Following a slow start to the second half, the Texas Longhorns had taken advantage of a missed field goal by the Oklahoma State Cowboys to score touchdowns on consecutive possessions to cut the 31-14 lead down to three points.
When the Texas defense got another stop, the offense was set to get the ball back with more than nine minutes remaining in the game and a chance to tie to take the lead.
ESPN’s win probability for Oklahoma State had dropped from 98 percent on the drive that resulted in the missed field goal to 61.7 percent when Texas stopped Justice Hill on 3rd and 1 with just over 10 minutes left.
And then the game turned on a miscommunication and a miscalculation.
With the Cowboys facing a 4th and 1 from its own 34-yard line, the Longhorns were in punt safe mode to defend against a possible fake and cognizant of not extending another possession with an offsides penalty.
Junior safety Brandon Jones was back to receive the punt because he’s usually more steady with his decision making than freshman D’Shawn Jamison, who had fumbled a punt earlier in the game.
Lined up around the Texas 20-yard line, Jones backpedaled 10 yards before he was able to catch the 57-yard punt from Zach Sinor over his shoulder. However, the momentum of Jones took him back near the goal line and since the return wasn’t on, there were numerous Oklahoma State defenders there to meet him as soon as he turned.
Ultimately, Jones was lucky to avoid a safety while losing seven yards.
“I didn’t realize we were in a punt safe,” Jones said after the game. “We were down and I wanted to try to make a play for my team. It was obviously a bad read, I didn’t expect the ball to go as far over my head. I was standing at the 20-yard line and didn’t really realize where I was at that point but overall I just wanted to make a play for my team.”
As head coach Tom Herman noted after the game, the play was unusually difficult — the coaching point for punt returners when facing a short field is to put their heels on the 10-yard line and let anything over their head hit the ground.
On punts from where Jones was standing, there’s no such firm rule. It’s just on the return man to have enough spatial awareness not to backpedal too far. And to know if the call was a punt safe compared to a punt return.
In the moment, the spatial awareness of Jones let him down as he tried to make a play without the blockers in front of him do so.
Texas narrowly avoided a safety on that possession as Oklahoma State’s win probability increased from 69.5 percent on the punt to 75.9 percent by the time the Horns faced 2nd and 10 from the Texas 2-yard line.
So, amid all the mistakes in the game by Texas, this one was as big as any.