28 Days Later: The Team We've Been Waiting For

Head coach <B>Mack Brown </B>made the statement just before the Nebraska game that he wasn&#146;t sure which Texas team was going to show up against the Huskers, or the rest of the season for that matter. Would it be the gang-tackling, pile-driving, playmaking squad that overcame adversity and Kansas State? Or, would it be the turnover-prone, out-of-position, arm-tackling, poor running bunch that got outmuscled against OU and Arkansas?

Now, approximately 28 days after Brown acknowledged that he did not know his team’s identity, the sixth-year coach believes he sees the true colors of this year’s Burnt Orange.

"For four weeks, we’ve had the team that we like show up," Brown said. "We want it to happen a fifth week."

Indeed, Texas will need to call upon all that has made it a No. 5 BCS rated team when Texas Tech, boasting the nation’s best passing offense (508.7 ypg) and second-best scoring offense (44.9 ppg), bring their Air (Red) Raiders to Austin Saturday.

For now, what factors have contributed most to Texas’ 28-day turnaround?

QUARTERBACK

The only significant lineup shift since The Debacle was when coaches named freshman QB Vince Young starter. Since then, Young’s rapid maturation has "shocked" Texas coaches, Brown said. With Young’s accelerated improvement, coaches shelved the I formation and allowed Young to operate out of the shotgun in a zone read offensive scheme. Texas has gone back to the I formation in the fourth quarter when it just wants to pound the ball and run some the clock.

"(Vince) wants to do well and he’s very, very coachable," Brown said. (Offensive coordinator) Greg (Davis) had done a good job with him. They have a great relationship. Greg can get on him and he handles it. He’s not sensitive."

Not only is Young "not sensitive", he is also not intimidated. Initially, Brown couldn’t believe how coolly efficient Young ran the offense in the game-winning TD drive against Kansas State.

"I don’t think he worries about things much," Brown said. " Not much gets to him."

The same goes for Young’s recent outing at Oklahoma State.

"He was dancing in the pre-game and he was dancing on the sideline," Brown said. "I’ve never seen anything like that before."

Fortunately for Orangebloods, Young has dazzled more with his feet between the sidelines than on them. He also responded with the kind of passing game against the Cowboys that coaches have been looking for since Young first took over the reigns against Iowa State.

"We’ve seen him throw like that the last couple of weeks of practice (and) that’s why we were surprised to see him struggling against Nebraska in throwing the ball," Brown said. "He’s just got to relax and did Saturday night. He had a lot of fun and you could see that in his play out there."

Young noted this week that his greatest area of improvement has been completing his reads before tucking and running. The freshman can toss it 70 yards on the run but the all-important timing between Young and his receivers has also been an area of considerable improvement. Case-in-point: a first-quarter completion to SE Roy Williams at OSU (the play where Williams couldn’t quite stay in bounds en route to the end zone).

"I turned around and the ball was there," Williams said. "Before then, I’d turn and look at him looking at me."

Ultimately, it all comes down to confidence, Brown believes, even with a specimen as innately talented as Young.

"I think he feels like he can play college football now," Brown said. "It’s a question mark for any young quarterback coming in. He likes the response of the players to him right now. He’s much more comfortable in the huddle than even five or six weeks ago. We’re just watching a steady growth in progress right in front of our eyes."

Coaches are barely scratching the surface of the kind of play package that they expect to work into the game plan now that Young is so far ahead of schedule. One thing we’ll probably see against Texas Tech is an option pitch to Roy. Texas ran it against OSU but Young kept the ball for eight yards.

"The fun thing for us is that there are a lot of things that we can see that we can do that we haven’t even got to yet," Brown said.

"He’s starting to take over some in the huddle and they’re starting to believe in him. When he first went in there, it was tough. You look at Roy Williams and B.J. Johnson and all of them are saying ‘throw it to me’. That’s a tough transition. They’re starting to believe he’s pretty good, too. They’re starting to listen. That’s been a lot of the progress we’ve made."

RUNNING GAME

When Texas finished 2002 ranked just No. 74 in rushing offense (135 ypg), and with Roy returning for his senior year, could you ever imagine that the Horns would enter their last home game of this season ranked No. 6 in rushing (229.2 ypg)?

