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No. 12 Texas holds off Oklahoma State for 36-30 victory

Three turnovers hurt the Horns, including two on punt returns, but Texas managed to avoid a late-game meltdown.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — For the first time since 2008, the No. 12 Texas Longhorns were able to pull out a victory over the Oklahoma State Cowboys at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium with a 36-30 win on Saturday evening in front of a sellout crowd. Texas had lost four straight games in the series.

After the game, head coach Tom Herman said that the game wasn’t well coached, but believes that winning a sloppy game that wasn’t well played by the Longhorns represented a significant development for his program.

“We’ve been telling them since we got here that our best was good enough, but less than our best probably wasn’t,” Herman said. “Tonight we took a step, in my opinion, because we played less than our best and still beat a really, really good football team.”

Sophomore running back Keaontay Ingram set career highs in carries (21) and yards (115), as Texas adopted a physical, ground-based approach early in the game because Oklahoma State was dropping players into coverage.

Through the air, junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger was efficient, completing 20-of-28 passes for 281 yards and four touchdowns. He added 10 carries for 71 yards on the ground, including a 29-yard scramble with a little more than a minute remaining that iced the game.

However, Ehlinger’s interception-less streak ended in the fourth quarter on a deflected pass and the Longhorns were especially sloppy on punt returns — freshman Jake Smith fumbled while attempting to make a fair catch, senior Brandon Jones fumbled trying to make a diving play on the football, and had to recover another loose football when a punt hit a Texas player on the punt return team.

“Obviously the punt return game was embarrassing. We’ve got to do a better job of coaching those situations,” Herman said.

“At that point in the game I should have reminded him, ‘Hey, if in doubt, let the thing hit the ground. Let the thing roll around for a little bit and kill some time,’ and that one is on me, as well as the fourth down call.”

Fortunately, a late onside kick by Oklahoma State landed in the hands of freshman Chris Adimora after bouncing past senior linebacker Cort Jaquess to set up the game-sealing drive. Adimora was on the field due to injuries and hadn’t taken a single rep in practice with the hands team.

Texas also benefited from some questionable decisions by Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy, who went for two fourth downs in the second half while in field-goal range. A fake field goal that featured the holder throwing a shovel pass to tight end Jelani Woods looked particularly bad in retrospect.

The defense was in bend-but-don’t-break mode for much of the game as Oklahoma State racked up 494 yards of offense, led by a strong performance from quarterback Spencer Sanders, who threw for 268 yards and ran for 118 yards.

“I told Coach Gundy after the game, I said he’s got himself one in that quarterback,” Herman said. “Man, that guy is very, very difficult to defend in that offense and the way he can run the football.”

Running back Chuba Hubbard rushed for 138 yards, but only averaged 3.3 yards per carry.

Late in the game, however, Texas produced the second interception of Sanders, then forced two punts on the drives immediately following the two turnovers on down. In all, Oklahoma State failed to score between its opening offensive drive of the second half and the final touchdown scored by the Cowboys with 1:37 remaining.

Overall, the Cowboys had six trips into the red zone and only came away with 27 points, so the ability of the Longhorns defense to get stops in that area of the field was the difference in the game.

“We had our chances,” head coach Mike Gundy said after the game. “We just didn’t capitalize. We kicked too many field goals and/or set up to kick too any field goals. We’ve got to punch it in. The game now is played — so much of the game now is played inside the 15-yard line, so we need to be able to — we need to be more productive and scoring touchdowns and not kicking field goals, and obviously it changes the outcome.’

The Oklahoma State offense got off to a hot start thanks to the efforts of its three best players — Sanders, Hubbard, and wide receiver Tylan Wallace. In fact, the first six offensive touches went to either Wallace or Hubbard. The Cowboys ultimately converted two third downs on the drive, but the Longhorns defense held near the goal line to force a short field-goal.

The defense played better on the second drive, forcing a three and out, with the biggest play coming on third down when Jones recovered to break up a pass intended for Oklahoma State wide receiver. Stoner was running free behind the defense, but Sanders was forced out of the pocket and wasn’t able to lead him down the field.

The offensive gameplan became more apparent on the second drive — seven running plays opened the drive before Ehlinger had to attempt a pass on third down. That throw went to senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay, as did the next play, a six-yard touchdown pass when Duvernay beat the Cowboys defender to the corner of the end zone to give Texas a 7-3 lead.

Sanders made the first big mistake of the game on the ensuing drive, opting not to scramble despite plenty of open turf in front of him. Instead, he floated a pass over his intended receiver and into the hands of Texas sophomore safety Montrell Estell, who returned it 37 yards to the Oklahoma State 28-yard line. It was the first interception of Estell’s career and the first pick by a Longhorns defensive back this season.

Texas quickly took advantage, needing only three plays to score when Ehlinger found Smith racing down the seam on a switch route for a 17-yard touchdown. The catch allowed Smith to keep pace with Duvernay for the team lead in touchdown receptions with four.

A 35-yard catch by Wallace put Oklahoma State in field-goal range, but a big play by sophomore cornerback Jalen Green to blow up a push pass to Dillon Stoner resulted in a nine-yard loss and stalled the drive. The Cowboys had to settle for a 43-yard field goal by Matt Ammendola.

