ARLINGTON, Texas — Faced with an opportunity to win the program’s first conference championship since 2009, the Texas Longhorns couldn’t get out of their own way long enough to beat the Oklahoma Sooners, falling 39-27 in the Big 12 Championship game on Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Head coach Tom Herman’s team gifted the home team 128 yards and numerous opportunities thanks to 13 penalties. The number of penalties tied the Big 12 record, while the penalty yardage shattered the previous ignominious record set by Oklahoma against Missouri in 2007 when the Sooners were flagged for 113 yards. Senior cornerback Kris Boyd alone was called for three 15-yard penalties, with a fourth negated by an Oklahoma hold.
No penalty was bigger than a holding call on sophomore cornerback Josh Thompson in desperation time — for a moment, it appeared as if junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey had returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown when Texas was down by 12 with two minutes remaining. Instead, it was called back and sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger effectively ended the game with an interception a little more than a minute later.
Another big mistake by Ehlinger put the Horns in an early insurmountable hole.
Senior linebacker Gary Johnson had just hustled around 50 yards to force a fumble by Oklahoma CeeDee Lamb at the end of a 56-yard catch and run. Texas recovered, giving the offense an opportunity in a three-point game.
However, the Sooners defense stuffed a run before interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeil made arguably the best call of his career — a cornerback blitz by Tre Brown. Ehlinger never saw it, as he was looking left and never saw Brown coming from his right.
The result was a safety that stretched the Sooners lead with 8:27 remaining.
And then Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley took a page out of the Texas ball-control handbook, as the Sooners took 6:27 off the clock on an 11-play, 65-yard drive to effectively ice the game.
There was some bad luck, too — Oklahoma kicker Austin Seibert put a field goal off the left upright before it went through. Humphrey didn’t get a pass-interference call on a critical third down with 10:41 remaining despite plenty of contact. Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray threw a perfect pass to tight end Grant Calcaterra on 3rd and 10 for an 18-yard touchdown to provide the final margin.
Murray was the named the game’s Most Outstanding Player after throwing for 379 yards and three touchdowns on 25-of-34 passing, while adding 39 yards on 10 carries.
The blitz by McNeil and the final pass by Murray made a huge difference in the game, but make no mistake — this loss was largely as result of self-inflicted mistakes by Texas.
A lack of movement by the offensive line didn’t help, either, as a group that dominated Oklahoma for long stretches in the Cotton Bowl couldn’t open up many holes for the Texas running backs. Graduate transfer Tre Watson and freshman Keontay Ingram combined to average 2.7 yards per attempt in gaining only 36 yards on 17 carries.
The issues negated a monster game from junior wide receiver Johnson, who set a Big 12 Championship Game record with 177 receiving yards, surpassing the previous mark held by Oklahoma’s Malcolm Kelly, who had racked up 142 receiving yards against Nebraska in 2006. However, the Sooners committed more bodies to defend Johnson late in the game and it paid off for McNeil.
The start for Texas was much better than the finish.
Ehlinger wasn’t especially sharp on the first drive, as he missed junior wide receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey running open down the field on two throws, but was able to convert long third downs to each of them. The first came on a 32-yard jump ball to Johnson on 3rd and 8 and the second came on 16-yard out-breaking route to Humphrey on 3rd and 10.
On the third and final third down of the opening drive, Texas brought in its jumbo package on 3rd and 1 and Ehlinger found a hole before breaking a tackle scoring on his longest touchdown run of the season — 16 yards.
Texas had been 5-0 this season when scoring first, but Murray is now 6-0 at AT&T Stadium, a stretch that spans his high school and college careers.
The Sooners certainly responded to the opening touchdown, but were forced to do so in relatively strong chunks — nine plays gained only 72 yards, with 25 yards coming as a result of facemask penalties on Texas senior cornerback Kris Boyd. One negated what appeared to be an interception in the end zone when junior safety Brandon Jones deflected a pass into the arms of freshman safety Caden Sterns.
When Oklahoma running back Trey Sermon ran for eight yards to the Texas 1-yard line, it appeared as if the Sooners would score a touchdown, but senior linebacker Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler stopped Sermon for a two-yard loss on the ensuing third down to force a field goal.
Boyd’s struggles continued on the second Sooners drive, as he drew a pass-interference penalty that featured as little contact as possible for such a call. Oklahoma’s struggles getting plays off successfully continued, as the Sooners burned two timeouts on the drive. Before the end of the first quarter, head coach Lincoln Riley was out of timeouts for the first half.
With the end of the quarter, Texas had held Murray to 47 yards passing, his lowest total of the season. Oklahoma was held without a first-quarter touchdown for the first time this season.
On the first play of the second quarter, Boyd made up for his earlier mistakes by playing through the hands of Oklahoma wide receiver Marquise Brown to save a touchdown and force a second Sooners field goal. Brown had dropped a would-be touchdown pass earlier on the drive when he beat Sterns on a post route.
Unlike the second drive, which was derailed by a trick play when Ingram tried to target Johnson, Texas kept it simple on the third drive against the struggling Oklahoma defense.
Ehlinger found Johnson down the sideline on the first play for a 31-yard gain, as the big junior wide receiver beat one-on-coverage, just as he’s done consistently all season. The next big chunk play also went to Johnson for 23 yards on 4th and 4 near midfield to keep the drive alive.
A scramble by Ehlinger put the Horns inside the Sooners 10-yard line and Ehlinger once again finished it with a touchdown run, this time from three yards out. It was his fifth touchdown run against Oklahoma this season.
The stretch at the end of the first half could come back to haunt Texas — Oklahoma lost field position after its only penalties during the first 30 minutes, but were able to score quickly by finally producing some big plays.
When the Horns moved into Sooners territory and took a shot play to Johnson, it nearly resulted in a touchdown. Except that Texas was called for an illegal shift and a weak offensive pass-interference penalty on Johnson.
Stuck behind the chains, the Longhorns were ultimately forced to punt with a chance to pin the Sooners deep. Instead, freshman punter Ryan Bujcevski, who had shanked a punt earlier in the game, kicked the ball into the end zone.
The defense didn’t hold up, as Oklahoma eventually averaged 11.3 yards per play in the second quarter, scoring with the clock running down on a six-yard pass to tight end Grant Calcaterra thanks to an assist from Texas senior defensive end Breckyn Hager.
Riley’s offense had marched down the field with gains of 24 yards, 20 yards, and 17 yards through the air, but opted for a running play from the Texas 19-yard line with no timeouts remaining. Instead, Hager did that for the home team, drawing a facemask penalty after the play, stopping the clock, and handing Oklahoma seven extra yards.
With the play, the Sooners took a 20-14 lead into halftime with a significant momentum and a chance to start the second half against a suddenly reeling Longhorns defense. Oklahoma immediately marched 75 yards on eight plays for a touchdown.
So the defense was never really able to recover from the issues late in the first half, while the offense hurt itself with penalties and a blocked extra point that softened a 13-point third quarter. When the Horns needed a score in the fourth quarter, it never came.
And so the Sooners won a fourth consecutive Big 12 championship as the title drought continues for the Longhorns.
In Herman’s second year, Texas was close, but it just couldn’t get out of its own way long enough to take advantage of an Oklahoma team that doesn’t have much separation on the Horns.
Onward to the bowl game, which may well be the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
“To come up just short is a tough pill to swallow, but I told them that losing is supposed to hurt,” Herman said after the game. “We’ve earned the right to play in a big-time bowl game, and we can’t let this game or its outcome affect our preparation as we get ready to play in that bowl game.”