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Longhorns embracing smashmouth identity to save season

AUSTIN, Texas -- For Kent Perkins, sitting in a dorm room on Oct. 3 and watching Texas football was truly torture.

The starting right tackle was out with a knee injury and couldn’t travel with the team. And like most Longhorns fans, he couldn’t take watching the 50-7 loss to TCU. He hated not being there, but he also didn’t like what he was seeing.

“I think the third quarter was when I got really mad,” Perkins said. “And I was like, 'Man …' So I turned it off. When I saw the fourth quarter I was like, 'Dang.'"

And yet, three weeks later, Texas has rapidly evolved from a team that was tough to watch to one that’s just getting tougher.

What we saw from the resurgent Longhorns in a 23-9 win over Kansas State in the rain Saturday wasn’t all that pretty, but that’s exactly what Texas is going for these days. A pounding, physical run game and an increasingly confident defense are going to be what Texas relies upon going forward, whether it looks good or not.

“We’ve been able to win at the line of scrimmage,” Texas coach Charlie Strong said. “So if we can win at the line of scrimmage, let’s continue to pound people.”

What’s emerged in Jay Norvell’s six games as Texas’ playcaller is a clear offensive blueprint for a team that knows it deficiencies and how to hide them. Its offensive line, Texas’ weakest link in 2014, has Perkins back and is now setting the tone, and the quarterback run game is creating problems and opportunities.

“Our kids love to run the football,” Norvell said. “They take a lot of pride in it. And it takes a certain mentality.”

Since Norvell took over the offense on Sept. 8, the Longhorns have one of the nation’s 10 most run-heavy offenses, going to the ground on 67 percent of plays. They’ve surpassed 50 runs in four of Norvell’s six games calling plays, and they’re going to the QB run an average of 17 times a game (excluding sacks) at a rate of 7.1 yards per carry.

That’s knowing what you have and not forcing what you don’t.

They know, too, that opponents are going to put eight in the box. K-State knew they were going to run on third and long. Jerrod Heard still took a zone-read keeper for a 16-yard gain on third-and-8 to keep Texas’ opening drive alive and send a message for the rest of the day.

“It shows that this is what we’re going to do, and y’all are going to have to stop it,” Heard said.

Coaches and players say the pass game would’ve opened up more if not for the rain Saturday, and Norvell points to a great week of practice throwing the ball as a sign of progress. But Heard knows exactly where he stands after six starts.

“I’m doing all right. I’m managing,” he said. “I’m definitely getting tested right now and managing as good as I can.”

But you know Strong loves these low-scoring games. Why? Because that means his defense is doing the job.

Since getting torched by TCU, Texas’ defense ranks No. 9 in yards per play (4.1), No. 15 in yards per rush (2.7) and 20th in points per drive (1.2). The Horned Frogs did absolutely anything they wanted against this defense just a few weeks ago, and could’ve scored a lot more than 50 if not for some second-half mercy. Now the same Texas D is getting stops on three-fourths of its drives.

Like on offense, it starts up front. Texas’ defensive line is consistently getting pressure and stopping the run. Linebacker Malik Jefferson and Peter Jinkens are executing better than ever. Their efforts also leading to better play in the secondary.

“We got that confidence back, that swagger,” cornerback Duke Thomas said. “It’s really about taking that emotion and that pride we played with against OU and keeping it going the rest of the season.”

Added defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway: “Once we get our groove, we’ve got our groove. Got to keep it going.”

Norvell said early on after taking over the offense that you don’t run schemes just to run schemes. After spending an offseason talking up a fantasy of an up-tempo spread offense, it’s clear today the Longhorns have figured out what they’re really about.

“We want to go out and go smashmouth,” running back Johnathan Gray said.

They have the players for it, particularly up front. They have the coaches to preach and teach it. And they have a head man who loves this kind of football. Even Strong’s players have figured that out by now.

“I feel like this is the team that Coach Strong wanted to show for the first game, before we ever started,” receiver Daje Johnson said.