AUSTIN — As time ticked off the fourth-quarter clock Saturday, oft-injured Texas quarterback David Ash found himself in a familiar place.He stood on the sideline, helmet off, watching his teammates run the offense.But this time, it had nothing to do with a concussion and everything to do with a celebration. Ash, first-year coach Charlie Strong and the Longhorns answered a lot of questions in a positive manner during a 38-7 thumping of a North Texas team that struggled to finish with more first downs (eight) than turnovers (four) in front of 93,201 at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.Ash, who missed 10 of the team’s 13 games last season because of concussion-related issues, did not dazzle with his brilliance as a passer in his first appearance since last September. But he was efficient and he bounced up quickly after absorbing a handful of hits, especially a thunderous second-quarter sack by UNT defensive end Jarrian Roberts.Ash threw for 190 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown toss to receiver John Harris, and turned a fourth-down bootleg into a 1-yard scoring run in the second quarter. The junior from Belton found a new favorite target in Harris, who posted career highs for receptions (seven) and receiving yards (110) after grabbing just five passes last season.But the Longhorns did not need to air it out against the Mean Green because the ground game clicked (163 rushing yards, 3 rushing TDs) and the defense dominated. Texas running back Malcolm Brown scored a pair of touchdowns and the Longhorns’ defense did not allow an offensive score while limiting UNT to 94 yards on 60 plays (1.6 per snap).“This was a great team victory,” Strong said. “We played well in all three phases and the defense dominated. It’s great to get my first win here and get it out of the way.”North Texas’ quarterbacks, Josh Greer and Andrew McNulty, combined to complete 3 of 17 passes. Texas’ defense finished with four interceptions, including one returned for a fourth-quarter touchdown by linebacker Demarco Cobbs.The defensive effort pleased Strong, a longtime defensive coordinator whose squad turned in the stingiest debut by a Texas coach since Fred Akers’ team blanked Wyoming 44-0 in 1977.The Longhorns’ defense smothered every offensive surge by a UNT team coming off a 9-4 season. Neither quarterback found a rhythm and, by the end of the third quarter, Texas led 28-0. At that point, the Longhorns had outgained UNT 302-40 in total yards.The Mean Green’s lone score came on a botched center snap by the Longhorns that UNT defensive back James Jones recovered in the Texas end zone with 7:17 remaining. Beyond that, the UNT offense never crossed Texas’ 27-yard line and had no play longer than eight yards.The Longhorns’ ground game, meanwhile, clicked behind Brown (13 carries, 65 yards) and Johnathan Gray (16 carries, 82 yards), the former Aledo standout making his first appearance since undergoing Achilles tendon surgery last November. Gray, a junior, showed he has not lost his burst with a 42-yard scamper that set up Ash’s second-quarter touchdown run. It marked the longest play of the tight by the Texas offense.Other than the non-sellout crowd for Strong’s debut (8,000 below capacity), one of Texas’ few down moments came in the third quarter when starting center Dominic Espinosa hobbled to the sideline with assistance from trainers after injuring his right ankle. Espinosa, who has started 40 consecutive games, did not return. It was his replacement, Jake Raulerson, who unleashed the bobbled snap resulting in UNT’s touchdown.But unranked Texas more than covered up that flaw with its defense and with Ash’s game-management skills, turning in a strong enough performance to tempt voters to include them in next week’s Top 25.Ash and Strong passed their opening-night tests, although Strong suggested better things are on the horizon for both.“We can play much better,” Strong said. “We know we can improve from this. We didn’t hold anything back. We’re not good enough to do that. The defense really stepped up and we’d like to be more consistent on offense.”But a team coming off an 8-5 season with a lot of unanswered questions, the Longhorns did more than enough Saturday to celebrate the first round of answers.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch