A largely listless crowd.
An injured defense.
A new opposing offensive coordinator with no FBS film.
A star running back capable of making enough plays to keep his team in the game.
A significant advantage in the turnover margin.
A ballsy two-point conversion call late.
The Kansas Jayhawks did nearly everything right as 21-point underdogs against the No. 15 Texas Longhorns on Saturday night at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, but weren’t able to stop junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger and his wide receivers on the game-deciding drive as sophomore kicker Cameron Dicker coolly knocked through a 33-yard field goal as time expired to avoid the worst loss of head coach Tom Herman’s tenure.
Texas appeared to put the game all but out of reach when the Horns went up by 10 points with 8:25 remaining, but Kansas roared back with a 46-yard field goal by Liam Jones, who earlier missed on one field goal, had another attempt blocked, and even had an extra point blocked and returned for a two-point conversion by the Longhorns.
Then the Jayhawks took advantage of a fumble by freshman wide receiver Jake Smith on the second play of the ensuing Horns drive — Smith had already picked up the first down, but failed to protect the football as he was hit. Junior tight end Cade Brewer fought gamely for the football and possession wasn’t exactly definitive, but officials ruled that the Kansas player had possession of it before Brewer tried to wrestle it away and the call stood on review.
The Texas defense immediately benefitted from a dropped touchdown pass by Andrew Parchment, but Dylan Charlot picked up his teammate with a circus catch on 4th and 10 down the sideline that didn’t feature possession until after he had trapped the ball against his leg. Once again, the play stood as called on the field upon review. Two plays later, Parchment redeemed himself with an 11-yard touchdown catch.
In five plays, the Longhorns regained the lead, even though the first two plays resulted in a loss of three yards. A big-time throw by Ehlinger targeting senior wide receiver Collin Johnson moved the chains, then a nice play-action call by Herman freed up junior tight end Cade Brewer down the seam and Ehlinger hit him for a 51-yard gain. Ingram finished the drive from three yards out with a tough run.
On Kansas’ ensuing series, a fourth-down conversion extended the drive with a 36-yard catch and run that led to a 22-yard touchdown catch by Robinson that beat sophomore safety Montrell Estell. After calling a timeout to discuss the decision, with new offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon and Jayhawks players fiercely lobbying head coach Les Miles to go for two, Kansas opted to try for the win and ran a route concept that drew two defenders to leave Charlot wide open in the back of the end zone.
Instead of panicking or worrying about how little time was left or the possibility of losing to Kansas, Texas instead fell back on their training. Their training on Tuesday, to be specific, just like last season in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma.
On Tuesdays, the Longhorns pit the first-team offense against the second-team defense in a two-minute scenario needing a field goal to win the game.
When Brewer called for a fair catch on a sky kick at the 17-yard line, Texas needed to pick up substantial yardage to give Dicker a chance with 1:11 remaining. The drive didn’t start out well, as senior center Zach Shackelford was called for a penalty as an ineligible player downfield, but Ehlinger completed three passes and scrambled for a first down to reach the Kansas 32-yard line and the edge of field-goal range. Two more completions, including a five-yard pass to senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay after calling timeout with eight seconds remaining, moved the Horns into a strong position for Dicker to kick his second game-winning effort.
“I love kickers. I’m glad for the one that we have and the snapper and the holder and all of that,” Herman said after the game.
The Texas head coach credited the last drive to that preparation every Tuesday and expressed his pride in the way his players responded to the moment.
Ehlinger finished with nearly 500 total yards after accounting for 24 lost yards on sacks, throwing for 399 yards and four touchdowns on 31-of-44 passing and, officially, 14 carries for 91 yards.
“I thought Sam was seeing the field really well,” Herman said.
After taking three sacks early in the game, Ehlinger recognized the room to scramble and stopped holding onto the ball too long. And so numerous carries picked up first downs on third-down scrambles — Herman said he lost track of how many. In fact, Ehlinger scrambled for four first downs on third down and set up a fourth-down conversion with another as Kansas had to devote significant resources to trying to stop the Texas wide receivers.
Among those receivers, Duvernay led the team with eight catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns, senior wide receiver Collin Johnson added eight catches for 94 yards, sophomore Brennan Eagles had six catches for 76 yards and a touchdown, and Brewer set his career-high with 71 yards on three receptions, including a key 51-yard reception in the fourth quarter.
Johnson’s contributions were particularly important at the X position — it was his best game of the season after missing three games due to a hamstring issue that also limited him against LSU.
“Collin certainly was frustrated,” Herman said. “I don’t think he is now. He wanted to be out there the last few weeks — the weeks that he missed and wasn’t [playing] — thankfully, we won those games. He’d be the first to tell you that he looked rusty last week, but I thought he played great tonight and was excited to see him that involved. I know Sam appreciates when he’s at his best.”
The offense gained 638 yards in the game despite facing a defense that entered the contest blitzing less than 10 percent of the time on first and second down, but chose to dial up increased pressure against the Longhorns, forcing a continual adjustment process throughout the game. Texas played well enough to win on that side of the ball from a pure output perspective.
So, how did the Longhorns end up needing a last-minute drive and a field goal to win the game? Two failed fourth-down conversions after scoring two touchdowns on the first two drives played a big role.
