- Max Olson, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUSTIN, Texas – Even after a must-win game over the defending Big 12 champion, Texas coach Mack Brown wasn’t ready to celebrate just yet. But surely he’s breathing a deep sigh of relief after this one, right?
“I’m not there yet,” he said. “Not there yet.”
It’s safe to say the significance of Texas’ 31-21 win over Kansas State isn’t lost on him. Nobody needed a win on Saturday more than Brown and Texas.
Many will knock Kansas State and say Texas just beat a team that had lost to an FCS school. Big whoop. Some will go a step further and laugh at Texas for celebrating a win over Kansas State, calling it a sign of the times if that’s the Longhorns' standard.
But Texas has every reason to overreact to a win over the Wildcats, its first since 2003. The Longhorns were entering season-on-the-brink territory. Win or fall apart. Frustrated players, angry fans, wild rumors. Lose this game and it all gets a whole lot worse, and we start questioning how Texas will even get to six wins.
Brown needed this to stave off all the negativity, to send a message that the season isn’t over.
“We had to get this game tonight. We had to get back on the right track,” Brown said. “I don’t think this team will let up, I really don’t.”
Ever the optimist, Brown can point to plenty of things he saw Saturday night that reinforce his belief in this team. His veteran offensive line finally began playing up to its potential in paving the way for 227 rushing yards, including 141 and two scores from Johnathan Gray.
"This was a crucial step for us to get things turned around, and it is a great feeling to get that accomplished and know that we are back on the right track," senior guard Trey Hopkins said.
And that maligned Texas defense, that one that was as porous as any in the country through three games, at last showed progress in Week 2 of the Greg Robinson regime. Holding Kansas State to 115 yards on the ground is tangible, unmistakable progress.
The laundry list of Texas starters who are injured keeps growing, but the team has a week off before traveling to Iowa State for a Thursday night showdown.
More than anything, Texas just needed positive energy and momentum. The two losses made Brown and his team a national punching bag. Everyone got in their shots. Much of the chatter wasn’t unfair.
What Texas did to Kansas State won’t shut everyone up, but it’s a start. Brown tried his best to block out the negativity, but he let his players deal with it however they pleased.
“I actually said to those guys what I’ve said to you all: Handle it any way you want to, but beat Kansas State,” Brown said. “The rest of it doesn’t matter. If it bothers you, don’t look at it. If you enjoy drama, look at it. It’s up to you.”
Defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat has argued for weeks that this would be a player-led team. Texas was playing without six injured starters, and its players embraced a next-man-up mentality.
“I give all the credit to the players. This week was a tough week, obviously,” offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said. “We lost, lot of criticism, lot of chances to kind of get rabbit ears. But everybody put their nose to the grindstone and worked.”
The fourth-quarter stops and turnovers are a sign this season can get better. Leaning on and trusting the run game when Ash exited was a sign. Ending three straight years of futility against K-State was a sign, too.
There are reasons -- not many, but a few -- to believe Texas can eventually become the team it was hyped up to be. Brown saw that on Saturday.
“This is part of the team that I expected to see and expect to see for the rest of the year,” Brown said. “This can be a really good football team before we finish.”
It’s just one win. The intense scrutiny probably won’t dissipate much. But the toxic cloud over Brown’s program lifted for one night. Now would be a good time to exhale.
4dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
5dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney