The first potential game-winning pass went through the hands of Brandon Jones. The second landed harmlessly out of bounds beyond the end zone. So did the third.
With the incomplete pass, the No. 9 Texas Longhorns survived a late comeback attempt by the Baylor Bears at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday to move to 6-1 overall and 4-0 in Big 12 play.
There were missed field goals — two in the second half by freshman kicker Cameron Dicker, last weekend’s hero in the Cotton Bowl.
There was a big injury, as sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger suffered a shoulder injury on the game’s first drive and did not return. Junior Shane Buechele came on in relief and managed the Horns to a victory, finishing 20-of-34 passing for 184 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
The interception was costly. In the third quarter, Buechele tried to hit junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay on a post route, but didn’t lead him into the middle of the field. The interception by Buechele was the first turnover for Texas in three games, dating back to the late fumble by sophomore running back Daniel Young late against USC.
Baylor responded with a six-play, 56-yard drive finished with a two-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Jalen Hurd, who played running back at Tennessee before transferring.
A halftime lead for the Longhorns was cut to 23-17 on that play, as the defense allowed a score following a turnover for the first time this season.
The next three drives for Texas covered 28 plays and took 12:48 off the clock. The needed score, however? Didn’t happen, as senior tight end Andrew Beck failed to get his head around on a key 1st and 10 from the Baylor 22-yard line on the first of those three drives, forcing the Horns to work from behind the chains. Two plays later, Dicker missed from 34 yards away after hitting his first three attempts.
When the offensive line wasn’t able to get movement against an often-leaky Baylor run defense to finish off the next offensive drive for Texas, Buechele missed a 3rd and 7 pass from the 34-yard line of the Bears. Dicker then missed his 51-yard attempt.
After the defense responded by getting Baylor off the field following a three and out that netted negative two yards, the offense responded to run blitzes by the Bears by working the edges with the wide receiver screen game. Three straight plays gained 23 yards that way, but freshman running back Keaontay Ingram was stopped on 2nd and 5 when Texas went back to the running game and a Wildcat snap to junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey was stuffed, setting up the final drive by the Bears.
With no timeouts, Baylor was able to move the ball 80 yards on 13 plays thanks to 39 yards gained by wide receiver Pooh Stricklin on two catches. Ultimately, however, the final three passes from Brewer went incomplete and Texas escaped with the win.
The Longhorns offense didn’t exactly get off to a fast start after the Bears won the toss and deferred, but it did sustain a grinding drive that featured a 4th and 2 conversion by graduate transfer running back Tre Watson.
However, Ehlinger suffered a cut on his hand several plays before that ultimately resulted in his removal from the game and the eventual revelation of his shoulder injury.
When Buechele entered the game, the offense stalled, as a short completion and a scramble on third and long were not enough to sustain the 14-play drive following two penalties and an incompletion.
The scramble by Buechele did get into the range of Dicker, who hit from 40 yards to give the Horns the lead.
The defense just wasn’t able to hold up its end of the bargain as Brewer, the Lake Travis product and Texas legacy, led Baylor on an 11-play, 75-yard drive that took nearly six minutes off the clock and included three third-down conversions. Brewer was perfect to open the game, hitting 6-of-6 passes for 57 yards and a 14-yard run on a quarterback sneak. The big blow came on 3rd and 11 from the Longhorns 19-yard line when Bears wide receiver Denzel Mims used a variety of moves and an extended arm to create separation from senior cornerback Davante Davis for the touchdown.
A run-heavy drive for Texas following the Baylor score largely featured Watson, with two targets of junior wide receiver Collin Johnson resulting in an 18-yard gain and a pass interference penalty. A dropped pass by Beck put Texas behind the chains, though, and a swing pass to Watson wasn’t enough to pick up the first down on 3rd and 4 thanks to a nice tackle by a Baylor defender. Once again, Dicker connected, this time from 35 yards away.
After the issues on the first drive, the Longhorns defense responded on the second, despite a lack of help from the Big 12 officiating crew. A possible lateral was blown dead immediately instead of letting it play out and then discussing or reviewing the play later. A blatant hold on senior defensive end Charles Omenihu went uncalled on third down, but Brewer threw the ball out of bounds to lead to a Bears punt.
Big 12 officiating struck again when Buechele’s struggles led to a 50-yard punt by freshman Ryan Bujcevski that was supposedly tipped, negating a potential running into or roughing the kicker penalty.
The Texas defense allowed a Baylor field goal early in the second quarter before the offense woke up. Buechele, who finished the first half 9-of-19 passing for 109 yards, picked up most of his yardage on a 44-yard strike to Johnson, who did a fantastic job of tracking the football and using his big frame to ensure he had enough space to make the catch.
Then Buechele benefitted from continued poor officiating — on a pass intended for Duvernay, a Baylor defender appeared to intercept the ball in the end zone. Instead, the play was ruled incomplete on the field and then inexplicably confirmed on review, even though it did not appear that the ball moved much, if at all, as the defender hit the end zone.
Inserting freshman running back Keaontay Ingram into the game made a difference, too. Watson had eight carries for 26 yards in the first half (3.3 yards per carry), while Ingram ignited the running game with eight carries for 56 yards (7.0 yards per carry). His longest run of the first half, an 18-yard effort, set up a three-yard touchdown run by Humphrey from the Wildcat formation.
By that point, the Longhorns recovered from the 10-6 deficit to take a 20-10 lead and secure momentum in the game, despite whatever head coach Tom Herman thinks about momentum.
When the Bears tried to score before halftime, freshman safety Caden Sterns, the Wolf of DKR, ranged towards the sideline to intercept his fourth pass of the season when Brewer put too much air under the pass. Quarterbacks may eventually learn that Sterns will take advantage of those situations more often than not, but as of the first half on Saturday, that realization hadn’t taken yet.
The interception by Sterns tied the Texas freshman record held by Quandre Diggs and Cris Carter.
Poor clock management appeared to effectively end the first half, as Texas allowed the clock to run from 33 seconds to 16 seconds on a scramble by Buechele despite holding two timeouts. However, the first positive offensive play of freshman wide receiver D’Shawn Jamison’s career picked up 17 yards on 3rd and 13, so when Humphrey caught a four-yard pass on the next play, Dicker connected on his first field goal of the first half from 47 yards, setting a career high.
As a result, Texas went into halftime with a 23-10 lead after scoring 17 straight points.
Continuing a disturbing trend, though, the offense wasn’t able to produce any scores in the second half, forcing the defense to come through at the end of the game.
The game certainly wasn’t pretty, but Texas was able to win with its backup quarterback. Now offensive line coach Herb Hand will challenge his group to create more displacement at the line of scrimmage while the overall offensive braintrust works on finding some answers. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will challenge his defense to tackle better and get off the field more often on third downs.
Most importantly, the medical staff will determine the severity of Ehlinger’s injury heading into the bye week.
A trip to Stillwater to face an Oklahoma State team that played poorly in Manhattan and lost to Kansas State on Saturday looms on the other side.
The bottom line? Texas still controls its destiny as one of two remaining undefeated teams in the Big 12 and will have a week to regroup and improve before facing what is now the defining stretch of the season.
So it’s 1-0 and onwards.