Despite forcing four turnovers and racking up 536 yards of offense, the Texas Longhorns couldn’t do enough to overcome the No. 11-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers, 24-20, for the first loss of the season at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
Texas had an opportunity to win the game on the final drive after going 61 yards in nine plays to set up a final play from the West Virginia 27-yard line, but the ball fell harmlessly in the back of the end zone to cap the game.
There was initially some hope that the ‘Horns would get another play, as the Mountaineers ran a defender off the field just before the play, though it ultimately merely left West Virginia with 10 players on defense.
One of the most crucial plays of the game for Texas came on 4th and 5 from the West Virginia 43-yard line with 2:26 remaining. With only two timeouts remaining, the ‘Horns went for it and quarterback Shane Buechele completed a pass to wide receiver Collin Johnson.
However, in a freshman mistake, Johnson cut his route short of the first-down marker and only gained five yards, giving the ball back to West Virginia.
The defense held in a short-yardage situation, but Texas got the ball back once last time with 1:25 remaining, no timeouts, and 88 yards to go for the game-winning score. Ultimately, Buechele wasn’t able to lead the third fourth-quarter comeback of his career.
Those four turnovers and four dropped passes from the West Virginia wide receivers in the first half helped Texas stay in the game — the ‘Horns forced a red-zone fumble early following a fumble by running back D’Onta Foreman, and intercepted two passes deep in Texas territory.
One of those interceptions came in a critical moment of the game, as struggling Longhorns wide receiver John Burt mishandled another throw that ended up in the hands of a Mountaineer defender. On the ensuing drive, Texas safety Dylan Haines was once again in the perfect position to interception a bad throw by West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard in the end zone.
And for the first time on the day, a team scored after a turnover, as a pass-heavy drive for the ‘Horns ended with a 20-yard touchdown reception by Johnson. Buechele’s close friend made a defender miss on a hitch route to score his third touchdown in two games.
Haines came up big once again after Texas narrowed the margin to 24-20, as another errant throw by Howard ended up in the arms of the former walk on for his 13th career interception. Of the 34 interceptions by the Longhorns in the Charlie Strong era, Haines has accounted for 38 percent of them.
Unfortunately for the ‘Horns, the offense only managed to create seven points off the four turnovers.
Though the season overall has been truly remarkable for Buechele, it wasn’t his best performance — his throws to the sidelines seemed to lack velocity, he experienced uncharacteristic struggles spinning the football, and threw multiple risky passes.
For whatever reason, the downfield passing game just wasn’t there for most of the contest and things got worse for Buechele in the fourth quarter when he took a huge hit from a blitzing cornerback and fumbled the ball on the West Virginia 15-yard line.
The turnover was the third of the game for Texas and cost the Longhorns the opportunity at a field goal to narrow the margin to 24-23.
Buechele finished 31-of-48 passing for 318 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, an average of only 6.6 yards per attempt. Despite four sacks, the freshman was effective in the running game — he had a career-long run of 23 yards and a touchdown, consistently punishing the West Virginia defense for focusing on Foreman.
The junior running back was able to tie the school record of Longhorn legend Earl Campbell by going over 100 yards in the second quarter for the 11 straight game, but was mostly held in check by Tony Gibson’s defense. After being stymied in the second half, Foreman finished with 35 carries for 167 yards, a pedestrian performance compared to his recent efforts.
However, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort, as the 6’1, 249-pounder ran with his customary toughness.
Issues on third down contributed to the problems for Texas, as West Virginia was consistently able to dial up effective blitzes and Buechele wasn’t able to take advantage of the opportunities on the back end.
As a result, the ‘Horns converted only 5-of-17 third downs.
Defensively, sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson left the game in the first quarter with a head injury and did not return.
The defense struggled some in his absence, at one point allowing West Virginia to convert on 7-of-10 third downs to take a 24-11 lead that put Texas in danger of losing separation. It didn’t happen in part because the defense held strong on four of the last five attempts for head coach Dana Holgorsen’s team.
The near separation for West Virginia also happened in the first half — the ‘Horns went down 17-3 after cornerback Kris Boyd interfered with and gave up a falling touchdown catch to ‘Eers wide receiver Ka’Raun White early in the second quarter.
The defense managed to pick up the offense after a punt and another stop helped set up a 10-yard Buechele touchdown run on a zone read to narrow the margin. A 32-yard run by Foreman keyed the drive.
Texas ended the first half with a grinding 22-play, 76-yard drive, but had to settle for a field goal on 4th and 1 from the West Virginia 2-yard line just before half time. In fact, settling for field goals or otherwise failing to score touchdowns after long drives was a too-common theme for Texas on the day.
In another questionable display of game management, Strong used a timeout in the third quarter on a 3rd and 6 from the West Virginia 24-yard line after initially lining up to go for it. The field-goal team came out after the stoppage of play and graduate transfer kicker Trent Domingue had his attempt blocked.
The special teams struggles spilled over to the kickoff return game, as usual, with wide receiver Jacorey Warrick bringing multiple kicks out of the end zone, but barely averaged over 20 yards per return.
Texas had plenty of opportunities for win this game, but the result and the struggles were all too familiar — special teams mistakes, problems on third down on both sides of the ball, and the inability to take advantage of turnovers.
Oh yeah, and the typical game management mistake or two from its embattled head coach.
West Virginia is a quality football team, so this loss doesn’t feel nearly as devastating as previous failures this season. However, there’s no denying the disappointment of yet another close loss.
The major positive? This team continues to battle until the last second in every game.