The ghost of Joseph Ossai may haunt T. Boone Pickens Stadium for years.
On Halloween in Stillwater, the junior Jack linebacker for the Longhorns did his best impression of a Texas chainsaw massacre by shredding the Oklahoma State Cowboys in a 41-34 upset of the No. 6 Pokes in overtime.
Despite suffering a shoulder injury last week against Baylor, Ossai played the best game of his career, totaling 12 tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks, and a forced fumble, including the game-winning sack of Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders in the first overtime.
When Texas defensive coordinator Chris Ash told head coach Tom Herman that he was planning a zero blitz on the fourth-down play after Texas scored a touchdown to open the overtime period, Herman quipped, “At least we have the lead and it’s not 3rd and 17,” a reference to former defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s ill-fated blitz against LSU last season that heavily contributed to the subsequent loss and came to define Orlando’s failures on the Forty Acres.
Unlike the defining moment of Orlando’s tenure at Texas, Ash’s decision paid off.
Before the play, Ossai thought he was going to have a one-on-one opportunity against the tackle until a tight end lined up outside. Ossai believed that if he could take the edge with his speed and then tilt his pass rush, he would have a chance to make the play. When the tight end didn’t chip Ossai and the defensive line and other blitzers kept Sanders from stepping up in the pocket, Ossai ran down the speedy quarterback from behind.
After the game, Ossai opened up about why his motor always runs so hot — in a practice during his freshman year of high school, he took a play off and his coach called him out, telling Ossai, “you never know” what might happen with pursuit. Ossai took that instruction to heart because it only took two more reps for the offense to run the same play and for Ossai to pursue it until he reached the ball carrier and punched the ball out.
“Ever since then it’s been go, go, go, and, of course, you can’t just be go, go, go, and not practice that way, so I try to make sure that even though I’m tired, my legs, you know, whatever, try to make sure in practice I’m go, go, go, because if I practice the way I practice, it will happen in the game just effortlessly,” Ossai said.
After a week of intensive rehab on his injured shoulder, Ossai’s play looked more effortful than it did effortless.
“This is the dude that has literally has two speeds — off and full. And that’s it,” Herman said.
While Ossai’s dominance clearly spurred the victory, the rest of the defense made plays, too, and did so consistently.
Senior defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham recovered the fumble that Ossai forced on Sanders late in the first half as the Cowboys attempted to drive for late field goal, returning it 33 yards to set up a Texas field goal that cut the halftime margin to 24-20 in favor of Oklahoma State.
Why didn’t Graham score or run off a longer return?
“I got tired, to be honest with you,” Graham admitted. “Chuba’s fast — I didn’t think he was going to be anywhere around me, so I made that cut. He’s a heckuva an athlete and he caught me.”
Despite the failure to score, Graham set up a field goal with his big play and finished with five tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a sack in one of the more impactful performances of his career.
The defense also forced two other fumbles in addition to the first career interception for junior cornerback Jalen Green. Those turnovers ultimately provided the difference in the game — the Longhorns scored 18 points from Oklahoma State turnovers.
The effort of the entire defense against star Cowboys running back Chuba Hubbard made a huge difference in the narrow victory, too. For a second consecutive season, Hubbard struggled against the Longhorns, managing only 72 yards on 25 carries and finishing without a single run longer than nine yards. Hubbard also fumbled once — since the Canadian carried the ball once for a loss of two yards early in his freshman season against Boise State, he’s never had a game with such poor production as he did against Texas on Saturday.
A depleted Oklahoma State offensive line contributed to the Texas potential for success, but Hubbard’s talent and previous production this season put into relief just how well Ossai and his teammates played in the trenches.
Ossai credited the team’s preparation during the week and the emphasis on making the correct run fits, which allowed the Horns to make the Pokes one-dimensional on offense. Normally, Tuesday practices feature a number of mental mistakes as the staff installs the gameplan, but this last week, Ossai said, the defense was sharp and flying around without those typical mistakes.
So even though Sanders threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns, that production wasn’t decisive thanks to the game-changing plays and successful efforts to limit Hubbard. So even though star Cowboys wide receiver Tylan Wallace took advantage of soft quarters coverage from Longhorns cornerbacks, his 187 yards and two touchdowns didn’t make the difference in the game.
The playmaking defense helped provide some margin for error for an offense that largely performed poorly — other than the overtime period, the Texas offense only managed two long scoring drives.
A 41-yard touchdown catch by junior wide receiver Brennan Eagles capped the longest drive, a 75-yard effort over seven plays spanning the first and second quarters. Late motion from sophomore wide receiver Jake Smith gave Eagles a matchup on Oklahoma State’s third cornerback, Eagles won with his release, and Ehlinger made a perfect throw in stride to his big target.
Otherwise, the Texas wide receivers didn’t create much separation against man coverage during the game beyond a few key plays.
Arguably the biggest came late in the fourth quarter as Texas faced a 4th and 7 from the Oklahoma State 12-yard line.
Based on advanced scouting, Ehlinger knew that the Cowboys liked to run zero blitzes in those situations. Without time to check into another play, Ehlinger settled on confidence that Smith would win his route crossing from left to right on the Oklahoma State defense. Because the Texas quarterback knew the blitz was coming, he was confident and prepared to create enough time to make the throw.
Sure enough, Ehlinger rolled right against the pressure and delivered a strike to Smith. As the Austin native walked off the field, Herman told him that he thought it was the best play of Ehlinger’s remarkably productive four-year career at Texas.
The throw was a highlight moment for a difficult performance — Ehlinger only completed 18-of-34 passes for 189 yards in the game, prompting his head coach to admit that his senior quarterback was frustrated at times, in no small part because his receivers struggled to create separation. The offensive line also struggled to block as Oklahoma State recorded five sacks, including three on first down.
Ultimately, the struggles merely allowed Ehlinger to once again demonstrate his remarkable resiliency.
“Most guys would have checked it in, for lack of a better phrase, and he didn’t,” Herman said.
Herman admitted after the game that the performance wasn’t pretty, but the 4-0 turnover differential gave the Longhorns a chance to win the game. So even though the pre-game narrative from Herman surrounded Texas needing to play its A game to win on the road, the Horns were able to leave Stillwater with a victory despite inefficiencies in the passing game, the running game, and in the red zone, especially after turnovers.
A 100-yard kickoff return midway through the third quarter by junior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison was another huge turning point in the game — Oklahoma State had just taken a 31-20 lead following a touchdown catch by star wide receiver Tylan Wallace. Texas finished the game with a 14-3 run.
In doing so, the Longhorns pulled off an upset that maintains the program’s outside shot at winning the Big 12 title on a day that featured a decisive loss by Kansas State at the hands of West Virginia.
In doing so, the embattled Texas head coach reduced the temperature of the burning hot coaching seat threatening to consume his tenure.
After a week that featured plenty of speculation about how well the Horns needed to play in order to pull off the upset, the fact that a flawed performance against the Big 12 frontrunner was still enough could be the boost that this program needs to finish the season in contention or better.