AUSTIN, Texas — The feeling must be getting familiar now for Texas Longhorns sophomore kicker Cameron Dicker — for the third time in his short collegiate career, he was lined up for the game-winning field goal, this time at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium against the No. 20 Kansas State Wildcats with three seconds on the clock.
And just as he’s done in each instance, he calmly knocked through the kick from 26 yards away to push Texas past Kansas State for a 27-24 victory that was much needed after weeks of turbulence in Austin following two defeats in three games and a narrow victory over Kansas.
“I think it’s about the same for me,” Dicker said when asked if this one felt different. “I’m just happy to go out there and kick it through so everybody can celebrate.”
The kick capped a 13-play, 67-yard drive and bled the final 6:45 off the clock — the type of slogging effort typically enjoyed by Kansas State teams, from Bill Snyder then to Chris Klieman now.
In fact, with the Wildcats entering the game No. 3 nationally in time of possession at more than 35 minutes per game, the Longhorns were able to control the football for 31:19, including 18:17 in the second half.
The game’s defining drive started with junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger finding senior wide receiver Collin Johnson for a 14-yard gain before sophomore running back Keaontay Ingram ran up the middle for 12 yards.
A holding penalty on redshirt sophomore left tackle Sam Cosmi, his second of the game, put the Longhorns behind the chains, but Ehlinger came up with one of the game’s most important plays when he found senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay on the sideline for an 18-yard gain on 3rd and 14.
Against a Kansas State blitz, the offensive line, including backup junior right tackle Denzel Okafor, gave Ehlinger enough time and he hung in the pocket long enough for Duvernay to get open.
Instead of potentially giving the ball back to Kansas State with a little over two minutes remaining, then, Ehlinger delievered the pass into a small window and Duvernay did what he always does — brought it in with his sure hands.
Another strike from Ehlinger to Duvernay on a run-pass option that Texas used frequently after installing it during the offseason got the Horns into the red zone and Ingram subsequently picked up nine tough yards to the Wildcats 4-yard line.
Texas was able to force Kansas State to use its final two timeouts on first and second down before head coach Tom Herman was faced with a choice on third down with 43 seconds remaining and the ball on the 3-yard line.
“We had originally had the play called, the one we actually ran, and he came over and said, ‘We’re going to set the ball up, let the time run down,’” Ehlinger said.
However, along with the offensive line, Ehlinger convinced Herman to call a running play for the bruising junior quarterback from a heavy formation.
“If I don’t get it, we can call a timeout and it will be in the same spot,” Ehlinger told his head coach.
Despite later saying that it “probably wasn’t the prudent thing to do,” Herman acquiesed and called the running play. Ehlinger scored, but the play was called back for an illegal formation — Texas had five players in the offensive backfield. With Kansas State out of timeouts, however, the Horns were able to run the clock down from 39 seconds to three seconds to allow Dicker’s game-winning kick.
The gods shined down on Texas there, Herman said.
Ehlinger ended the game 22-of-29 passing for 263 yards and a touchdown, but also threw an ill-advised interception into triple coverage deep in Kansas State territory attempting to extend a 17-14 Texas lead on a 10-play drive that lasted nearly five minutes. It was the seventh interception for Ehlinger in the last five games.
For a second straight game, his main targets were Johnson and Duvernay, who became the first pair of Texas wide receivers in school history to both post consecutive 100-yard games. Johnson finished with seven catches for 110 yards and a touchdown on a flea flicker run from just outside the red zone, while Duvernay recorded nine catches for 110 yards. Only one of the 17 passes targeting those two receivers fell incomplete.
“Extremely comfortable,” Ehlinger said of his comfort level with those two receivers. “They both do such a great job on the field during games that I know I can put the ball in their area and they’re going to go get it — that’s what they’ve done each week, so I’m really proud of them.”
Texas also received a big boost from the running game in the second half, even in the absence of starting right guard Junior Angilau, a redshirt freshman who left the game with a knee injury that will require an MRI on Sunday. With Angilau out, junior Denzel Okafor moved to right tackle, bumping junior Derek Kerstetter in to right guard.
Opening the second half, two big runs by Ingram helped Texas score in 1:43 on four plays to tie the game. Running left, Ingram gained 20 yards on his first attempt before finishing the drive with a 34-yard touchdown run on a speed option, aided by a strong block from redshirt freshman Malcolm Epps.
With starting tight end Cade Brewer out, the Longhorns played more four-wide receiver sets against the Wildcats.
By the time Dicker kicked through the game-winning field goal, Texas had run for 162 yards on 7.7 yards per carry in the second half after gaining only 52 yards on the ground in the first half. Ingram was the primary beneficiary, finishing the game with a career-high 139 yards and two touchdowns on16 carries.
Freshman running back Roschon Johnson only received five carries, but made the most of them, averaging 7.4 yards per carry and throwing in a highlight-reel hurdle of Kansas State safety Denzel Goolsby, who was notably added to Ehlinger’s highlight reel when he was trucked by the Texas quarterback two years ago.
Herman credited the improved patience of Ingram for his big game.
“We knew how explosive he is when he accelerates, but you’ve got to let the things develop,” Herman said. “I think the one thing with the running back, you’ve got to make a decision and you’ve got to live with it full freaking speed, and there were times in the past where he’d made a decision, ‘Oh, that wasn’t exactly what I thought it was,’ and then it was try to bounce around and make something else happen.”
On one play, Ingram paused behind the line of scrimmage, then was able to find a small crease up the middle and break a tackle to produce the type of run he would have tried to bounce outside last season.
“A big part of the offense is patience,” Ingram said. “You know, the timing, when to hit it. Even though you’ve got a lot of slants and movement in front of you, you’ve got to be patient — that’s real hard to overcome in this offense. I feel like that’s the main thing to get done.”
