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.
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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