The one thing that couldn’t happen, happened.
With the Texas Longhorns clinging to a 41-34 lead and the clock ticking down around 20 seconds at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, a West Virginia Mountaineers wide receiver got behind the defense.
Coordinator Todd Orlando’s group struggled all day, and in the key moment Gary Jennings Jr. was able to get behind sophomore nickel back Josh Thompson and freshman safety Caden Sterns for a 33-yard touchdown catch on a perfect throw from star quarterback Will Grier.
And apparently West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen packed his big brass balls on the trip from Morgantown, as he elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win at the risk of losing instead of heading to overtime with an extra-point attempt.
Following two timeouts by Texas, once of which came as Grier delivered a strike to David Sills V on a slant just as Longhorns head coach Tom Herman called a timeout, Grier found the corner of the end zone on a called running play to win the game.
The Horns still had a chance after Grier was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty following the conversion, but Texas wasn’t able to execute a Hail Mary on either of the last two plays to fall to 6-3 after two consecutive losses.
The offense put up 41 points and 522 yards of total offense despite coming away with only three points after driving inside the West Virginia 5-yard line on both drives to open the second half. On the second drive, a four-yard loss on 2nd and goal forced a field-goal attempt, while the first drive ended when the officiating crew ruled that Sam Ehlinger’s helmet came off before he gained the necessary yardage on a fourth-down play, overturning the call on the field.
So the offense largely did its part, avoiding turnovers and scoring points with a combination of big passing plays and 132 yards on the ground from Ehlinger and graduate transfer Tre Watson, who also added a receiving touchdown on a wheel route. Watson unquestionably had his best game in burnt orange and white. Ehlinger accounted for four touchdowns and once again played turnover-free football.
The rising sophomore continued to demonstrate that the AC sprain of his shoulder won’t limit him as a passer or runner moving forward unless he suffers a setback, as Ehlinger stretched his streak of passes without an interception to 246, which is now the new Big 12 record. He went 24-of-36 passing for 354 yards and three touchdowns through the air and added 52 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
After a suspension for the first series last weekend in Stillwater and a key drop, junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey was sensational, catching nine passes for 143 yards and a touchdown. Fellow junior Devin Duvernay had one of his best games as a Longhorn, as well, with six receptions for 100 yards, including the 48-yard touchdown on a double move that gave Texas the lead late in the fourth quarter.
The problem was the defense, as Orlando’s group is now officially reeling after allowing 578 total yards, including 232 yards on the ground on seven yards per carry.
Injuries haven’t helped — senior defensive tackle Chris Nelson sprained his ankle in practice on Tuesday and was ruled out for the game initially before playing, junior safety Brandon Jones re-injured his ankle at the team hotel on Saturday morning, senior cornerback Davante Davis left the game with a shoulder and neck sprain on the first drive, senior defensive end Breckyn Hager left the game after dislocating his elbow in the first half, and backup sophomore defensive Marqez Bimage left the game with a dislocated shoulder.
In a game of attrition that featured 21 penalties and an absurd ejection of the West Virginia starting left tackle, Texas lost that battle of attrition and eventually lost the game.
With the injuries adding up defensively, Orlando needs to find some answers for a group that is giving up big plays through the air and on the ground. The third-down defense once again struggled, allowing conversion on 7-of-12 attempts. The defense was not able to force a turnover for the second straight game. Apart from the missed tackles, busted coverages, and struggles to defend the run, Texas was once again poor in the two areas that Orlando emphasizes as key to winning in the Big 12.
Once again, the loss stings, just as it did last weekend, and there are major issues defensively that Orlando will have to correct with a trip to Lubbock looming next weekend.
This team can compete with anyone in the country, but the margins are still thin enough that winning the next two games will be difficult.
Onwards to the Llano Estacado.