AUSTIN, Texas — There’s this game Texas players like to play called “red zone lockout.” The rules are pretty simple: if the Longhorns defense stops an opponent from getting into the end zone, they win; conversely, if the offense gets in the end zone, they win.
Right before overtime at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Longhorns linebacker Jaylan Ford reminded his teammates on the sideline of the game, and that this was the moment for his unit to win.
The motivation worked.
Facing fourth down from the 4-yard line, Kansas State decided to go for the win instead of kicking a field goal for the tie. But nose tackle Byron Murphy II beat his man, forcing Wildcats quarterback Will Howard to panic, which gave Barryn Sorrell enough time to come around the edge and chase the quarterback. Howard had nowhere to go, slipped on the turf, and threw the ball up, which was batted down by T’Vondre Sweat to end the game.
“I think we were really ready for that moment,” Ford said. “Just the grit and determination for everybody to hold it down and get off the field and end up with the win.”
Looking at this game on paper, the Longhorns made too many mistakes to win. They were 2-of-15 on third down, turned the ball over three times and had a punt blocked. The Wildcats took advantage of those miscues, scoring 13 points off of them. Big picture, the CFP committee could certainly dock No. 7 Texas a few spots in this week’s rankings for their near-meltdown in the second half. But what the Longhorns are hanging their hat on right now is that they are finding ways to win without their starting quarterback — and with a fiery defense.
“[This game] tested our resiliency, it tested our culture to stick together,” coach Steve Sarkisian said, before adding that “we played well enough at the most critical moment.”
Texas was sharp and efficient to start, jumping out to a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. At that point, backup quarterback Maalik Murphy, making his second start for an injured Quinn Ewers, looked like he was growing comfortable in the offense. Sarkisian made a bold call to go for it on fourth down from his own 42, and running back CJ Baxter broke for a 54-yard touchdown run. He looked like a track star (he ran in high school), even extending his arms wide and dropping his head when he crossed the goal line. This had the makings of a blowout.
Sarkisian was lauded then for going for it on fourth down rather than punting. But two drives later, Savion Red, in a wildcat formation, fumbled on fourth-and-2 from the 12 instead of kicking a field goal that would have put Texas up 20-0. That turned into a 10-point swing, with Kansas State blocking a punt and scoring before halftime to cut the lead to 17-7.
After the break, Texas let Kansas State back in the game and had to “fight like crazy to find a way to win,” Sarkisian said. Murphy struggled, finishing 19-of-37 for 248 yards, a touchdown and two costly interceptions. The running game was dangerous — Baxter and Jonathon Brooks combined for 202 of Texas’ 230 rushing yards. But that wasn’t going to be enough.
Ford said the defense felt disrespected entering this matchup and that played a role in how they came out flying. Kansas State didn’t cross midfield on its first six drives, and at one point was forced to go three-and-out four straight times.
“My message to the team is we just gotta go take it,” Ford said. “If they don’t want to give it to us, you go out there and leave no doubt that at the end of the game, they should be saying, ‘This is a good team. They’ve got heart and play with physicality.’ All of those things.
“You have to have an edge to go out and play hard and dominate,” Ford continued. “[We were] looking for something to drive this team, so we used that and ran with it.”
Texas limited Kansas State’s running game — ranked fifth in the country and averaging 226.0 yards per game — to 33 total rushing yards on 1.1 yards per carry. Even with Howard catching fire in the fourth quarter — the QB completed 26-of-42 passes on the day for 327 yards, four touchdowns and an interception — the defense made big plays when necessary.
In the third quarter, Ethan Burke sacked Howard for a 14-yard loss, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Ford and resulted in Texas running back Brooks scoring a touchdown on the next play. In the fourth quarter, Jerrin Thompson and Murphy combined to tackle Howard on third down. The Wildcats would miss the ensuing 27-yard field goal. Then in overtime, the Horns’ defense made four straight stops from its own 4-yard line to clinch the win.
“Our backs were against the wall, and we needed to make a play, make a stop,” Ford said. “Everybody stepped up, we really communicated and went out and executed and won the game.”
One of the storylines surrounding the Longhorns entering this season was about how dominant and talented their defense could be. This is a veteran unit filled with future NFL players, coached by a staff that has cohesion for the first time in years. It has the luxury of depth and can rotate through players and feel comfortable with whoever is on the field. Sarkisian said if they were playing just 11 or 12 guys on defense a year ago, this year it’s more than 20.
“Maybe we just have a little bit more juice in the tank there at the end to make a couple of those plays,” Sarkisian said.
All those characteristics were put on display in a statement win over Alabama in September, but then were questioned after a narrow loss to Oklahoma in October. Now, it’s November, and with an inexperienced backup quarterback leading the offense, the Longhorns needed to show off that experienced defense.
It wasn’t pretty, but that’s what they did.
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter at @LakenLitman.
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