ARLINGTON, Texas — So, this is goodbye.
Having completed the final regular season in the Big 12, the No. 7 Texas Longhorns are at AT&T Stadium on Saturday for one last game in the conference — the Big 12 Championship game against the No. 18 Oklahoma State Cowboys.
As the Horns say goodbye to the Big 12, they hope to say hello to the program’s first-ever College Football Playoff appearance.
Entering championship weekend, Texas needed some help in the CFP picture and got some with Friday’s Pac-12 Championship as No. 3 Washington defeated No. 5 Oregon 34-31 to send the Ducks to their second loss and, as conventional wisdom holds, eliminating them from a shot at the playoffs.
A more important result could come later on Saturday when No. 3 Florida State faces off against No. 14 Louisville in the ACC Championship game — if the Longhorns beat the Cowboys and the Seminoles lose to the Cardinals, Texas should earn a playoff bid, assuming that the SEC Championship game between No. 1 Georgia and No. 8 Alabama doesn’t complicate the situation with a win by the Crimson Tide.
No doubt there are plenty of moving pieces, but one stark reality stands out above all else — head coach Steve Sarkisian’s team has to secure a fourth Big 12 title for any of the other games to matter.
And the Longhorns will have to win without senior cornerback Ryan Watts, who is not dressed to play after suffering a back injury last Friday in the win over Texas Tech. Sophomore nickel back Austin Jordan is also out, but redshirt freshman quarterback Maalik Murphy is dressed and going through warmups despite an injury to his non-throwing shoulder on Keilan Robinson’s kickoff return touchdown against the Red Raiders.
There’s also some potential long-term news that could impact Murphy and the program’s outlook heading into he SEC next year — redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinn Ewers is reportedly leaning towards returning for a third season on the Forty Acres. How’s that for a pregame nugget of news?
Texas won the toss and deferred to the second half, with Oklahoma State returning the opening kickoff to the 22-yard line. Trying to hit a shot play to open the game from scrimmage, Cowboys quarterback Alan Bowman was forced to throw it away under pressure, then threw incomplete into strong coverage on second down. Once again trying to hit a play downfield, Brown tried to connect with Rashod Owens along the sideline, but the ball hit the turf with sophomore cornerback Terrance Brooks coming close to drawing a pass-interference penalty.
A kick-catch interference penalty on Oklahoma State gave Texas the ball in positive territory and Sarkisian dialed up a successful throw-back screen to freshman running back CJ Baxter for 17 yards on first down. Senior running back Keilan Robinson carried the ball for a short gain on the next play, a screen pass to Baxter behind strong blocking to pick up 10 yards. On a fake pitch to Baxter, Ewers rolled right and connected with junior wide receiver AD Mitchell for a 10-yard touchdown catch and a 7-0 lead.
Ewers finds AD Mitchell for six to get the scoring started early.— TFB Texas (@TFB_Texas) December 2, 2023
Texas on top 7–0. pic.twitter.com/Yftjq86X7T
Oklahoma State started its second drive at the 23-yard line and opted to give star running back Ollie Gordon his first touch, a two-yard gain. Gordon’s second carry was more successful — a nine-yard gain to move the chains. Thrown a screen pass on the next play, Gordon got up slowly before the Longhorns put the Cowboys into a 3rd and 6, a pass broken up by Texas freshman cornerback Malik Muhammad.
With the field position flipped following a 43-yard punt, the Horns started at their own 16-yard line on a fair catch by Xavier Worthy. On a short throw to Worthy, the Texas speedster flashed his elite speed after the catch, taking it down the sideline and then across the field for a 54-yard gain. Two plays later, Sarkisian dialed up a flea flicker back to Ewers, who found junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders wide open for a 24-yard touchdown.
The Cowboys offense started to find its way into the game, drawing a pass-interference penalty on Longhorns senior nickel back Jahdae Barron on a shot play to open the drive, then Bowman hit Owens for a 34-yard catch that beat Barron. Into the red zone, Oklahoma State needed to convert a 3rd and 2, flipping the ball out to Sesi Valaihi for a first down. The next play ended with Muhammad down not the field briefly before jogging off. Brooks contributed to a pass breakup in the end zone on second down, but Brennan Presley was able to find an opening on third down for a much-needed Oklahoma State touchdown on the five-yard catch enabled by apparent miscommunication between freshman linebacker Anthony Hill Jr. and senior safety Jerrin Thompson.
