Sitting in Morgantown following the program’s sixth-straight loss, Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian made a big claim.
“We’ve got a lot of Texas fight left in us — we’ll continue to battle, we’ll continue to compete,” he said.
But with a losing record secured in the midst of the program’s worst losing streak since 1956, Sarkisian’s statement seemed worthy of skepticism.
On Friday, however, a scrappy team riddled with injuries backed up their head coach, using a career game from junior running back Roschon Johnson and two fourth-down stops in an impressive second-half defensive performance to edge the Kansas State Wildcats, 22-17, at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
With its first win in 55 days, Texas ends the regular season with a disappointing 5-7 record, but maintains a chance to receive a bowl invite as the winning streak over Kansas State stretched to five games and the six-game skid ended.
“I think we needed to snap that losing streak — it was heavy. It was heavy. It was a lot on on everybody in the organization from the top down and as gut wrenching as some of those games were and for whatever reason why we lost those leads and couldn’t sustain them. I think for our psyche in general we needed to kind of prove it to ourselves that we could finish a game in the fourth quarter again,” said Sarkisian.
Starting in place of injured sophomore running back Bijan Robinson, Johnson looked fresh and explosive despite continuing to battle through his turf toe injury at less than 100 percent, carrying the ball 31 times for 179 yards and a touchdown on the game’s first drive with an impressive cut. Johnson set career highs in rushing attempts and rushing yards.
No run was more important than his effort on 3rd and 6 with 3:45 remaining as Texas tried to ice the game in the four-minute drill. In an effort reminiscent of Robinson’s game-sealing run in the last win, a 32-27 victory over TCU on Oct. 2, Johnson kept his legs driving on contact and received an assist from his offensive lineman on a gutsy 17-yard run to extend the drive.
After a 20-yard run by Johnson on the following play, Texas was able to run the clock down to 33 seconds and the desperate Kansas State drive to take the lead never made it past midfield before the clock expired.
Flying back from West Virginia, Sarkisian knew that with the injuries to junior quarterback Casey Thompson and redshirt freshman quarterback Hudson Card, the question marks surrounding their availability required a heavier emphasis on the Wildcat formation with Johnson.
“We just felt like we had to have contingency plans available — even if Casey was available, if he were to reinjure that thumb, what were we going to do? So we had to invest in some real time in the Wildcat stuff and then Casey was able to play, but we had already invested that time in early in the week on a short week, so those were the plays we were running and it was pretty effective.”
So even though Sarkisian prefers to use the Wildcat formation as a changeup instead of larger piece of the offense, he admitted that Johnson’s unique skill set is causing him to rethink that approach.
“I do think that’s something that we can kind of hold on to for our future and it become more of a real part of our system, of our offense, because he’s so comfortable at it and he has the capability of throwing the ball,” said Sarkisian. “So I would imagine moving forward it’s going to be a pretty integral part of what we do.”
The defense also stepped up in the second half, holding the Wildcats scoreless after allowing only 17 yards in the third quarter. When Kansas State finally generated some yardage offensively, Texas was able to come up with key fourth-down stops.
Early in the fourth quarter, four runs by running back Deuce Vaughn and quarterback Will Howard produced 21 yards to set up 3rd and 1 from the Kansas State 30-yard line. But the Texas defense stuffed Vaughn on third down and again on a fourth-down direct snap.
The Longhorns were unable to put the game out of reach with a touchdown following the turnover on downs, settling for a 22-yard field goal instead, but the need to score a touchdown to take the lead forced the Wildcats to go for it again with the clock ticking down towards four minutes remaining.
With Texas struggling all season to defend the speed option, Kansas State dialed the play up facing 4th and 1 from the Texas 17-yard line, but the Longhorns played it perfectly, stopping Howard short of the first-down marker.
The opening script for Texas offensively featured heavy doses of Johnson, who carried the ball six times for 44 yards and a nine-yard touchdown run on the opening drive. Four of the 10 plays were in the Wildcat, including the touchdown run and Johnson’s first career completed pass on a fly sweep to junior running back Keilan Robinson. The other three touches went to freshman wide receiver Xavier Worthy for 29 yards.
After the defense forced a three and out by Kansas State, Sarkisian dialed up a shot play on first down, but junior quarterback Casey Thompson left the pass short of Worthy and it was intercepted by the Wildcats.
Vaughn made Texas pay, gaining 47 of the 68 yards gained by the Wildcats on the ensuing drive, including a nine-yard touchdown run as the Longhorns defense failed to set the edge against the electric runner. The score by Kansas State marked the 11th straight touchdown allowed by the Texas defense in the red zone, one of the unit’s few strengths early in the season.
The running game again keyed the second touchdown drive by the Longhorns, featuring a quarterback sneak by super senior tight end Cade Brewer and a 16-yard run by Johnson before Brewer showed off his ball skills by high pointing a pinpoint pass from Thompson in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown on a fake screen. But senior kicker Cameron Dicker missed the point-after attempt.
Kansas State responded quickly with a read option play that got the linebackers flowing to Vaughn, allowing quarterback Will Howard to find a crease when super senior Sam linebacker Ben Davis got too far upfield, exploit a bad angle by Texas senior safety BJ Foster, and flash his speed in finding the end zone 71 yards later.
And while the Longhorns were playing two backup inside linebackers on the play, it’s a massive disappointment so late in the season to have their eyes so wrong tracking the running back instead of keying pulling the pulling offensive linemen who cleared the way for Howard to find so much space.
Overall poor effort on the play resulted in some personnel changes for the Longhorns.
“Really in the first half, they have one drive that they score on and the other one was one play on the quarterback run where I didn’t love our effort by a couple of our players quite candidly. And you know, I think we got the kind of the right guys in there that were playing hard,” said Sarkisian.
In the second half, Texas played better at the point of attack to keep the safeties from having to make as many tackles and defeated more blocks on the perimeter to almost completely crush a limited Kansas State passing game. Howard had negative passing yards in the third quarter and finished the second half with only 33 yards through the air.
Near the end of the first half, a 28-yard completion to Worthy helped give the Longhorns a chance to score before halftime as Sarkisian went deep into his playbook, calling a true pass play out of the Wildcat that Johnson pulled down to run for a first down and an end-around throw by Worthy that drew a pass interference penalty.
During that sequence, Thompson left the game briefly after his head bounced hard off the turf on a hit, but returned to close out the second quarter before the field-goal unit had to hurry onto the field without a timeout and Dicker hit the 24-yard field goal to narrow the halftime margin to 17-16.
Two more field goals in the second half accounted for the final score and pushed Dicker past Phil Dawson for the most field goals in school history with 60.
Now Texas waits to determine its postseason fate and whether Sarkisian’s first season on the Forty Acres will end with a bowl appearance. But even if the season is over for the Longhorns, Sarkisian was pleased that the seniors were able to end their careers with a home win.
“This was something that we wanted for them, to have the lasting memory of their last time at DKR, of getting a win and being able to celebrate, being able to sing the fight song in the locker room, being able to do the things you enjoy doing as a college football player, so I’m very happy for them,” said Sarkisian.