In turnaround season, Texas QB Ash faces his biggest test

Posted Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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Spotlight: Texas RB Johnathan Gray

Texas tailback Johnathan Gray, a freshman from Aledo, is counting on the third time being the charm when it comes to his experience with the Red River Rivalry.

"I've been to two Oklahoma-Texas games. I have not seen a Texas win, but that's going to change," said Gray, who will get his first opportunity to help impact the outcome at 11 a.m. today in the Cotton Bowl.

Gray, who rushed for a career-high 87 yards in last week's 48-45 loss to West Virginia, is listed as a co-starter with leading rusher Joe Bergeron (300 yards, nine TDs, 4.3 per carry) on this week's depth chart. But Gray (244 yards, 0 TDs, 5.2 average), a five-star signee, said he is satisfied sharing carries with others in a deep Texas backfield.

"As a freshman, you have to sit back and watch and take that back seat of learning pass protections, which steps to take," Gray said earlier this week. "It's a learning curve for me and that's what I'm doing right now ...My mind-set, I don't think that I'm a star or anything. I'm just here to help the team in any kind of way. This is a huge game. It's rivalry week and playing Oklahoma as a freshman, I know I'll get to play. So I have to be ready when Coach calls on me."

Storylines

Fresh legs: Oklahoma RB Damien Williams, a JC transfer, has given the ground game a viable home-run threat this season. He's averaged 7.8 yards per carry (44 attempts, 341 yards), with five TDs.

Fresh leg: Texas punter Alex King, a transfer from Duke, has been a field-position weapon. He's averaged 45.7 yards per punt, with four kicks stopped inside the opponent's 20-yard-line.

Turnover turnaround: Texas is plus-7 in turnover margin this season after a break-even year in 2011 and a minus-12 season in 2010.

Games of the week

No. 15 Texas vs. No. 13 Oklahoma, Cotton Bowl (Saturday, 11 a.m., WFAA/Ch. 8): Texas' pass rush disrupts Oklahoma QB Landry Jones, makes the difference in a close game. Texas 31, Oklahoma 27.

No. 3 South Carolina at No. 9 LSU (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN): Gamecocks are capable of the road victory. But LSU rarely loses night games at Tiger Stadium. LSU 20, South Carolina 17.

No. 17 Stanford at No. 7 Notre Dame (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., KXAS/Ch. 5): Chalk up another significant victory for Notre Dame's stingy defense. Notre Dame 24, Stanford 13.

Last week: 2-1

Season: 12-3

Smith atop Heisman poll

West Virginia quarterback remains atop the Scripps Heisman poll, which has correctly picked the Heisman winner in 21 of 25 years.

Player

School

QB Geno Smith

West Virginia

1,996 passing yds, 24 TDs, 0 interceptions, 66 rushing yds, 1 TD

QB Collin Klein

Kansas State

887 passing yds, 7 TDs, 2 ints., 405 rushing yds, 7 TDs

QB Braxton Miller

Ohio State

1,060 passing yds, 61.5 completion pct., 9 TDs, 3 ints., 763 rushing yds, 8 TDs

RB/WR/KR De'Anthony Thomas

Oregon

377 rushing yds, 9.2 yards per carry, 6 TDs, 205 receiving yds, 3 TDs, 150 punt return yds, 88 kick return yds

LB Manti Te'o

Notre Dame

48 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 fumbles recovered

What a difference a year makes

Sophomore quarterback David Ash has taken a big step forward in his second season:

Stat

2011

2012

YPG

83.0

255.2

Comp.%

56.9

77.5

TD

4

11

Effic.

107.4

180.1

Red River Rivalry

No. 13 Oklahoma vs. No. 15 Texas

11 a.m. today, WFAA/Ch. 8

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AUSTIN -- By all measures, Texas quarterback David Ash is a much different player today than the freshman who succumbed to the atmosphere and speed of last year's Texas-Oklahoma game.

