AUSTIN, Texas — Who cares where Waldo is. Where was Jaxon? That would be Jaxon Shipley, who had heard the question. Texas' sophomore wide receiver wasn't exactly missing in action during the first three games of the season, but he wasn't making the kind of impact that set him apart as a freshman either.
That changed last week.
After grabbing three touchdown passes in Texas' 41-36 victory at Oklahoma State, everyone knew where Shipley was — firmly ensconced among a large group of talented skill-position players who have transformed the Longhorns' offense from the plodding unit of the post-Colt McCoy era into an exciting ensemble that's scoring 47.3 points a game, which is Texas' highest since the 2005 national championship team's 50.2 norm.
“The ball's going to so many different people right now,” head coach Mack Brown said. “It's fun.” On Saturday night, it likely will be necessary.
If the No. 11 Longhorns are going to upend unbeaten and eighth-ranked West Virginia, their suddenly potent offense will need to continue clicking. Under quarterback Geno Smith, who has been almost perfect in Almost Heaven, the Mountaineers are even more offensive than Texas.
Smith is the Heisman Trophy front-runner because his statistics are borderline silly — 456.5 yards of total offense per game, 84.4 percent completion percentage, 20 touchdown passes, no interceptions. The primary beneficiaries of his record-breaking binge are wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, who rank 1-2 nationally in receptions per game.
It's going to be a tall order to keep second-year coach Dana Holgorsen's offense contained for a Texas defense that has been unexpectedly vulnerable so far. So the offense will need all hands on deck in the not-unlikely event of a shootout.
Luckily for the Longhorns, they have a lot of hands at their disposal, even without arguably their best all-around tailback in Malcolm Brown, sidelined by an ankle injury. Johnathan Gray, step right up.
The skill corps starts with sophomore quarterback David Ash, who has found himself if the last two games are any indication. Of course, it helps that Ash also has found himself surrounded by a strong supporting cast.
At receiver, starters Shipley, Mike Davis and Marquise Goodwin have combined for 44 receptions for 588 yards and seven touchdowns. Freshman Daje Johnson isn't far behind.
Brown said Texas needs to get more exposure for other freshmen receivers Cayleb Jones, Kendall Sanders and Marcus Johnson to build depth.
“If any of those three receivers that are playing so well have to come out, then we've got to have somebody go in,” he said.
At running back, Joe Bergeron and Brown had done most of the heavy lifting until blue-chip freshman Gray got his shot at Oklahoma State because of Brown's ankle sprain in the first quarter. The trio has rushed for 657 yards and eight touchdowns, with four others — Goodwin, Shipley, D.J. Monroe and Jeremy Hills — averaging 9.3 yards per carry on their combined 23 runs.
Gray also has emerged as the triggerman in the “wild formation,” drawing comparisons from Brown to last year's operator in the formation, Fozzy Whittaker.
“Everybody's going to have good skill players. I think the key is you have guys that buy into your system, believe in the system and believe in each other,” said co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who brought his system with him from Boise State last year.
“I think that's what we have,” Harsin added. “They're very explosive. They're aggressive, they're tough. They're guys who can make plays. They're doing all the little things behind the scenes that are helping them come Saturday nights.” The only skill position that is iffy is tight end. Texas is still searching for the right combination of blocking and receiving from the unit. But the group is capable of big things, witness last Saturday when Ash, facing a fourth-and-6 from the UT 29 in the final moments, hit D.J. Grant on a 29-yard pass and run that kept alive the drive which led to Bergeron's game-winning TD.
The Longhorns have looked crisper and more confident on offense in their past two games — the victory at OSU preceded a 66-31 rout at Ole Miss — than they have at any point since McCoy departed after the 2009 season.
“The whole offense has been in sync the last two weeks for the first time,” Brown said. “I don't know why it kicked in at Ole Miss and carried over, but the offensive staff has got a lot of confidence right now in who we are and what we're doing.”
That's not something Texas fans have heard much the last three years. But it's something the Longhorns must continue to exhibit on Saturday night to have a shot against Geno & Co.
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