October 16, 2011

Jimmy Burch: Longhorns lose game, find quarterback

In my opinion Freshman QB David Ash shined despite loss

AUSTIN -- Texas lost a football game Saturday but settled on a starting quarterback. Don't be surprised if it's a long-term fit, based on the postgame reaction of Longhorns coaches to the grit and promise shown by freshman David Ash in his first college start.

Ash, who played last season for Belton High School, took every snap in Saturday's 38-26 loss to No. 6 Oklahoma State. His first solo effort included plenty of warts (three turnovers) and memorable moments (three scoring drives).

But the bottom line showed Ash kept the 22nd-ranked Longhorns (4-2, 1-2 in Big 12) in the game until the waning minutes against a Top 10 team in the national title chase -- a far cry from what happened in the Cotton Bowl against an Oklahoma team with similar credentials.

"Last week, we were never in it," Texas coach Mack Brown said Saturday, summarizing a 55-17 loss to the third-ranked Sooners when the Longhorns stuck to their quarterback rotation of Ash and sophomore Case McCoy.

After studying videotapes from the OU blowout, Brown said he and co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin thought Ash's playmaking abilities as a runner and toughness in the pocket would be essential if Texas had a chance to upset OSU (6-0, 3-0), the nation's highest-scoring team (51.4 avg.).

Although the Longhorns didn't win, Brown said Texas' performance in Ash's debut at the helm "gives you something to build on for the future."

The Longhorns' offense clearly functioned more efficiently Saturday, controlling the ball for 39:18 and posting increases in total yards (370-223) and rushing yards (231-36) when compared to last week's effort against OU. In addition, Texas cut its penalty yardage to 30 -- half of its total against OU --- and limited itself to three turnovers after surrendering five against the Sooners.

None of it translated to a victory, primarily because OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden -- a 28-year-old former pitcher in the New York Yankees' farm system -- is the polished, productive player Texas coaches hope Ash can become. Weeden, now 9-0 in career starts outside Stillwater, Oka., avoided interceptions, threw for 218 yards and got the ball into the hands of play-making tailbacks Jeremy Smith (140 yards, 2 TDs) and Joseph Randle (68 yards, 1 TD).

Ash may wind up sharing snaps with McCoy again this season. Texas coaches are leaving all options open. But Harsin sounded like a guy who saw more good than bad in his freshman's first solo performance.

"In that position, it comes down to decision-making, it comes down to toughness and accuracy," said Harsin, noting that Ash shows promise in all three areas. "I thought he did a good job of getting rid of the ball [under pressure]. He has gotten better and better each week and he needs an opportunity to play. The more opportunities he gets, the better he is going to get. He has chemistry with all the receivers."

Ash displayed a strong connection Saturday with Mike Davis, finding him 10 times for 80 yards. He spread his 22 completions to seven receivers and added a 23-yard scramble during a 51-yard drive that produced a field goal.

Ash also flawlessly executed a behind-the-back, left-handed handoff -- Boise State style --- on a Statue of Liberty play that freshman tailback Malcom Brown (135 yards, 2 TDs) turned into a 24-yard touchdown.

But the best thing Ash shows is a willingness to accept the role of team leader that comes with playing quarterback at this level. Garrett Gilbert, last year's starter, always hedged when asked if he felt like the Longhorns were "his team." Not Ash.

Asked Saturday if he was ready to be The Guy in Texas' offense, Ash said: "I feel like I'm ready. Obviously, I'm not there yet. But I know I'll get there. And I'll do everything I can to get there."

Ash said he learned a lot of lessons Saturday that will help in Texas' next game, Oct. 29 against Kansas.

Brown cited Ash's passing distribution Saturday -- 10 completions to Davis, no more than three to anyone else -- as an example of a young quarterback who is too locked in on his "comfort zone."

"He'll be better about that in two weeks," Brown said.

Sounds like it's his job to keep, perhaps for the long haul.

Follow Jimmy Burch on Twitter @Jimmy_Burch.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

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