On the first fourth-down attempt, the Longhorns showed off a new formation with Smith and freshman running back Roschon Johnson next to each other in the backfield, but a poor snap from Shackelford threw off the play’s rhythm before he was pushed into the backfield and into Smith, who wasn’t able to pick up the two yards necessary to pick up a first down.
Kansas responded with a touchdown by star running back Pooka Williams to cut the one-time 14-0 lead to 14-10.
On the second fourth-down attempt on the subsequent offensive drive, Ehlinger wasn’t able to connect with Brewer.
“At the end of the day, we have to do a better job in complementary football on the offensive side, in my opinion,” Herman said. “If we’re going to go for it on fourth and short, which we should from the plus-40, because, you know, if you miss a punt and it goes into the end zone, you’re netting 20 yards. We’ve got to do a better job executing.”
Two real turnovers hurt, too — the fumble by Smith and the interception by Ehlinger, which was egregiously bad, especially coming as it did in the fourth quarter.
“We turned the ball over in the red zone — in their red zone — with an enormously short field and I was really, really disappointed in that,” Herman said. “But to win a football game when you’re playing with such youth and inexperience on defense and, if you count the two fourth downs, you lose the turnover battle 4-0. Proud of the resiliency, proud of the fight.”
Indeed, it was an inexperienced group — redshirt freshman B-backer Byron Vaughns received the first extended action of his career on defense, freshman linebacker David Gbenda received his first career start after recently moving back from running back, and even former walk-on safety Mason Ramirez got into the game late due to injuries. He also recently moved back from running back either last week or early this week. Herman couldn’t quite recall. Freshman Chris Adimora received playing time, too.
The results were predictable, as Vaughns struggled to get lined up at times, there were more missed tackles, and the defense gave up 569 yards overall against an offense that entered the game averaging only 355 yards per game.
A primary issue for Texas was the recent coordinator change by Kansas. Miles opted to take advantage of a bye week by firing Les Koenning two weeks ago, opening the door for former offensive analyst and Bethel offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon.
“When you’re literally seeing plays that you’ve never seen in practice, especially with an inexperienced group, it’s not like our defensive coaches were kind of throwing up their hands,” Herman said. “We were making adjustments, we were trying everything we could to make them understand the schemes that they were seeing and at times, we did a good job. At times we didn’t.”
Herman also credited senior Carter Stanley for playing an excellent game. After throwing two interceptions in Koenning’s offense against Coastal Carolina and averaging less than three yards per pass attempt against TCU, Stanley threw for 310 yards and four touchdowns against the Longhorns.
On the ground, he also added 65 yards, including a 36-yard run, mostly in the read game.
It was the best performance of his career by a significant margin.
Getting Williams to the ground was especially difficult, too — his 25 carries went for 190 yards and two touchdowns, but the Horns were mostly able to limit him in the second half after he gained 11.7 yards per carry in the opening 30 minutes.
“This is the Big 12 — there’s going to be some freaky, elite athletes each and every week. I thought in the second half, we bottled him up pretty good behind the line of scrimmage. I think getting Malcolm [Roach] back was pretty huge,” Herman said. “He is as explosive and dynamic of an athlete as we have in this league and there’s a bunch of them. There’s no weeks off when you’re talking about guys who can make plays like Pooka.”
Remarkably enough, despite the production of Williams, Herman said that he did see some improvement on defense. Herman cited the ability of senior safety Brandon Jones to make plays in the open field and, indeed, the 10 tackles by Jones were all of the solo variety. After making four tackles for loss last week against Oklahoma and three the week before against West Virginia, Texas made six behind the line of scrimmage on Saturday, including the team’s first sack since the Oklahoma State game.
The issue of missed tackles will be a continued point of emphasis for the Horns and some of the young players simply need reps in practice. Since Texas is only in pads on Tuesday and Wednesday, it’s not going to be a quick fix — many of those players received limited reps early in the season. Other players, like sophomore safety DeMarvion Overshown, missed time due to injury.
So the Texas will keep preaching technique and fundamentals, which notably includes 10 other players rallying to the football.
“There’s not a guy that has ever played defense that has made 100 percent of his tackles,” Herman said. “It doesn’t matter. It’s gotta be proper technique and if the guy makes you miss, he makes you miss, but at least you’ve held him up long enough for the cavalry to arrive.”
In a positive development after significant special teams issues in two of the last three games, two big plays helped make the difference against Kansas — a blocked field goal by sophomore linebacker Joseph Ossai at the end of the first half and a blocked extra point by Roach that was returned by sophomore cornerback D’Shawn Jamison for two points.
Herman called Roach’s block the play of the game.
The season now hangs in the balance over the next several games, including a trip to Fort Worth next weekend to play TCU before a much-needed bye week.
So the question is whether the Horns will be able to do anything special this season without improving the pass rush, fixing the tackling, and improving the injured and inexperienced defense as much as possible.
“No. Next question.”
What can be fixed?
“Everything. Next question.”
Still, those issues will play out on the field, especially in road trips to Ames and Waco to face Iowa State and Baylor, respectively, but until Sunday morning, the bottom-line result is what matters the most.
“We’re happy that we found a way to win and I know there’s other teams in the country, even teams in the top 25, top 10, that didn’t and that’s a whole lot worse feeling than the feeling that we have now,” Herman said. “We’re going to celebrate the win and obviously come ready to improve the things that we are deficient at right now and enhance the things that we do well, and make sure that we’re doing more and more of them.”