Texas struggles to produce big plays

No-contact practices, soft season opener encourage QB Ash to hold ball too long

Updated: September 4, 2012, 11:26 PM ET
By Carter Strickland | HornsNation

AUSTIN, Texas -- David Ash waited too long.

The Texas quarterback knows it. His receivers know it. His coaches know it. And anyone who saw Ash hang on and hitch the ball before letting it fly Saturday on his two deep pass attempts knows it, too.

"There was a few plays where I was like, man, I really held onto that ball a long time," Ash said. "I've got to get rid of that."

Sooner rather than later, because Texas has been waiting for a season plus for the big plays to arrive.

The Longhorns had 28 passes of 20 yards or more in 2011. They scored 22 times on drives that featured a pass completion of 20 yards or more. Given that Texas was eighth in scoring offense in 2011, and the Big 12 is putting up pinball scores this year, it would stand to reason that Texas needs more big plays to lead to scores.

[+] EnlargeJaxon Shipley
John Albright/Icon SMITexas' Jaxon Shipley caught 7 passes against Wyoming for just 45 yards.
"That's something that we've been concerned about," head coach Mack Brown said. "We will open up more as the season comes on and David gets more comfortable."

Texas didn't open up much against Wyoming. There were five long downfield throws called, according to Texas co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. On one of those, Ash checked out because of a look the defense was giving. He went for three of them. He failed to complete any of them.

"In a perfect world we would like to have two shot plays per quarter where you can move the ball downfield," Harsin said.

To do that everything has to be in sync. That was far from the case against Wyoming. Oh, the receivers were there. Jaxon Shipley was free and clear in the third quarter. So too was Mike Davis on the same play. But, as Ash said, he waited. Later Davis was free again. Ash waited until Davis had outrun his arm. The Longhorns did pick up a pass interference call, but that was little consolation for what looked like a sure touchdown.

Brown knows that it is going to take touchdowns to win, especially in the Big 12, where the top Week 1 point totals were 84 (Oklahoma State), 69 (West Virginia) and 59 (Baylor).

Ash and the coaches, while discouraged the big plays were not there in the passing game, do see the issue as fixable. First and foremost on the fix-it list is getting Ash to get rid of the ball sooner.

Brown surmised the issue might be that he became complacent in practice because of the lack of a pass rush.

"When you don't hit the quarterback in practice, sometimes they have a tendency in ballgames to hold the ball a little bit too long," he said.

Instead, Ash could wait for the perfect moment to unfurl his arm without fear of it being ripped off by a defensive end. So the translation was, against a Wyoming team that did not have a solid pass rush, Ash held the ball forever.

Another factor is that Ash has been brainwashed into managing the game. When he didn't turn over the ball against Cal in the Holiday Bowl he was lauded for his efforts. Brown and Harsin have reinforced ad nauseam that the way to keep the starting job and to keep Texas winning was to not throw picks.

Naturally, Ash did not want to put the ball in harm's way. But in college football, especially in a conference that averaged .83 points per minute of football played in Week 1, there has to be some risk-reward in the passing game. Ash seems to understand that.

"For me, that's the main thing is trusting my reads, trusting my feet and getting rid of the ball," he said.

"He knows what needs to happen," Harsin said. "He can tell you exactly what happened and why, and what he can do better."

So too can someone who has just been involved in a car accident. It's avoiding said accident, not regurgitating the causes, that leads to unscathed passage.

Texas and Ash might be better able to accomplish that against New Mexico. Despite rolling up 66 points against Southern and allowing just 21, it is a far inferior opponent than Wyoming. Even with the opening win, the Lobos have only four victories since 2009. That's the lowest total of any FBS team.

And Daje Johnson, the mercurial receiver on whom so many of Texas' explosive play hopes have been pinned, is back in good graces after his suspension. And the Longhorns are a week older. That might not seem like much, but remember: The lifespan of a Big 12 participant is just 48 weeks for a four-year player, 52 if he makes it to a bowl game every year. So one week, especially a week in which there is new film to digest on each team, is important.

For those reasons, and more than likely a few more, Harsin is confident Ash will succeed in the downfield passing game where he has not before.

"He gets it," Harsin said.

And those around Texas might get to quit playing the waiting game.

Carter Strickland | email

Reporter, HornsNation