By Jim Vertuno
The Associated Press
AUSTIN — Off to a 3-0 start and rising in the national rankings, the No. 12 Texas Longhorns are settling into an off week feeling good about quarterback David Ash and a bit unnerved by the defense’s habit of giving up of big plays for touchdowns.
Ash proved he can be an effective game manager in wins over Wyoming and New Mexico, then turned into a big-play engineer with four touchdown passes in a 66-31 romp over Mississippi.
Ash still has a tendency to underthrow on deep routes, but for the first time since Jordan Shipley was catching passes from Colt McCoy in 2009, Longhorns receivers are showing an ability to beat a defender and make a big play.
“I think I mastered the underthrow,” Ash joked after the Mississippi game.
Coach Mack Brown said he has no worries. Brown says he’d rather see an underthrown ball than and overthrown one.
“We’ve been encouraging him to let the guys catch it, and been challenging the receivers to catch it. Overthrown balls are punts: you don’t have a chance to catch them,” Brown said.
Ash struggled with turnovers as a freshman last season but through the first three games this season has seven touchdowns with no interceptions. He’s ranked fourth nationally in pass efficiency and his 76 percent completion rate rivals McCoy, one of the most accurate passers in NCAA history.
“He’s very confident right now with where he’s going with the ball,” Brown said.
It’s easy for a quarterback to be confident in receivers who can make a big play. Against Mississippi, Marquise Goodwin had a 69-yard touchdown run, the longest for Texas in five years, set up another with a 47-yard catch and finished Texas’ scoring by catching a 55-yard touchdown pass.
Texas rolled up 676 total yards, second most in school history, and scored the most points since a 70-3 win over Colorado in the 2005 Big 12 title game. It was also the most points surrendered by Mississippi since 1917. Texas is averaging 49 points.
The Longhorns will need to maintain that sizzle when the Big 12 schedule starts with Oklahoma State, No. 8 West Virginia and No. 6 Oklahoma in the next three games.
Oklahoma State leads the nation in scoring, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith is considered a top Heisman Trophy contender and the Sooners beat Texas 55-17 last season.
“We’ll play much better defenses here in the next couple of weeks,” Brown said. “At the same time, it showed the offense that we walked out of Oxford with a lot of confidence. That’s something this offense has been lacking, in my estimation, over the last couple years. They know they can do it and it’s exciting.”
What puzzles Brown is the defense.
Linebacker Steve Edmond scored the first touchdown against Mississippi with a 22-yard interception return and the defense recorded five sacks. But the Longhorns also gave up a 75-yard touchdown pass, a 48-yard touchdown run and a 100-yard kickoff return.
Last season, Texas didn’t give up touchdown pass of 20 yards or longer until the 12th game. It has surrendered three already this season.
“I think now it’s on our résumé that we’ll give up big plays for touchdowns. No good defense can give up big plays for touchdowns,” coordinator Manny Diaz said.
Texas began the season expecting to have one of the best defenses in the Big 12 and the country. After three games, the Longhorns rank 32nd in total defense and 60th against the run.
“We had a lot of good plays, but a lot of that gets canceled out,” Texas senior safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “The good teams put a foot on your throat.”
Brown likes what he sees of his team after three games.
“I know we’re headed in the right direction,” Brown said. “I know we can do better than what we’ve done on defense.”