AUSTIN, Texas — The task wasn’t small. So Texas’ defense played big.
In the Big 12 Conference opener for Oklahoma State and No. 12 Texas, in a game that should go down as one of the league’s pivotal contests in 2019, the Longhorns were faced with corralling college football’s most prolific running back and slowing down the game’s most dangerous receiver.
They did just enough of both in a 36-30 victory on Saturday night at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
“Tonight we took a step, in my opinion,” said Texas coach Tom Herman, “because we played less than our best and still beat a really, really good football team.”
And they did it with defense — a defense that through three games ranked 94th nationally overall and 126th in passing yards allowed.
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger threw four touchdowns, hit 20-of-28 passes for 281 yards and added 70 yards rushing, including a 29-yard dash to clinch it in the final minute. Keaontay Ingram rushed for 114 yards. Devin Duvernay caught 12 passes for 108 yards.
But it was the Longhorn defense that got critical red-zone stops in the first, third and fourth quarter and created just enough separation to win — and keep alive their hopes for a run at the College Football Playoff run.
“Yeah, I thought the game plan was great by our defensive staff,” Herman said. “ … I thought that plan was well executed.”
How important was it for Texas? OSU had won four consecutive games in the series, and hadn’t lost on the Forty Acres since the Bush administration.
It was a prime-time Big 12 showdown, and it lived up to the hype.
While Texas (3-1) came in ranked 12th in the Associated Press poll, Oklahoma State (3-1) came in two spots outside the Top 25 with potential designs on a memorable run.
Sophomore Chuba Hubbard averaged 174 rushing yards per game in OSU’s non-conference slate, and junior All-American Tylan Wallace averaged 130 receiving yards per game. Both figures led all of FBS.
Wallace had five catches for 83 yards, but was shut out in the fourth quarter. Hubbard finished with 121 yards and two touchdowns, but needed 37 carries to do it.
“That is as good as you’re gonna do against those two guys that are as good as there is in our conference,” Herman said.
Texas’ efforts on Hubbard included a third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 goal line stop in the third quarter, and a third-and-1 red zone stop in the fourth quarter that preceded an ill-designed fake field goal. Those drives produced zero points. Hubbard was also stuffed on a second-and-goal from the 1 and a third-and-goal from the 3 on OSU’s opening drive that ended in a field goal.
“If we’d have taken advantage of our opportunities and not kicked a bunch of field goals,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said, “we’d have been in a better situation.”
Had the Cowboys been able to pick up a yard either time, another presidential campaign might have passed before Texas beat them here.
Instead, the ‘Horns overcame a spate of injuries, owned the line of scrimmage when it counted, and the Cowboys’ streaks ended.
“We can talk about ifs and buts all you want, but if you score on the 1-yard line, you’re not really climbing uphill,” Gundy said. “After they stopped us there, we kind of felt like we were just trying to climb and climb and climb and couldn’t ever get to that point.
Gundy and the Cowboys lamented the lost opportunities, but they still nearly rallied at the end.
Hubbard scored on a 13-yard run with 1:37 to play to cut it to six, and Texas had to fall on a lively onside kick to preserve the victory.
Early on, Sanders showed the promise that made him the Texas Gatorade high school player of the year when he threw two perfectly nuanced deep throws to Wallace (35 yards) and Braydon Johnson (55 yards) that set up two Cowboy scores.
But he also showed the growing pains of a redshirt freshman making his first conference road start: a high throw that was easily intercepted by Montrell Estell and set up Texas’ second touchdown and a 14-3 Longhorn lead early in the second quarter. Texas didn’t cash in his third-quarter pick, but it scissored Oklahoma State’s offensive momentum.
Matt Ammendola’s 43-yard field goal and Sanders’ 7-yard touchdown run — sandwiched around an OSU fourth-down stop — cut Texas’ lead to 14-13.
But Ehlinger exploited a coverage bust down the right sideline and found Brennan Eagles for a 73-yard touchdown pass.
The Cowboys tried to hurry for a score just before halftime but were forced to punt in the final minute.
That’s when Texas punt returner Jake Smith — another freshman — suffered Texas’ biggest mistake of the half, fumbling the punt at the ‘Horns’ 14. Three plays later, Chuba Hubbard powered in with 11 seconds to play to cut the Cowboys’ deficit to 21-20 at halftime.
Herman called the ‘Horns’ punt return efforts “embarrassing.”
Ammendola gave OSU a 23-21 lead midway through the third quarter, but Ehlinger and the Longhorns responded. The junior ran twice and completed 5-of-5 passes, the last one a 25-yard, end-around flea-flicker pass to Cade Brewer, for a 28-23 lead.
After Hubbard was stuffed on third down on the next possession, placekick holder Jake McClure tried a shovel pass from his knee to tight end Jelani Woods, but the ball fell incomplete.
“We had our chances,” Gundy said. “We just didn’t capitalize. “We kicked too many field goals. Gotta punch it in.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.