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No. 8 Texas at Houston final score: Longhorns hold on late for nervy 31-24 win

A tense fourth quarter featured the backup quarterback entering the game for the Longhorns out of necessity.

NCAA Football: Texas at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

HOUSTON — On Thursday, head coach Steve Sarkisian said that his No. 8 Texas Longhorns were still “pissed off” in the wake of the close loss to the Oklahoma Sooners at the Cotton Bowl two weeks ago. On Saturday at TDECU Stadium against the Houston Cougars, the Longhorns have a chance to take out those frustrations on a former Southwest Conference opponent.

As Oklahoma struggles at home against 3-3 UCF, the top-level storyline surrounding Texas is whether the Longhorns can engineer a rematch with the Sooners in the conference title game or, pending a unfavorable result in Norman, win out to face another opponent.

But with injury questions lingering around star Houston receiver and return man Matthew Golden, among other wideouts for the Cougars, a host of Longhorns are potential game-time decisions, including junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders, junior center Jake Majors, sophomore right guard Cole Hutson, senior cornerback Ryan Watts, and senior safety Jalen Catalon.

Since Texas is favored by 23 points, according to DraftKings, the injury status of those players shouldn’t impact the outcome, but could impact the final margin.

Pre-game warmups

When the initially came out for warmups, Majors was practicing snaps with redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinn Ewers before redshirt freshman Conner Robertson stepped into the role. Hutson was taking the third-team reps. Meanwhile, Sanders appeared to be moving around without limitation. When the entire defense came onto the field to go through warmups, Watts was dressed and participating, but Catalon was not.

On the other end of the field, Golden went through warmups at full speed.

First quarter

Houston won the toss and deferred to the second half, so Texas received the opening kickoff, a touchback that sailed deep into the end zone. The Longhorns offense took the field with Sanders and Majors receiving the start and promptly picked up a first down on a 10-yard completion to junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy. A short pass to junior tight end Gunnar Helm and an 11-yard run by redshirt sophomore running back Jonathon Brooks continued the early momentum, which suffered a setback on a false start by sophomore left tackle Kelvin Banks. Texas faced a 3rd and 8 following two modest gains, but was able to move the chains on a screen pass to Brooks that gained eight yards. Looking for a shot play, Ewers checked down to freshman running back CJ Baxter instead for four yards, then handed it off to Baxter for four yards. On a run-pass option, Ewers had the pass deflected, but Sarkisian kept the offense on the field and Ewers found Worthy on a screen pass for 13 yards, then hit junior wide receiver AD Mitchell for an easy 14-yard touchdown to cap the 11-play, 75-yard drive that took 4:58 off the clock.

The Texas defense got lucky on Houston’s first play from scrimmage, a deep shot that wide receiver Sam Brown dropped. A sack by senior defensive tackle Alfred Collins put the Cougars behind the chains with an eight-yard loss before a screen pass went for a short gain and a three and out by the home team.

The 47-yard punt by Houston and a six-yard return by Worthy gave Texas the ball at the 38-yard line of the Longhorns. Two runs by Brooks, including an impressive effort on first down, moved the chains and a check down to Brooks picked up positive yardage. Ewers hit a play over the top from the shot zone, finding Worthy on a go route for a 42-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

The Texas defense forced another three and out on Houston’s second drive thanks to strong pass defense on second and third down that forced two incompletions and another punt.

On the third drive by the Longhorns, the Cougars defense stiffened with consecutive runs stuffs of Brooks to set up 3rd and 9. Forced out of the pocket, Ewers scrambled for a six-yard gain. The 51-yard punt by senior Ryan Sanborn was returned for 14 yards when three Texas players on the coverage unit missed tackles.

Houston quickly picked up its first first down of the game with a screen pass to running back Stacy Sneed. A run stuff for a loss of two yards and an incomplete pass set up 3rd and 12 for the Cougars, a short completion by Smith under pressure that set up the third punt by Houston. Texas brought pressure on the punt and nearly blocked up, settling for a shanked 16-yard effort to the Longhorns 42-yard line.

