For only the fourth time in Big 12 play, the Texas Longhorns beat the Kansas State Wildcats by playing the same type of disciplined, tough football that head coach Bill Snyder so often instills in his team with a physical 23-9 victory in a downpour in Austin.
Texas junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes was the hero in scoring all three touchdowns out of the 18 Wheeler package. Unlike Oklahoma, Kansas State knew what was coming, stopping one first-half drive by inflicting a negative play, but Swoopes was too big and too powerful on three late fourth-quarter runs that covered 52 yards and culminated in a 10-yard run off tackle for the final margin.
The final drive for the Horns allowed Swoopes and play caller Jay Norvell to redeem themselves after what could have been a controversial third-down call. In a situation where two first downs could have killed most of the clock, Norvell opted for a play-action pass into the flat, but Swoopes threw behind sophomore tight end Andrew Beck and Beck couldn't come up with the catch, stopping the clock and giving Kansas State an opportunity down by seven points.
But the defense stepped up, as junior defensive tackle Paul Boyette continued his strong play from the Oklahoma game with a key pressure on Kansas State quarterback Joe Hubener that allowed junior safety Dylan Haines to redeem himself with an interception after dropping a potential pick-six early in the game.
Redemption is always a welcome storyline in a series that featured seven Kansas State wins in the 10 contests leading up to Saturday's rain-drenched affair and zero wins between 2003 and 2013.
On Tuesday, redshirt freshman quarterback Jerrod Heard promised that the Horns would be a "run-first, nasty, get-at-your-face" offense moving forward and Texas delivered in the first half to take a 16-6 lead into halftime.
The poor conditions helped make the passing game more difficult for both teams, but favored the emerging Texas identity on offense as Heard and company gained 188 yards on the ground during the first half while completing only three passes, all three of which were push passes to senior wide receiver Daje Johnson accounted for all 33 yards gained through the air.
The first three drives for the Horns were methodical affairs of 15 plays, 13 plays, and eight plays, resulting in a field goal and two touchdowns as Texas asserted physical dominance in the game. Unfortunately, head coach Charlie Strong's team left some points on the field when the 18 Wheeler package got stuffed close to the goal line to force the field goal on the first drive and a recovered sky kick in Kansas State territory didn't result in points after a failed 4th-and-5 run by Heard.
A second poor snap by junior Kyle Ashby also resulted in a failed point-after attempt.
Kansas State was able to take advantage to score a touchdown on the half's final possession, using several chunks plays by quarterback Joe Hubener (one on the ground and one through the air) and a pass interference penalty by freshman cornerback Holton Hill to score a late touchdown.
The seven-yard touchdown pass from Hubener to Dominique Heath took advantage of a Texas coverage mistake between redshirt freshman cornerback John Bonney and junior safety Dylan Haines on a pick play, but the two-point conversion failed for the final first-half margin.
Hubener didn't look particularly sharp in the first half after he briefly left the game after taking a big hit from Texas sophomore Jason Hall on the first offensive snap for Kansas State, but he was able to complete some ugly passes to go 6-of-8 through the air for 61 yards.
Coming out of halftime, Charlie Strong told the FS1 sideline reporter that the Texas quarterbacks couldn't grib the ball well enough to throw it. So the offense remained conservative over the first three drives until Norvell finally opened up the playbook with a pass down the sideline to junior tight end Caleb Bluiett that helped flip field position.
Up until that point, the Horns had stubbornly run into predictably loaded Wildcats fronts featuring eight opponents.
Special teams struggled some, too, due to the conditions -- junior long snapper Kyle Ashby contributed to one miss on a point-after attempt and nearly sabotaged another before sending a punt snap over the head of Michael Dickson. Fortunately for the Horns, Dickson corralled the snap because the Wildcats had a return on and kicked a 33-yard punt that changed the field position more than 60 yards from the spot that he kicked it on the run Aussie-rules style.
Clutch pic.twitter.com/QqIuQ6OSrN— Skelco (@TelcoAg) October 24, 2015
The defense responded to take advantage of Dickson's critical save, though a fumbled snap on the drive's first play by Kansas State put the Wilcats behind the chains. A blitz from senior linebacker Peter Jinkens hit home on Hubener and then a spin move (!) by junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway created a big hit on the Kansas State quarterback as he released the ball into heavy Texas traffic.
Hubener was lucky that the pass fell harmlessly incomplete, but the two negative plays and a poor punt got the Longhorns offense the ball near mid field. A key tackle from Kansas State cornerback Duke Shelley on Heard while trying to take the edge inflicted the negative play that the Wildcats needed to end the drive.
A career day from Kansas State running back Charles Jones helped Kansas State stick around by maintaining some possession and eventually wearing out the Texas defense. Three straight times the Wildats ran the same play and found running room, with Jones using an impressive spin move on Hall to hit the open field on one of those runs.
Then Boyette stepped up for the first time by slicing into the backfield to create a tackle opportunity for freshman linebacker Anthony Wheeler, who converted. After a timeout, a quarterback run was resulted in Hubener tweaking his left ankle on a short gain and another departure from the field for a critical 3rd and 13.
Though Texas couldn't capitalize after the incomplete pass from Swoopes, the Horns ultimately finished the game behind the hardest running of the big quarterback's Longhorns career.
For two weeks, Texas faced questions about whether the team would continue to show improvement after the spark of the Cotton Bowl upset. Within the first two drives of the game against a program that has consistently out-toughed and out-executed Texas for years, Strong's Horns proved that they were the team that could best approximate Snyder's ideal style.
There's no question that Kansas State is far from that ideal, largely due to injuries, but any game against Snyder is a ripe opportunity for the type of "here we go again" moments that have plagued Texas in this series and in so many other games.
Instead, it went in the opposite direction as this team continued to show improvement and increase optimism that producing a six-win season for bowl egibility is a possibility despite the 1-4 start. There's a quarterback, an offensive identity, and an emerging defense that has improved signficantly in the last several weeks.
This is all very good.