Into the game, Texas sophomore running back Jaydon Blue came close to breaking into the open field on his first carry, settling for a six-yard gain. The Longhorns picked up a bigger chunk on a throw to Robinson in the flat for 16 yards. With an impressive cut in the open field, Blue looked dangerous again on a 12-yard gain and a check down for 15 yards that ended with Oklahoma State narrowly avoiding a flat for hitting him out of bounds. Ewers escaped pressure to hit Worthy on a short throw with more yards after the catch on the turn by the star wide receiver to move the ball into the red zone. A run by Blue moved the chains before Texas drew a pass-interference penalty in the end zone on 2nd and goal, putting the ball at the 2-yard line.
Senior defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat told the media this week he wanted to catch a touchdown like junior defensive tackle Byron Murphy did earlier this year against Wyoming and Sarkisian made it happen with Sweat in on the goal-line package. The two-yard touchdown catch made Sweat the fifth Texas lineman with a touchdown reception and sparked a huge celebration by the team.
GIVE T'VONDRE SWEAT THE HEISMAN NOW pic.twitter.com/Tm35M7z8gq— Nash (@NashTalksTexas) December 2, 2023
The Texas defense narrowly avoided giving up a big passing play when Bowman overthrew his intended receiver open down the field, but Oklahoma State was able to pick up some chunk plays through the air, including a 22-yard reception by Gordon when Bowman was forced out of the pocket on a 3rd and 10.
The Cowboys started the second quarter facing a 3rd and 4 at the Longhorns 35-yard line with the Texas defense needing to get a stop to maintain some momentum from Sweat’s touchdown catch. Senior safety Kitan Crawford responded with a diving interception on a ball put into danger by Bowman, who threw off his back foot under pressure.
Texas picked up a first down, but the drive looked close to stalling with the Horns needing to convert a 3rd and 10, but Ewers hit Mitchell on a nicely-thrown ball for a 62-yard gain into the Cowboys red zone. Baxter finished the 95-yard drive by breaking multiple tackles for a 10-yard touchdown and a 28-7 lead.
A physical Longhorns defense forced a three and out by the Cowboys with Murphy running down the line of scrimmage to put a big hit on Gordon and junior Jack end Barryn Sorrell making Bowman feels his presence on an incompletion.
After moving the chains once, Texas had a 24-yard completion to senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington negated by a holding call on senior right tackle Christian Jones. A screen pass to Sanders nearly picked up the lost yardage and went for more, but Blue was stopped in the backfield on second down to set up 3rd and 13. Then the game swung when Ewers was intercepted trying to hit Worthy on a cross route with the Texas wide receiver saving a touchdown.
Starting the drive at the 3-yard line, Texas stopped Gordon short of the goal line and Oklahoma State was called for a false start on second down. Some more confusion in the Longhorns secondary, however, contributed to a seven-yard touchdown pass to Owens to keep the Cowboys in the game at 28-14.
On 3rd and 6 to start the drive, Ewers picked up an important first down by connecting with Whittington for a 17-yard gain. Another catch by Whittington went for 20 yards to move into Oklahoma State territory. A screen pass to Sanders picked up 26 yards and Worthy nearly finished the drive by catching a screen and taking it down the sideline, but stepped out of bounds at the 8-yard line before running over an Oklahoma State defender at the goal line. Ewers couldn’t connect with Worthy open in the end zone on a rollout to his right, a potentially significant play given the Texas issues in the red zone. Instead, Sarkisian made the right call on a pass into the flat to Blue that resulted in the fifth touchdown of the game for the Longhorns and a 35-14 lead.
A face-mask penalty on Texas added some extra yardage to the Oklahoma State kickoff return and the Cowboys gained positive yardage on their first two plays and appeared to do so again on their third when Hill forced a fumble by OSU wide receiver Leon Johnson recovered by sophomore Ethan Burke near midfield with 1:29 remaining in the half.