After four drives, the Cowboys had produced only 39 yards on 15 carries — 2.6 yards per carry — a year after rushing for 181 yards on 51 attempts. The Longhorns defensive line was a major factor in the early success against the run, with the group’s 90 extra pounds among the starters likely playing a role.

Texas wasn’t able to create more separation, however, ultimately turning the ball over on downs when the Horns ran a zone read against a Cover Zero blitz on 4th and 3 and lost a yard. The play was all the more odd because Texas was within field-goal range for sophomore kicker Cameron Dicker. After the game, Herman said it was the right decision, but the wrong play.

Oklahoma State took advantage, using a personal foul penalty and a 55-yard pass from Sanders to Rodarius Williams to get into the Texas red zone for a second time. This time, the Longhorns defense wasn’t able to get off the field when Sanders eluded two would-be tacklers on a quarterback draw that he had to bounce right for seven yards and the score.

The Longhorns responded, converting another third down before Ehlinger found sophomore wide receiver Brennan Eagles streaking down the sideline. With only the cornerback to beat, Eagles stepped through that attempted tackle to race 73 yards for the score. It the longest play by Texas since John Burt’s 90-yard catch and run against Oklahoma State in 2017.

The Texas defense forced an Oklahoma State to seemingly allow another chance to score before halftime, but Smith made the first big mistake of his career when he muffed the punt while attempting to make a fair catch. The Cowboys recovered on the 15-yard line and scored on a short touchdown run by Hubbard four players later.

The drive was costly for the Horns, too — Green dislocated his shoulder while tackling Hubbard and missed the rest of the game. Green had played a strong first half of football, both in coverage and setting the edge with physicality. Through the first 30 minutes, Wallace only had three catches for 66 yards after exploding for 222 yards against Texas last season. Wallace finished with five catches for 83 yards on eight targets as the Horns limited him by providing safety help over the top.

As the second half started, momentum started to swing in favor of the visiting team following a punt by the Longhorns, especially as the Cowboys started to find some success on the ground with Hubbard and Sanders, mostly working the edges of the Texas defense. A false start penalty in the red zone hurt Oklahoma State, though, to help force another short field goal by Ammendola, resulting in the first lead change since early in the second quarter.

Using the short passing game as an extension of the running game, Texas marched 50 yards down the field, aided by a 15-yard scramble by Ehlinger, before finishing the drive with a trick play the Longhorns installed this week. Ehlinger handed the ball off to Ingram, who tossed it to Smith, who tossed it back to Ehlinger. Junior tight end Cade Brewer had leaked out on the play and Ehlinger found him down the sideline for a 25-yard touchdown. Call it a double-reverse flea flicker.

The Oklahoma State offense continued to move the football, driving into the Texas red zone for a fifth time in the game and nearly get the drive alive on 3rd and 11 thanks to a called run for Sanders. After a long review, the initial spot stood, forcing the Cowboys to go for it on fourth down. When senior defensive end Malcolm Roach collapsed the right side of the Oklahoma State offensive line, however, Hubbard was tripped up by one of his own players.

On third down, the Horns promptly gave the ball back on a deflected pass intended for redshirt freshman wide receiver Malcolm Epps, but ended up in the hands of Kolby Harvel-Peel.

With the return to Texas 31-yard line, Oklahoma State had the ball in good field position with a chance to retake the lead. The Longhorns defense came up big in another short-yardage situation, then the Cowboys tried to fake field goal and failed. So instead of kicking two field goals to take the lead, Oklahoma State was left without any points on either drive.

The Texas offense quickly found a rhythm again, aided by two Oklahoma State penalties. Ingram had the big play of the drive on a checkdown from Ehlinger, picking up 26 yards. Freshman running back Roschon Johnson found the end zone from two yards out for the first rushing touchdown of his career. With the lead at 11 points for the Horns, Herman went for two, which was converted to Johnson on a screen pass.

Over eight plays, the Cowboys only managed to pick up 24 yards as the Longhorns suffered several more injuries, including sophomore cornerback D’Shawn Jamison and sophomore safety Caden Sterns, who appeared to be in significant pain after his involvement in a pass break up. Sterns suffered a knee injury on the play.

Texas eventually forced another turnover when redshirt freshman nose tackle Keondre Coburn got to Sanders on a slant and hit the Oklahoma State quarterback’s arm as he released the pass. On the back end, junior safety Chris Brown was able to come down with the ball in traffic.

Then it was the Cowboys defense coming up with a stop in short yardage, tackling Ehlinger behind the line of scrimmage on 3rd and 1 to force a punt. With all the injuries, freshman Chris Adimora entered the game and as the Longhorns defense got all the field after only three plays.

There was almost another turnover on punt return when the ball hit redshirt freshman Byron Vaughns. Fortunately for Texas, Jones was able to fall on the football to maintain possession. Then Jones fumbled after the defense got another stop.

The Horns paid for it after allowing two big third-down conversions — a 33-yard scramble by Sanders that featured multiple missed tackles and a 13-yard touchdown run by Hubbard on 3rd and 10 to set up the onside kick that Adimora recovered.

Oklahoma State had all three timeouts remaining, but a 29-yard scramble by Ehlinger picked up the final first down and a kneeldown ended it.

With the victory, Texas moves to 1-0 in Big 12 play with a much-needed bye week looming ahead of the season’s first true road game in Morgantown against West Virginia on Oct. 5.