AUSTIN, Texas — With a fourth-down stop of the No. 23 Kansas State Wildcats from the 4-yard line, the No. 7 Texas Longhorns prevailed in a thrilling 33-30 overtime win on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to preserve the team’s Big 12 title aspirations and College Football Playoff hopes.
In a game of two distinct runs, Texas took a 17-0 lead with 11:34 remaining in the second quarter on a 54-yard touchdown run before going up by 20 points in the third quarter. Kansas State surged back, scoring 20 points in only 2:23 to swing momentum firmly against the home team.
Over the final 6:03 in regulation, both teams traded field goals with the Longhorns retaking the lead to start overtime and coming up with the final, decisive stop on 4th and goal.
“Sometimes I feel like a broken record in talking about versatility, resiliency, perseverance — those are all qualities that championship teams have because they find a way to win in different ways and they find a way to win games and make plays and so for our guys today, just felt like another example of that,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said in his post-game press conference.
Sarkisian remains confident in his team’s upside, but after allowing Houston and Kansas State to mount comebacks when pushed to the brink, it’s clear this Texas team is still lacking in killer instinct.
“I think our best football still out there. We were close today to playing our best football, but then blocked punt, interception, another interception, fumble — next thing you know we’re in a dogfight in a game really didn’t need to be a dogfight, but we made it that way,” Sarkisian said.
Here’s three more things he said after the win.
On the blocked punt
With Texas leading 17-0 late in the second quarter, the Kansas State defense followed up the forced turnover on downs in the red zone, the Wildcats used two pass breakups, including one on a clear uncalled pass-interference penalty on a throw intended for Longhorns junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy, to force a three and out by Texas.
On the ensuing punt, the Horns suffered a rare breakdown in punt protection resulting in a block recovered at the Texas 42-yard line.
All of a sudden, a Kansas State offense that produced 21 yards on its first 23 plays found enough rhythm to score on a four-play, 41-yard drive that took only 41 seconds and cut the margin to 10 points at halftime.
After the game, Sarkisian said that miscommunication resulted in a busted assignment.
“Well, we screwed up our protection. We have one guy probably heard one call that really is not even in our system and so when you don’t block a guy right there down the middle unless he’s not a good player, he’s gonna block it and that’s exactly what happened,” Sarkisian said.
Experience and continuity paid off on the final defensive stop
To open overtime, backup quarterback Maalik Murphy threw two incompletions on a three and out that put the onus on the Longhorns defense to come up with a stop or face defeat.
The drive started ominously for Texas with a 19-yard completion to star tight end Ben Sinnott down to the 6-yard line. But the Longhorns bowed up, holding quarterback Will Howard to a two-yard gain on first down and then forcing incompletions on the following three downs, including pass breakups by Longhorns senior defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat on second down and fourth down.
When Sarkisian was asked if he credited the experience and continuity on a defense that features key veterans like Sweat playing in coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s scheme for a third straight year on the final stop, the Texas head coach agreed.
“I think that that is a huge component to it — I think continuity, I think guys playing in the same system for three consecutive years, I think guys getting coached by the same coaches for three consecutive years, there’s a level of consistency to that message,” Sarkisian said.
Improved depth made a difference, too.
“I also think that it was helpful there is depth and the idea that we can rotate players throughout the game and feel very comfortable when other guys are in the game. We can rotate young players in there and trust them to go do their job and then then spell back and forth,” said Sarkisian.
“In the end when you get into games like this in the fourth quarter, maybe we’re not as tired this year as maybe we were in the past when we were just playing 11 or 12 guys. But now when you start playing into the 20s with that, then you’re rotating corners, you rotate your safeties, you rotate your linebackers, you rotate the entire defensive front that maybe we just have a little bit more more juice in the tank there at the end to make a couple of those plays.”
Bert Auburn came through big
In a game ultimately decided by small margins, Texas junior place kicker Bert Auburn made all four of his field-goal attempts, extending the lead to 20 points and tying his career long with a 49-yarder in the third quarter and hitting from 42 yards to take the lead in overtime.
Only a month ago, Sarkisian was asked about his confidence level in Auburn after his kicker missed twice against Kansas, his fourth and fifth of the season, matching the total number from the 2022 breakout campaign by the Flower Mound product.
The Texas head coach indicated he wasn’t thinking about replacing Auburn, instead putting the focus on the field-goal unit battery of the long snapper and holder.
“Again, I think he’s better, so I think us getting our battery, our operation — snap, hold, kick, protection — to ensure confidence in him and then to him trusting his training,” Sarkisian said. “He’s too good, he’s been doing it for two years for us now. It’s just getting him back into his comfort zone.”
Consider Auburn back in his comfort zone.
“One thing I try to do as a coach is is let our players know I believe in them and I wouldn’t tell him I believed him if I didn’t, and I think Bert is is a prime example of that. Sometimes early in the year you miss a couple of kids here and there, but I know what he’s capable of and so the fact that he was able to now find his rhythm here the last few ballgames and make some really big kicks for us is going to be huge for us moving forward,” said Sarkisian.
More than just instilling confidence in his players, Sarkisian understands the danger of switching out a kicker too quickly.
“The easy thing is switch kickers. Well, yeah, that’s great. What if that guy you put in starts missing them? What do you do? Right? So you try to instill in the guys the confidence in the work on some of the fundamentals and techniques to where they can improve it and then they start to get their rhythm back and I think that Bert’s are a prime example,” said Sarkisian.