Horns pass first road test, drive to a 3-0 start

North Carolina 41, Florida State 9. What the heck does that have to do with the Texas-Houston game? Well, as the Horns sat around their hotel Saturday afternoon, they watched the Tar Heels dismantle the fifth/sixth-ranked Seminoles in a shocker. If the Cougars didn't get the attention of fifth/sixth-ranked Texas with their smack-talking, fan-cheating actions earlier this week, the game in Chapel Hill surely would.

Well, maybe not.

The Horns jumped out to a 10-zip lead with scores on their first two possessions, the TD coming on a 92 yard strike from Chris Simms to B.J. Johnson, but the Texas offense then faltered until late in the first half, allowing Houston to take a 14-10 lead with just over a minute left before intermission. The Cougars silenced the partisan UT crowd with a 60 yard TD drive in the first quarter aided by a questionable pass interference call on Quentin Jammer and a 47-yard go-ahead TD drive following a questionable decision by Simms which led to UH corner Stanford Routt's INT.

Routt's pick turned what Texas fans had hoped would be a rout into an early nail-biter.

The Horns, though, used the final minute of the first half to retake the lead and snatch a bit of Houston's mo, not to relinquish it until the sloppy fourth quarter of their 53-26 win.

After U of H's go-ahead TD drive late in the second quarter, Ervis Hill returned the squibbed kickoff to the 40, setting the UT O up with great field position and 1:13 to silence the Cougar third of the stadium. The Horns did just that with an eight-play, 60-yard TD drive capped by a 17-yard scoring strike to Tony Jeffery in the back corner of the end zone. Redshirt freshman Jeffery also hauled in a 20-yarder on a third-and-10 earlier in the drive to keep the scoring march alive.

After grabbing the lead on Jeffery's reception, Dan Smith squibbed one of his own that the Cougars couldn't handle and Brett Robin pounced on the loose ball, setting up Dusty Mangum for a final-second, 47-yard field goal attempt. The true freshman nailed the long kick, giving the Horns their 10th point in just over a minute and a good bit of that momentum that Houston owned just a minute before.

"I thought the turning point was when Houston scored to go up (14-10) and we took it the length of the field for the score and then we recover the kick and make the field goal that put us up 20-14," Mack Brown said. "We couldn't afford to let them have the momentum at the end of the first half and then let them have the ball to begin the second half."

The Texas defense, despite repeatedly getting burned by the Cougar offense, can also be credited with a turning point play, this one in the third quarter on Houston's first post-break possession. The Cougars marched easily into UT territory with pass completions of 15 and 38 yards before the Longhorn D stiffened and forced a fourth-and-one from the Texas 26. Houston coach Dana Dimel elected to go for the first rather than attempt the long field goal, and Everick Rawls burst through the left side of the offensive line and hit Kelly Robertson before he could get back to the line of scrimmage, forcing the UH QB to fumble and thus ending the Cougar scoring threat. Before Houston could light the scoreboard again, the Horns hung three straight TDs on the home team (I use that term loosely, of course, considering that Orangebloods looked to outnumber Cougar fans almost two to one).

Texas poured it on after the D's big stop, scoring on its first three possessions of the second half to essentially put the game in the bank. "I thought after the fourth-and-one, we took over the ballgame," the Texas head coach said.

Bo Scaife, announcing his return as a big play threat with a 30 yard snag of a deep over-the-middle Simms pass on UT's first scoring drive of the second half, helped the Horns take it over. The sophomore tight end finished with five catches for 59 yard yards, including a fourth quarter TD catch from Major Applewhite. Scaife's earlier big gainer, though, set up Ivan Williams for the first of his two TD plunges in the game, his first as starting tailback, and put some distance between the Horns and the insurgent Cougs.

Texas totaled 534 yards of offense on the night, with Williams solidifying his status as a starter by bulling for 103 yards on 19 carries and Cedric Benson laying claim to the top back-up role with his 14-carry, 74-yard performance. Simms had his best statistical day of the young season, completing 20 of 35 attempts, including three TDs, for 311 yards. The junior QB also tossed his first INT of the season and on his very next attempt threw the ball directly into the hands of DE Lee Ingersoll, but after those back-to-back shaky late first quarter plays, he responded by completing 10 of his next 13 attempts for 131 yards while leading the team to four consecutive scores and a 40-14 lead.

"Chris really responded," Brown said. "We've gotta remember that Chris still hasn't played that much so every time he takes a snap he becomes a better football player. He made some plays with his feet tonight, staying away from sacks, which is critical. We feel like Chris played tonight like he did at the end of last year and like we see him play in practice."

Despite the comfortable final and the obvious positives in several areas on offense, the game exposed several weaknesses in the Longhorn defense, a unit that will face a better attack next week in Texas Tech and then an even better one the following week in Oklahoma. Houston hung an embarrassingly large total of 432 yards on the Texas D, including big play after big play on the UT secondary. Jammer, Rod Babers and Nathan Vasher each gave up at least one 30-plus-yard gainer to a Cougar wideout, and the Horns surrendered a TD on a 38-yard screen pass to RB Joffrey Reynolds and 24 yards on a screen to TE Grover Thompson. Texas did not handle the off-schedule plays particularly well and the Horns also often did not tackle well. Without quick improvement, the Red Raider and Sooner athletes will make the Horns pay for those mistakes even more than Houston did.

Even with its poor play in some areas, the team needed a gut-check game like the Cougars provided, Brown said. "We needed a really tough game on the road," the coach said post-game. "The first two games were not games that really tested us in the third quarter. . . . We needed to come in at halftime and settle down . . . and that's what the guys did."

Bigger challenges, of course, are yet to come, but by settling down and passing this road test, the Horns have driven to a 3-0 record for the first time since 1994. And that's far more desirable than the failing alternative. Just ask Florida State.

[Editor's note: More game notes, analysis and commentary, including a breakdown of the offensive, defensive and special teams performances, will be available throughout the day on Sunday and Monday.]

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