"I'd hope so," said Ash, who never had set foot in the Cotton Bowl for a Red River Rivalry matchup before being asked to rally the Longhorns as the replacement for starter Case McCoy in last year's 55-17 loss. "I don't think there's really anything that can prepare you for it. It's just different."

We all know the reasons. The 50-50 split of fans in the Cotton Bowl leads to nonstop noise after each play. The stakes are high, and will be again today when No. 15 Texas (4-1, 1-1 in Big 12) meets No. 13 Oklahoma (3-1, 1-1) in what projects as an elimination match in the Big 12 title chase.

Today's setting, said Texas offensive guard Mason Walters, "can be overwhelming for an older guy," let alone a newcomer to the fray.

Against that backdrop, Ash will make his first start in the Red River Rivalry as a sophomore with savvy he did not have at his disposal last season. If college football had an award for Most Improved Player, Ash would be the runaway leader at midseason.

Compared to last year, when Ash threw twice as many interceptions (eight) as touchdown passes (four) and struggled with accuracy (56.6 completion rate), his 2012 statistics read like a misprint. The Belton product battled Heisman frontrunner Geno Smith on near-even terms in last week's 48-45 loss to No. 5 West Virginia. Ash ranks third nationally in passing efficiency (180.06 rating), with a 77.5 completion rate and an 11-1 ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions.

In his defining game, Ash led the Longhorns on a pair of go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdown drives in a 41-36 victory at Oklahoma State. The winning score came with 29 seconds remaining, capping a march prolonged by Ash's 29-yard completion to tight end D.J. Grant on a fourth-and-6 play.

How different is today's Ash from the freshman of yesteryear?

"He's so much more confident. So much more comfortable," said cornerback Quandre Diggs, Ash's roommate last year when both were freshmen. "I played quarterback [in high school] and I know how it is to have that burden on your shoulder that you have to lead the team. ...He's ready to go. His mind's in the right place. He knows all of his assignments. We're very confident in David."

Ash credits Bryan Harsin, the team's quarterback coach and co-offensive coordinator, with helping him raise his football IQ during the off-season, on the field and in the film room.

"He pushes me hard and I'm thankful for that," Ash said. "It's about being a winner and having a winner's habits and mentality."

But there are residual benefits that come only from successful experiences on the field. Harsin said Ash has collected several this season, notably his fourth-quarter finish against OSU.

"It was huge for the whole team, but for David in particular," Harsin said. "You can't simulate that. The crowd barreling down on you, the pressure in that situation. The game's over if you don't make [the play]. It gives him something to recall when we're back in that situation ...and that gives him tremendous confidence."

Now, for the reality check. All of Ash's increased confidence still might not add up to victory for Texas today at the Cotton Bowl. This is not a vintage OU defense, based on Stoops Era standards, but it is solid.

Without question, it's a saltier defense than any of the predecessors Ash has faced in his turnaround season. What he does today against the Sooners -- who collected two Ash interceptions among Texas' five turnovers in last year's matchup -- will be a strong indicator about the staying power of Ash's early-season turnaround.

The numbers, as well as the Longhorns, overwhelmingly suggest Ash has arrived as a difference-maker at the college level. Walters said Ash is "not the same football player" in the huddle that he was a year ago.

"There's been a lot of maturing," Walters said. "I'm really proud of the guy for how far he's come."

Among teammates, Texas coach Mack Brown said "everybody is buying in" to the new, improved Ash. For now, so are the Sooners.

"Last year, he had all the tools he needed to shred a defense," said Oklahoma defensive end R.J. Washington, a Keller Fossil Ridge graduate. Gaining confidence, said Washington, has allowed Ash to morph from "good" to "great" in a year's time. But OU cornerback Aaron Colvin still holds out hope for another turnover spree.

"Hopefully, we can make him a little uncomfortable and see where that leads us," Colvin said.

Without question, Ash has thrived in the face of adversity all season. But doing so today, in an environment he described as "just different" from other games, would underscore how much Ash has elevated himself as a player since last year's dismal debut in the Red River Rivalry.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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