Texas, New Mexico And The Sports Bar

By Chris Hengst

There’s a scene that plays out in sports bars across the country every Saturday as the seconds tick away in the fourth quarter of whatever game happens to conclude. It’s usually a statement-response conversation between two people and then it’s over and eyes drift toward a television with a matchup in progress or the blonde behind the counter. It doesn’t take long and opinions are usually somewhere between sober and blurry but the truth in knee-jerk reactions are that they’re raw. What you just saw, the success or pity immediately witnessed, provokes something visceral.

And so it is while watching the Texas Longhorns shutout the New Mexico Lobos 45-0, I failed to find the words that my connection as an alum of the 40 Acres wants to hear. I’m not seeing a Big 12 title contender. Two games in, Texas is like a toddler learning to swim. Stick the foot tentatively in the water (Joe Bergeron‘s confusing carries count over Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray), back away and rethink this altogether (David Ash waiting on a receiver to be completely wide open before throwing it further than 15 yards) and then finally throw yourself into the pool and hope for the best (Daje Johnson‘s speed party). It’s a step forward, maybe half a step back then a lunge toward success. With no pre-season games, Bryan Harsin and Manny Diaz are understandably tinkering before the conference slate. And as parental figures, they’re praying that having to catch the child on each jump ends soon.

The offensive coordinator is searching frantically for the chemistry or sight line or steel-toed boot to put in his ass that makes his quarterback process reads then pull the trigger. Ash wasn’t bad by any means Saturday (16/22, 221 yards, 2 touchdowns) but those scoring numbers belie a shovel pass Johnson turned into a 45-yard touchdown and a checkdown Mike Davis took to the house. No one expected Heisman production from the sophomore but recalibrating that to “game manager” as his ceiling, not his floor seems fair to the sophomore viewed through this September alone.

Aside from Johnson’s theatrics, the running game (146 total yards) was decent if not underwhelming. If the whispers about Malcolm Brown’s ankle are true, then I feel a bit better about the staff’s decision to ride Bergeron even as he’s chopped down by linebackers two yards past the line of scrimmage. Next week in Oxford represents a sizable, public chance to force the electric freshmen Johnson and Gray plays in space. Three yards and a cloud of dust might generate a gutty win, jet sweeps from mid-field that go the distance provide blowouts.

If there’s an upside to the dink-and-dunk passing attack employed, it’s that Ash is finding a variety of targets. He doesn’t look far but he’s keeping Mike Davis involved (significant considering the latter’s issues in 2011) and recognizing Jaxon Shipley for what he is, a security blanket and the best playmaker on that side of the ball.

I wrote extensively on the offensive line last week and there’s really no reason to rehash. Center is a red flag whipping around the offices of opposing coaches and will be until Trey Hopkins or Sedrick Flowers learn the position. Donald Hawkins deserves credit for his transition as he’s an afterthought and that’s a high compliment for a lineman who was playing JUCO last fall.

It’s harder to punish Diaz’s defense, like at all, when the scoreboard shows a goose egg. Room for improvement rests in firming up between the 20’s and not being an elite unit in the red zone alone. Texas won’t face the triple option again in 2012 but extended drives, miscommunication in the secondary and linebackers not named Jordan Hicks having trouble shedding Lobo blocks are factors to remedy before the gauntlet of Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma.

On special teams, my God. The coverage is outstanding. Even with touchbacks more common due to the rule change, freshmen pursue the returner like he’s hoarding gift cards to Chick-Fil-A. Add Anthony Fera to the mix at kicker and the unit ranks among the nation’s finest.

Next Saturday against Ole Miss, the Longhorns face an SEC program with the ability to make the mistakes of the last two weeks glaring. The Rebels are just good enough to expose certain areas and not talented enough for it to matter. Sans a meltdown of 2010 proportions, Texas emerges from a trip to the Grove undefeated. Whether that’s as a legitimate contender in the Big 12 to the millions watching in sports bars likely depends on the usage of the speed on the field and the bartender’s smile.

Chris Hengst is a College Football writer for Rant Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @ShootyHoops.

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