Texas needed another positive screen pass to get close to the first down, an eight-yard gain by Baxter that nonetheless forced the Longhorns to go for a 4th and 1, a fake quarterback sneak handed off to Sanders for 12 yards. A flare pass to Robinson picked up five yards as Sarkisian used his first timeout of the half with 44 seconds left. Texas went for it all out of the timeout, but Ewers had to throw the ball away. Ewers couldn’t hit Blue on third down before Sarkisian kept the offense on the field for the fourth-down attempt, a play the Longhorns didn’t get off thanks to a delay of game the Cowboys forced with a late substitution. After hitting 19 straight field goals, Texas junior place kicker Bert Auburn missed wide left from 44 yards, ending a streak that set school and conference records.
Trying to mount a late drive before halftime, Oklahoma State ended up kneeling out the clock after failing to pick up any chunk yardage.
How impressive was the first half? Historic would be a better term for it.
Texas is the only Power 5 team over the last 20 seasons to put up 400 yds & 35 pts in a single half of a conference title game. pic.twitter.com/Xrb8fNbVlW— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 2, 2023
And, in a matchup against one of the nation’s best running backs, the Texas defense didn’t allow a run longer than nine yards by Gordon in the first half. Gordon had 10 carries for 28 yards in the opening 30 minutes.
The second half started with Texas freshman safety Derek Williams was called for a blindside block on a touchback. On review, Williams was ejected for targeting, a significant loss for the defense. Two runs by Baxter sandwiched around a catch by Worthy were enough for a first down to start the drive before facing a 3rd and 5 that turned into a 3rd and 10 thanks to a false start on Baxter split wide as a receiver. Hanging in the pocket under pressure, Ewers escaped right far enough to hit Blue on a short throw that turned into a first down. A completion to Worthy and a run by Blue only produced two yards, setting up 3rd and 8 and the first sack of Ewers in the game when sophomore right guard DJ Campbell was beat badly in pass protection.
Gordon needed medical attention after his first carry of the second half and left the field slowly. Two screen passes picked up positive yardage, but a shotgun snap over Bowman’s head slowed down that momentum with Oklahoma State pushed back to 3rd and 8. A run up the middle by Gordon’s backup felt like a strange concession to the drive given the 21-point deficit.
A throw to Sanders in the flat went for a first down, but a run to Blue and a screen pass to Mitchell on a run-pass option set up 3rd and 10 before a false start made it 3rd and 15. Mitchell picked up 19 yards on a dart from Ewers for the unlikely conversion. The running game continued to stall with Blue until Sarkisian called a two-back set with Robinson, who found a seam on the left side and somehow stayed in bounds down the sideline for a 57-yard touchdown run to make it 42-14.
The Texas defense forced a three and out by Oklahoma State. A three and out looked likely for the Longhorns, too, until Ewers scrambled for 10 yards on 3rd and 9, a play that left him down on the field holding his right hip. Murphy replaced Ewers and Texas ended the third quarter with a run for no gain by Baxter.
Ewers was back out on the field to start the final quarter, hitting Sanders down the seam for 17 yards on a nice throw and catch before underthrowing Worthy on a deep shot. On 3rd and 11, Worthy caught a crossing route for 10 yards and suffered a lower leg injury, needing medical attention before hobbling to the locker room. Sanders converted the fourth down with an eight-yard gain and Baxter finally had a big hole to run through, picking up 14 yards, then leaving the game holding his shoulder. Mitchell converted another third down with a 15-yard catch as the Texas drive continued. On 2nd and 10 from the Oklahoma State 11-yard line, Robinson scored his second rushing touchdown of the day to extend the lead to 49-14.
Oklahoma State hit a 41-yard pass to Owens to flip the field, but nearly turned the ball over when a big hit by Thompson knocked the ball loose, but the play was ruled an incompletion on the field and never reviewed. Needing to convert a 4th and 3, Bowman connected with Presley for 23 yards, beating coverage by Barron. Gordon was stuffed on his run, but Bowman hit Owens for a touchdown on 2nd and goal.
Meanwhile, Worthy hobbled back onto the field on crutches with a boot on his left foot.
With the Texas backups in, sophomore running back Savion Red picked up a first down, as did freshman wide receiver Johntay Cook on a pass from Murphy to convert a third down. Then it was freshman running back Tre Wisner’s turn to move the chains, which sent freshman quarterback Arch Manning into the game, eventually kneeling it out for the program’s fourth and final Big 12 title.