Improved strength helps — Herman said Ingram is now playing at 230 pounds and has much more confidence in his strength and power to run between the tackles and break tackles while doing so.
For as well as things went for the Longhorns in the second half, the game started equally poorly.
Kansas State lined wide receiver Malik Knowles up at running back on the game’s first third down and when Texas brought a blitz, Knowles was wide open in the Longhorns secondary when he caught the ball.
Compounding the coverage bust, senior safety Brandon Jones missed his tackle in the open field and Knowles scored a 70-yard touchdown just more than 90 seconds into the game. It was the first play of 70 or more yards by the Wildcats all season.
“You’re going to miss tackles in space,” Herman said. “It happens. We try to make sure that our guys be aggressive. We don’t want them breaking down, stomping their feet and getting juked, if you will, so we take our shot and we trust that there’s 10 other guys that are going to rally.”
After Texas missed a 55-yard field goal by Dicker that was impacted by the wind, Kansas State went on a six-play, 83-yard drive to take a 14-0 lead and shock the home crowd. The Wildcats entered the game ranking No. 112 nationally in passing yards per game at 171.6, but had 135 passing yards after the first two drives.
In a concerning development, Kansas State also converted on its first three third downs.
The team stuck together and didn’t panic, however.
“You know, with what these guys have been through these last few weeks and every — all the misinformation that’s been out there and said and written about this team and the attitude and togetherness of this team, teams that aren’t together, teams that don’t love each other, teams that are splintered, teams that are selfish don’t go down 14-0 [and respond],” Herman said.
“We can’t get off the field on defense, can’t do anything on offense. Teams that are all those things, they splinter, and it turns into a blowout. They wave the white flag, and it could have been a really, really bad scene in DKR.”
Instead, Texas managed to score on its third possession, but did most of its quality work in the first half on defense, with Jones bouncing back to make one of the key plays of the game in the second quarter by forcing a fumble recovered by redshirt freshman defensive lineman Moro Ojomo. It was the 10th play of a drive that covered 6:30.
Often using four down linemen when Kansas State was in heavy personnel packages, Texas brought consistent blitzes in the second quarter, especially on early downs against the run. As the Wildcats got stubborn about running the ball on first down, the Horns out-numbered the box and were able to get pressure on Thompson when he dropped back to pass.
It worked, as Kansas State gained less than three yards per carry on first down despite a 17-yard run in the first half that stood as the longest of the game for the Wildcats. By wining on first and second down, Texas was able to put Kansas State in consistently long down-and-distance situations — four of the 11 third downs faced by the Wildcats required nine yards or more and the average third-down distance overall was 7.4 yards.
On passing downs, the return of sophomore safeties BJ Foster and Caden Sterns helped, as Texas was largely able to cover longer in the secondary to allow pressure to get home. Thompson was sacked three times — the most in a game for Texas since facing Rice — and had to throw the ball under duress on multiple other occasions.
After the initial offensive script by Kansas State was able to catch Texas in man coverage with pick and rub routes — one play that resulted in an incomplete pass was called as offensive pass interference — Longhorns defensive coordinator Todd Orlando started calling more zone coverage on third down.
And so, after starting the game by converting five of the first six third downs, Kansas State failed to convert on its final eight third downs.
The most important third-down play for Texas came in the fourth quarter after Kansas State cut into a 10-point Longhorns lead with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. At the end of a nine-play, 45-yard drive, Thompson tried to find Dalton Schoen at the goal line from the 27-yard line, but sophomore cornerback D’Shawn Jamison played through the hands of Schoen to force a field goal.
D'Shawn Jamison says NO THANK YOU pic.twitter.com/3LL87OLya1— Longhorn Network (@LonghornNetwork) November 9, 2019
After that field goal, Kansas State didn’t touch the football again.
In the second half, the Wildcats only had five first downs and 58 yards of total offense, averaging 2.8 yards per play. In fact, after the opening two drives that produced 138 yards, Kansas State only gained 166 yards on the next eight drives on 3.95 yards per play.
“I think in the second half we came together and played really well,” Jones said.
The key for the Longhorns defense? It was mostly about playing with proper technique and not missing assignments. Jones in particular was responsible for playing better after a poor start — he said he was unsure in the open field on the first touchdown and anticipated a different play call based on the formation on the second touchdown.
“Sometimes people get caught up in trying to do too much and at the end of the day, if we do our jobs, usually we get the results that we want,” Jones said.
In particular, the game experience of Foster and Sterns helped the defense remain confident and trust each other despite the early deficit.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Jones said of having them out there. “Just having the overall experience and having people be in those type of situations, at the end of the day, it makes us a lot better and it builds my confidence and it builds a lot of the other guys’ confidence because we know that they’ve been here before.”
Besides the fumble, Jones made another one of the game’s defining plays, returning a punt 53 yards to the Kansas State 21-yard line to set up a touchdown that gave Texas a 10-point lead. Entering the game, the Longhorns ranked last in the FBS with -12 punt return yards on the season, so not only was it the best career return for Jones, it came at a crucial moment in the game and the season overall.
Unfortunately, the momentum didn’t last, as Texas immediately gave up the kickoff return for a touchdown, but it was a rare positive moment on punt return that helped the Horns pull out the key win, reach bowl eligibility, and keep the team’s Big 12 title hopes alive.
“Obviously extremely proud of the win, but maybe — not maybe, but definitely more importantly, the things that this crew has been through these last few weeks, to overcome what they overcame, it was special. I’m really proud of them,” Herman said.
“We put ourselves on the ropes, and we took a step forward swinging and clawing and scratching our way off, but we know we’ve got to go on the road this week and continue to try to get off the ropes, but doing it with his level of confidence helps.”