a better attitude. He made the promise that he was going to give us all he had, and that's what we did. We made the promise that we'll give him all we have, so it was a great second week."
The Longhorns had 10 tackles for loss, including four sacks, holding the Wildcats to 115 rushing yards on 38 carries, a 3.0 average. And while Jake Waters was able to get hot in the fourth quarter, completing 7-of-9 passes for 129 yards in the final stanza, connecting with speedy wide receiver Tyler Lockett on most of them — Lockett finished with a school record 13 catches for 237 yards — Texas also so frazzled Waters that he fumbled twice in that final quarter, including once on a sack by Cedric Reed that wrapped the game up.
"There are some guys that stepped up tonight big, younger and older," Robinson said. " I think a lot of progress can continue to be made.
"Just being in the room with these guys, I'd be shocked if they didn't just keep doing what they're doing," Robinson said. "And that's getting better."
Texas earned those two stops without starting linebackers Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond. The former player was carted off with an ankle injury, while Edmond was nailed with a targeting call, ejecting him from the game. That means Edmond will miss the first half of the Iowa State game as well.
"We really needed this win because we've been busting our tails; just busting our tails and still coming up short," Sanders said. "We still have things we need to work on. Just having this win is going to boost us to work even harder."
The performance by Sanders (three catches for 80 yards) and Marcus Johnson (5-for-70) helped the Longhorns overcome the loss of starting wideouts Mike Davis and Daje Johnson, both of whom missed the game with injuries. And when David Ash was nixed for the second half after showing what Brown called "symptoms" of the head injury he suffered against BYU, Case McCoy was largely efficient, while continuing to ride an effective offensive line that — despite missing right tackle Josh Cochran because of another injury — overpowered Kansas State up front.
All told, the Longhorns rushed for 227 yards on 47 carries, including a career-high 141 yards and two touchdowns on 28 totes from sophomore running back Johnathan Gray.
Afterward, offensive coordinator Major Applewhite credited the offense with having a strong "I don't give a damn" mentality that they used to overcome the loss of personnel.
"I thought they fought, believed, played 60 minutes, did a great job," Applewhite said. "No matter what obstacles were in terms of what Kansas State did on defense or who was playing on our roster, I was proud of them."
Texas's bye week couldn't have come at a better time. Now the Longhorns have an extra week to heal up before Iowa State, with Red River looming large after that contest. Tickets for the Oklahoma game were selling this week for less than face value … if the Longhorns can make it into Dallas at 3-2, with a 2-0 mark in the Big 12, things could look a bit different.
"I don't think this team will let up, I really don't," Brown said. "We need to get David well. We need to get Daje (Johnson) well. We need to get Mike Davis well. We need to get Josh Cochran, Greg Daniels well, some guys on defense well. There are no excuses, just keep your mouth shut and go play. We need to win."
The Texas team photo, for now, remains cloudy. Are these the new Longhorns? Will Texas falter back into what it showed in weeks two and three? Or are they these the 'Horns that Brown said he expected all along?
"This is part of the team that I expected to see and expect to see for the rest of the year," Brown said. "This can be a really good football team before we finish."
Time, and the remaining schedule, will certainly serve as an effective darkroom. For now, the game served as a positive indicator that the Longhorns can, in fact, quickly put together a defense. And, perhaps most vitally for the Longhorns' future success, that "what they do" might no longer include laying down in a fight.
TEXAS — Anthony Fera 27 FG, 6:26 1Q
TEXAS — Kendall Sanders 63 pass from David Ash (Fera kick), 2:16 1Q
TEXAS — Johnathan Gray 21 run (Fera kick), 3:02 2Q
Kansas State — John Hubert 15 run (Jack Cantele kick), 8:37 2Q
TEXAS — Gray 15 run (Fera kick), 9:29 3Q
Kansas State — Hubert 4 run (Cantele kick), 13:22 4Q
TEXAS — Malcolm Brown 1 run (Fera kick), 9:11 4Q
Kansas State — Jake Waters 1 run (Cantele kick), 7:00 4Q.