Reversal of Fortune: Special Teams Win This One

<B>Mack Brown</B> has taken some <B>Derrick Johnson</B>-sized shots over his special teams since coming to Austin. He took some <B>Dre&#146; Bly</B>-sized licks regarding same while back in Chapel Hill. How ironic that in a game that featured his current team versus his former, his special teams would carry Texas to a 2-0 record for the first time in the coach&#146;s tenure at Texas.

Special teams cost Texas the game against NC State two years ago. They contributed to the loss at Stanford in ‘00. But Saturday, if not for Nathan Vasher’s adrenaline-dripping return day and Dusty Mangum’s long-range gunning, Texas might have stumbled again as it has early the past three years.

Instead, Vasher slashed the Heels for 153 yards on eight punt returns, including sprints of 59 and 44 yards. Vasher’s returns gave the sputtering Texas offense the crucial short fields it needed to put up first-half points, and his 44-yard TD in the fourth quarter iced the game, pushing the Horns out front 38-14. Mangum’s first half FGs of 36 and 49 yards blunted a UNC comeback which saw the game knotted at 14, and his 51-yarder in the third gave Texas some breathing room at 29-14.

Without the stellar performances of both Vasher and Mangum, this game could have gotten away.

Overcoming the swampy heat and humidity, the sea of orange-clad Texas partisans, and their own recent history of failure, North Carolina hung in with Texas for the entire first half Saturday, much to the grumbling of both fans and commentators alike.

ESPN’s Fowler, Corso and Herbstreit, and a bunch of Horn backers I spoke with, didn’t like the fact that the Horns had a fight on their hands early. That they did came as no surprise to me. I fully expected UNC to give Texas a battle. Several factors pointed that way. The Brown-jilting-the-Heels thing certainly hung over the game, despite Mack’s protestations that the contest had nothing to do with him. A Tar Heel team led by studs like Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers, coming in off a disappointing 0-2 start, figured to have something to prove. And anybody watching the OU game knew that UNC didn’t give up in games that looked like hopeless blowouts. When Texas went up 14-0 in the first, a cakewalk appeared to be in the making, but Carolina didn’t panic, they simply kept playing. Curry is a play-maker and made plays, the chains moved and the Heels put up some points. Give them credit.

Still, is it fair to argue that Texas’ struggles contributed to the Heels’ hanging around? Sure it is. The Texas offense looked bad in the first half, managing only 139 yards. Even a great defense, which Texas’ now appears to be, will get worn out if they are left on the field in the kind of energy-sucking conditions that existed in Royal-Memorial Saturday. The Texas O left the D to fend for itself in the first half. Curry took advantage by driving the Heels to a couple of scores, though one came after a crazy Vasher fumbled punt, reminiscent of Leon Lett’s gaffe against Miami in Dallas a few years back. Making a rookie mistake, Vasher went scrambling for a ball amongst a sea of Heels. He dove in, missed it and gave it away. Dumb play, but the kid from Texarkana didn’t quit, he simply broke Carolina’s back with more scintillating returns.

But back to the offense. Other than several nice bursts by an ever-improving Ivan Williams and a shifty 7-yard TD run by Cedric Benson, the Horns’ rushing game contributed little. Chris Simms continues to fire balls into the outstretched arms of oncoming defenders, resulting in tips which he’s fortunate have not turned into INTs. And BJ Johnson again dropped a pass right in his breadbasket, raising a concern after the Holiday Bowl finish that maybe the super-talented sophomore doesn’t have a super-talented pair of hands.

But there were offensive positives, first and foremost, LT Robbie Doane’s fantastic job against All-American Heel DE Peppers. Peppers had one measly pass deflection all day, and ZERO tackles. I personally thought Peppers would school the inexperienced Doane. He didn’t -- Doane, who had help on Peppers most of the day, more than held his own, which is a great harbinger of the season he could have.

Then there was the third quarter drive which went 89 yards in 12 plays, burning 5:40 off the clock, capped off by the seven-yard Benson TD burst. That drive, which put Texas in command at 26-14, seemed to wilt the Carolina defense, much as the Texas D had been worn down during the first half. Indeed, the roles reversed completely, as the fresh Texas defense butchered the Heel O in the third, giving up minus-five yards on only seven plays. Good adjustments by Greg Davis and his offensive staff at halftime.

As for Simms, despite the fact that so far this season he has been merely adequate, he has been making better decisions which have resulted in no INTs after two games, an obvious improvement. Credit I believe is due there. As for Johnson, even with the drops, he still led the team with five catches for 55 yards, so he is hanging on to the majority of them and continuing to be a go-to guy.

And the fact is, the season is only two games old. I believe the offense will only get better, and down the line will become the high-wire act we all expect. Texas’ isn’t the only Goliath of an offense being slowed by David-like defenses right now. Nebraska got off to a slow start against the likes of Troy State and TCU, and didn’t even score against Notre Dame after the first half Saturday. Mighty Florida State managed only 29 points against the other Alabama, the one at Birmingham. And need we even mention the anemic performance so far by A&M, which has racked up yardage but scant points against the bottom-feeders it has played?

I don’t mean to make excuses for the offense, because Florida, Miami and Georgia Tech, to name three, don’t seem to be having any trouble rolling big. My point is that the Texas offense needs work, but it’s early and I view these essentially as pre-season games in terms of getting into a flow and ironing out the kinks. I’m just not that concerned about the offense. I believe it will rev up.

The good news is, while those kinks are being smoothed, the special teams and defense is already playing in mid-season form. The play of those units, and the improved play of the offense in the second half, resulted in a sweet 44-14 win, one made that much sweeter by the improbable homage it paid to the team’s gone but not forgotten teammate Cole Pittman, No. 44.

44-14 was a good win, made even better because it means 2-0.


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