SAN DIEGO -- What a difference a month doesn't make.
Anemic offense. Outstanding defense.
Yep, that was Texas for most of the second half of the season. And that was Texas against Cal in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl.
So it was no surprise that this game against Cal offered few surprises. OK, there were a couple. The 21-10 win makes eight for the Longhorns. And as Mack Brown said, "There is a huge difference between 8-5 and 7-6."
There is also a huge difference when the Texas defense creates turnovers. Against Cal, the defense did that five times. Add to that six sacks and 7 net rushing yards and there's your difference in this game.
"We couldn't get in space, couldn't get to the second level, and they limited the big play," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "We had our chances and gave the ball away."
More accurately, it was Texas taking the ball away.
If only the Texas offense could have done something with those opportunities. It didn't. At least not for the first three quarters.
Texas' net gain after the first three turnovers was 3 yards and a missed field goal.
Suddenly, the decision to start David Ash over Case McCoy looked like another in a long line of puzzling decisions made by co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. But Harsin was being patient. Maddeningly patient.
"More patient than I would have been," Brown said.
"It was part of our game philosophy," Harsin simply said.
That philosophy was to play field position, not turn the ball over and lean heavily on the defense. It might have created yawns among the faithful, but their smiles were plenty wide when it was over. Buoyed by Marquise Goodwin's 47-yard touchdown catch and 37-yard run to set up another score, Texas finally moved the ball in the second half.
"I credit my team for gutting it out when it got a little sloppy," Ash said.
It took 10 tries before Texas converted a third down. It took more than a half before Texas had 5 yards rushing. Twice on sure touchdowns, Ash underthrew the ball.
But the defense kept Texas in the game. Aside from two drives -- one of 40 and another of 69 -- Cal had 86 yards to go along with the turnovers.
"You just keep punching them in the kidney and eventually it is going to pay off," defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said.
Texas kept giving the ball to Ash and the offense and it eventually paid off there, too.
Ash finally started to click in the second half. After falling behind 10-7, the freshman led a four-play, 76-yard drive to put Texas up for good. He finished the game 14-of-23 for 142 yards. Not stellar numbers, but -- in a game that featured 16 punts -- good enough to be named the offensive MVP.
With his head clearly swimming, Ash grabbed the microphone after being named MVP and told the crowd: "We're on our way up. We're going to keep going up and pretty soon we're going to be in the BCS title game."
"Who gave him the microphone?" muttered lineman Mason Walters as he walked by the assembled throng.
Walters did provide a dose of reality in an otherwise heady moment. This is a team that won eight games, but did so many times in spite of what has been a makeshift and often ineffective offense. The coaching staff said Ash played this game because he was a superior runner. Cal has not experienced the option attack, Brown said, so therefore Ash was better suited to play.
What Ash's playing did signal is that he will have every opportunity to be the top quarterback of the spring.
Harsin said it is a fine line between McCoy and Ash right now. But that line was about two feet thick and white with chalk against Cal. McCoy never did anything but watch from the sideline.
Brown's reason for sticking with Ash was simple.
"When he played good it assured that he stayed in."
Again, "good" is a relative term around Texas. So too is "success." Brown is well aware of both facts.
"We're not throwing Gatorade," he said. "We're not jumping up and down and screaming.
"But hopefully this is a step forward."
To illustrate his point, Brown pointed to 2003 and '07. Texas played in the Holiday Bowl both years. In 2004, Texas was in the Rose Bowl. In 2005, it was in the national title game. The progression was the same in 2008 and '09.
"We grew from [this game]," Ash said. "We're on our way up."
Carter Strickland covers University of Texas football and recruiting for HornsNation
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