Looking for a long completion on first down, Ewers checked it down to Baxter for four yards, then the freshman back ran for 11 yards to move the chains. The drive suffered a setback when junior tight end Gunnar Helm was called for holding on the following play, but Brooks followed Sanders into a big hole for an 11-yard gain and Ewers hit Sanders down the seam for 23 yards to end the first quarter.

Second quarter

Ewers started the second quarter with a check down to Helm for seven yards before two carries by Baxter picked up a red-zone first down at the 4-yard line. A third straight carry by Baxter moved the ball to the goal line with sophomore running back Savion Red taking a direct snap for a one-yard touchdown run to end a nine-play, 58-yard drive that took 4:31.

Texas opted to kick it to Golden and the coverage unit came through with freshman running back Tre Wisner putting a big hit on Golden after an 11-yard return. Houston was able to pick up its second first down with a 3rd and 1 conversion, then tried to hit a big play with a reverse pass, but Texas stayed disciplined to produce a tackle for loss. A short completion set up 3rd and 6 with Smith throwing an incompletion to force the fourth punt by the Cougars.

Freshman linebacker Liona Lefau was called for a hold on Worthy’s 17-yard return, negating good field position for Texas, which had to start at its own 20-yard line. The Longhorns couldn’t get anything going offensively on a relatively conservative possession — Brooks gained three yards on consecutive carries before Ewers was sacked on third down.

Texas was able to keep Houston from starting its drive with good field position thanks to a 47-yard punt by Sanborn and a three-yard loss on the return when senior safety Kitan Crawford made a strong play in coverage. Golden picked up 13 yards on a reception to start the drive and appeared close to breaking a big play when sophomore nickel back Jaylon Guilbeau brought him down, then Smith hit a chunk completion for 21 yards and found Golden on a coverage bust for a 32-yard touchdown.

On a rare kickoff return for the Longhorns, senior running back Keilan Robinson stole back some momentum with a 45-yard return. Passing to open drive, Ewers completed three straight for 25 yards total before Brooks was stopped for two minimal gains to set up 3rd and 7. A check down to Baxter only gained one yard. Texas place kicker Bert Auburn came on the field, but it wasn’t for a field-goal attempt as Sarkisan called a pass from Sanborn to Auburn that was stopped well short of the yard to gain.

The Texas defense picked up a tackle for loss on first down, but Houston moved the chains with a physical run by Parker Jenkins. Two completions picked up another first down, then Houston converted 3rd and 10 with a 16-yard gain followed by a 17-yard gain through the air to the edge of the Texas red zone. Scrambling out of the pocket, Smith hit wide receiver Joseph Manjack IV for a 21-yard touchdown just before halftime.

Third quarter

Momentum continued to swing against Texasas the Longhorns opened the second half with a short kickoff to Golden and paid for it this time with a 30-yard return that ended with a facemask penalty and 15 more yards for the Cougars.

A second-down completion to Manjack gained 11 yards before Smith found him again on second down, this time for a 35-yard completion down to the goal line that beat Crawford in coverage. Senior linebacker Jaylan Ford helped blow up the first-down run by Houston and Crawford finished the play with a tackle for loss to push the Cougars back close to the 4-yard line. Ultimately, the stop didn’t matter when Smith connected with Golden on a three-yard touchdown pass.

