October 11, 2012

For three years, starting when David Ash was eight years old, he took a trip in mid-October to a church camp in Wichita, Kan. It was there he was first introduced to the Red River Shootout (renamed the Red River Rivalry in 2005), and just this once, the congregation was divided: Those who hailed from Oklahoma praised the Sooners, while those who lived in Texas cheered for the Longhorns. Women of the church refused to venture down to the basement. The reaction to the game was too loud.

It's a nice story, another layer of Ash's structured Church of Christ upbringing; the son of a middle school principal, Ash was raised with five other siblings in a home without cable. But it's still surprising: The trips to Kansas were his only glimpse into one of college football's most storied rivalries. Years later, he'd learn what the games truly meant during his baptism by Crimson fire.

Ash's first trip to the Cotton Bowl came during his freshman season in 2011. He spent much of his afternoon on his back.

The Sooners sacked Ash four times for a net loss of 49 yards, and his five carries generated a total of 11 yards. He threw two interceptions, one of which the Sooners returned for a touchdown, and fumbled twice, though he recovered both times. Oklahoma rolled the Longhorns, 55-17.

"You name it in Quarterback 101 and you go back to that game you have about every situation you could draw from," co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said earlier this week. "There were just so many things he could improve on."

Added Ash, "There's a lot of lessons I learned from, probably the main one being turnovers. I was still very inexperienced when I played in that game. I didn't play well. At all."

Exactly how much he learned will be on display this Saturday, when No. 15 Texas (4-1) takes on No. 13 Oklahoma (3-1) in the 107th chapter of the series. The Sooners are three-point favorites, but there's a growing sense within the Longhorns' ranks that they may hold the edge. Ash's development and maturation is no small reason.

"David's exponentially better," said right guard Mason Walters. "It won't be the same David Ash as last year."

Through five games, he's already dispelled that notion. After taking his lumps as a freshman -- he threw four touchdowns and eight interceptions and had a completion percentage of 56.6 -- Ash won the starting job in camp over Case McCoy, who he split time with in 2011 (McCoy started the Oklahoma game). In the month since, Ash has established himself as a premier passer. He boasts the second-best completion percentage (77.5) and the third-best passer rating (180) in the nation, respectively, and he carved out a spot in Longhorns' lore, coolly leading Texas on a game-winning drive in the final two minutes of a 41-36 victory at Oklahoma State. He impressed coaches on multiple throws, including a crucial fourth-and-six completion and a 32-yard fade that left the Texas just five yards shy of the end zone.

A week later, on Oct. 6, Ash exchanged blows with West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, the consensus Heisman frontrunner to date. And though Texas eventually lost, Ash performed valiantly: He connected on 22-of-29 attempts for 269 yards (one more than Smith) and a score.

"Last year's team would have had no chance because we couldn't have scored," coach Mack Brown said. "We're asking [Ash] to win the games now, and he's doing what we're asking."

In 2010 and '11, Texas went a combined 13-12, and the fan base and players grew numb to losing. Entering games, the Longhorns were carefully optimistic about their chances; now they expect to win every game. A year after struggling mightily, Ash is the one leading the charge.

"If you haven't moved forward, I have," he said. "So hop on."

Remember: 2012 was supposed to be Texas' year. A tall, sandy-haired quarterback with a golden arm was supposed to turn the Longhorns into a Big 12 force. And indeed, such a figure is on campus. He's just not the one anybody expected.

Garrett Gilbert, the former five-star recruit out of Austin's Lake Travis High, was benched early in Texas' second game against BYU last year after completing just 2-of-8 passes with two interceptions. Ash, who was expected to redshirt after enrolling early in the spring, was ill-prepared to lead the offense as a true freshman. Gilbert announced his decision to transfer, ultimately landing at SMU. In turn, Ash's role drastically increased.

But the game moved too quickly for him, the nadir being the 55-17 bloodbath in Dallas. Oklahoma was in his face all day, and half a stadium crowed gleefully after every interception, every sack and every time Ash had to pick the dirt out of his facemask. It was the worst loss Ash suffered since his 10th grade season at nearby Belton High.

"There were a lot of turnovers, and we were out of the game before we even got in it," Brown said. "The guys kept trying and kept fighting."

With 2:31 remaining in the fourth quarter of that game, however, Ash delivered a four-yard touchdown strike to Jaxon Shipley. It was a small consolation for a day soaked in humiliation, but it served as a demonstration of his will. It didn't hurt to squeeze a little good out of the loss, either.

"We were still improving, and we were still young -- we learned a lot," Ash said. "I think this year it's a whole new season."

There seems to be an entirely new quarterback this time around, too. After gaining first-hand exposure to the Red River Rivalry in 2011, Ash could make the outcome a whole lot closer in 2012.

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