All of the off-season staff changes were directed at improving the running game, but the argument here has been that the phenomenal Young (and the scheme the coaches continue to build around his innate skills) has done more to unleash RB Cedric Benson than any other piece of the puzzle.

"We’re a lot more fundamentally sound in a lot of places," Benson said, "especially in areas where we were young like the QB spot. We’re just getting the ball rolling."

In the three games that he has played since Young took over the starting spot, Benson has rolled to 494 yards (164.6 since Oklahoma). He had only three 100-plus yard rushing games all last season.

"I’ve just been running fearlessly," Benson said. "I’m just getting the ball and doing what I do…(I have) a clear head. The only thing I hear is the snap of the ball. The only thing I hear is the snap of the ball and the whistle at the end of the play."

Last month, another 1,000-yard season for Benson seemed like a pipedream. Now, he only needs 148 yards against the league’s worst defense Saturday (Tech surrenders an average 460 ypg) to become the first Longhorn to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons.

"When you play with confidence, you get faster," Brown said.

Benson is averaging nearly 95 yards per game (NCAA No. 33) while Young is not far behind at 89.4 yards per game (NCAA No. 37)

OFFENSIVE LINE

There is no doubt the O-line is much improved from last year’s crew that tried to finesse its way past opponents but could not drive block a snowman. Still, a strong, elusive QB makes the offensive line look even better.

While I am convinced most of Texas’ rushing success is predicated upon Young, the O-line moved the piles against Nebraska and Oklahoma State.

"I was amazed at the surge we got Saturday night from our offensive line," Brown said.

At the very least, Young’s presence stems the tide of blitzing linebackers and momentarily slows the defense as Young picks his spots out of the zone read. In fact, there was a play against OSU when Young wrestled the ball out of Benson’s grasp and held on to it for a keeper.

"There were two holes," Brown said. "It’s (Young’s) responsibility and both of them were excited about what was happening. There were two holes on the play. His hands are so big and he’s so much stronger than you think he is. He’s so tall, you don’t think of his strength. Most quarterbacks, that ball would have been on the ground because Cedric clamped it. But (Vince) actually jerked it back away and then made 15 (yards)."

But the oft-maligned unit deserves credit where credit is due: the guards (Tillman Holloway, Will Allen) have been solid all year…especially Allen who has sucked it up and played with a fracture in his right hand). The young tackles (Justin Blalock, Jonathan Scott) have stepped up their play the past couple of games after an inconsistent start (and looking utterly overwhelmed against OU). C Jason Glynn is no threat to win the Outland but hasn't been knocked two yards off the ball after nearly every snap like last season).

Bottom line: the O-line is jelling, the ground game is rolling, so can we please release the tight ends (Bo Scaife and especially David Thomas) to get them more involved in the passing game?

RUN DEFENSE AND QUATERBACK PRESSURE

Baylor and Iowa States were hardly a barometer, but the defense’s finest hour of 2003 came when it held Nebraska’s league-leading ground game to 51 yards on 40 attempts. The unit has been hobbled at DE (losing LDE Bryan Pickryl early) but freshman Tim Crowder has generally performed well beyond his years in six starts. RDE Kalen Thornton has shown flashes of his former (pre-knee surgery) self while backup Mike Williams has shown explosiveness off the corner.

Nonexistent against OU and Arkansas but rock solid against Nebraska’s ground-bound option attack, Texas pass rush is "much better" Brown said, after his team recorded two sacks and 12 QB hurries against OSU. Defensive coordinator Carl Reese sprinkled in some safety blitzes against Nebraska but prefers his down lineman to harass the quarterback. The unit’s biggest challenge comes against Texas Tech QB B. J. Symons (the nation’s leading passer averaging 486 yards through the air).

INTANGIBLES

Brown said the biggest area of improvement this season has been the team’s chemistry.

"The chemistry on this team has become so good," Brown said. "No one’s talking about who’s getting the ball. Everyone’s talking about winning. We’re in a school where we get so much attention, and there’s so many stars that come in here from high school, that for five years we’ve talked about individuals. Right now, we’re talking about team. That’s the most improvement I’ve seen on this football team. They’re working to win as a unit; they’re not talking about who plays the best."


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