Needing a positive drive, Books gained eight yards on a first-down run and three yards on a second-down catch. Then Ewers connected with Worthy for a six-yard gain over the middle and senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington for a three-yard gain, but was stopped on a quarterback sneak on third down. With Red behind center, the running back picked up the first down. A flag was initially thrown on the play, then picked up to extend the drive for the Longhorns. Ewers nearly had his next pass intercepted, but it fell to the ground harmlessly to end a streak of 13 completions. When Brooks gained two yards on second down, it set up 3rd and 8 following a timeout by Houston to avoid a penalty for 12 men on the field. Ewers found Sanders for six yards after the timeout, which prompted a second timeout by the Cougars as the Longhorns lined up to go for it on 4th and 2. It paid off, at least, as Texas called an out to Mitchell behind picks from two other players, but Ewers threw it early and Mitchell was never able to get his head around to make a play on the ball as a defender arrived, arguably early, resulting in a turnover on downs.

After a three-yard gain on a short pass and an incompletion, Smith was sacked by Texas senior linebacker Jaylan Ford, who forced a fumble recovered by junior defensive tackle Vernon Broughton.

Trying to hit a big play on the sudden change, a play-actiom pass resulted in a sack of Ewers. On second down behind the chains, Ewers checked down to Brooks for a short gain, forcing a 3rd and 13. Sarkisian dialed up a screen pass to Brooks, who made a nice cut behind a host of blockers to pick up 18 yards and the first down. Ewers threw the ball away on first down before another screen pass to Brooks gained four yards. On 3rd and 6, Ewers escaped a sack and scrambled for four yards, a run that ended with a huge collision that left Houston defensive end David Ugwoegbu down on the field. Lined up in the Wildcat again, Red gained five yards on a run to the left. Brooks picked up three yards on first down, but Ewers had to throw it away on second down and third down in a critical red-zone possession, bringing the field-goal unit onto the field for a 25-yarder knocked home by Auburn.

A tackle for loss by Texas on first down put Houston behind the chains and led to a 3rd and 11 that Smith converted by finding Manjack over the middle. Quickly facing another third and long, this time 3rd and 7, the Cougars moved the chains again with a completion on a crossing route to end the third quarter.

Fourth quarter

On 3rd and 1, Texas stopped Smith short of the first down, setting up the first fourth down of the game for the Cougars, a completion on a crossing route to Manjack. But the Longhorns defense came up with another big play to end the long drive when sophomore safety Michael Taaffe recorded his first career interception in the end zone.

After Taaffe’s interception, redshirt freshman quarterback Maalik Murphy replaced Ewers, who was in the medical tent receiving attention before heading to the locker room. Texas went three and out despite getting into a 3rd and 3 when Murphy fired a rocket that Mitchell never had a chance to catch out of his break.

Ewers later returned to the field with his right arm in a sling.

The punt coverage unit nearly came up with a huge play when Houston fumbled a 59-yard punt by Sanborn, but a Cougars players was able to fall on the loose ball. Houston only gained three yards on its two plays to start the drive, setting up 3rd and 7 from its 12-yard line. A busted coverage as Smith stood in a clean pocket led to a 51-yard completion to Brown after several missed tackles and added 15 more yards when freshman linebacker Anthony Hill was called for a late hit out of bounds. Houston gained positive yardage on two runs, but Golden was called for a facemask penalty at the end of the second-down run, sending the Cougars backwards for 3rd and 16, a short completion to Brown. Houston kicker Jack Martin converted the 40-yard field goal to tie the game with 7:43 remaining.

The kickoff from Houston was short and Robinson took advantage, returning it 33 yards to the Texas 47-yard line. Brooks opened the drive with a six-yard run before a lengthy injury delay. Sarkisian mostly stuck with the ground game once play resumed — Murphy completed one screen pass to Whittington, but otherwise, steady gains by Brooks helped set up a 16-yard touchdown run by Baxter right up the middle for a 31-24 lead.

The Cougars were able to move the ball against the Longhorns with several chunk plays through the air, moving the ball down into the Texas red zone with a conversion on a 4th and 2 looming as a key play on the drive. It wasn’t the biggest play on the derive, though, as Smith tried to pick on Texas senior nickel back Jahdae Barron on 4th and 1 from the 10-yard line and paid for it with an incompletion that effectively ended the game.