Nothing ever comes easy for Texas against Kansas State.
That was true yet again Saturday night, though the Longhorns finally knocked the proverbial Wildcat off their back in a 31-21 win that saw Texas face more obstacles than an American Gladiators finale.
The Longhorns overcome those hurdles, stepping over massive injury issues, key penalties and a resilient opponent to move to 2-2 and grab a victory in the ‘Horns’ Big 12 opener.
“We really needed this win because we’ve been busting our tails; just busting our tails and still coming up short,” said receiver Kendall Sanders, who hauled in a 63-yard touchdown pass in the first half. “We still have things we need to work on. Just having this win is going to boost us to work even harder.”
From the start, Texas appeared to be a different team than the one that was blown out in its last two contests against BYU and Ole Miss. The defense that allowed those primarily quarterback-driven run games to drive up and down the field for a combined 822 yards the past two weeks? Those same players — in just their second week under new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson — rang up four sacks while holding Kansas State to just 3.0 yards per carry.
Perhaps more importantly, they held when it mattered most. Twice in the final three minutes, Kansas State drove inside the Texas 20. And both times, the Longhorns held, forcing turnovers on both occasions.
“There are some guys that stepped up tonight big, younger and older,” Robinson said. ” I think a lot of progress can continue to be made.
“Just being in the room with these guys, I’d be shocked if they didn’t just keep doing what they’re doing,” Robinson said. “And that’s getting better.”
Offensively, the Longhorns faced just as many challenges. Three starters — wide receivers Mike Davis and Daje Johnson and right tackle Josh Cochran — missed the game with injuries. Quarterback David Ash, who missed last week’s game with symptoms from a concussion suffered against BYU, was declared out for the second half after once again showing symptoms.
But if the Texas offense became less dynamic with Ash’s absence — Ash had 193 total yards in the first half to help build a 17-7 lead — the Longhorns continued to move the ball without him in the second half. Backup quarterback Case McCoy threw just nine passes, completing five for 59 yards, but he converted multiple key third downs with those throws. And the offensive line helped to pave the way for Johnathan Gray to rush for a career-high 141 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries.
The Longhorns had a bevy of excuses that they could turn to. But offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said the offense played with an “I don’t give a damn” mentality, and refused to make those excuses.
“I thought they fought, believed, played 60 minutes, did a great job,” Applewhite said. “No matter what obstacles were in terms of what Kansas State did on defense or who was playing on our roster. I was proud of them.”
Texas needed that attitude to vanquish its Kansas State demons. The last time the Longhorns defeated the Wildcats? All the way back in 2003, when Vince Young, a redshirt freshman at the time, came off the bench to rally the ‘Horns to a late 24-20 win.
“We came out fired up,” said senior defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat. “This is a team that we haven’t beat in a while.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that this probably isn’t one of Bill Snyder’s better squads. The mastermind behind attacks that have included signal-callers like Chad May, Michael Bishop, Ell Roberson and most recently, Collin Klein, now has an offense that is searching for an identity behind a two-quarterback rotation. Pass-first quarterback Jake Waters threw for 275 yards, including a 7-for-9,129-yard fourth quarter as the Wildcats fought desperately to come back. Daniel Sams is the running threat, rushing eight times for 48 yards, all in the first half. He didn’t throw a pass in the game.
“Both of them deserve to play,” Snyder said. “Both of them are good players. They made a lot of mistakes. We’ve got to do a better job. We didn’t coach this game very well. We need to do a better job being able to utilize both of them because they’re both going to play. It’s that simple, but we’ve got to do a better job utilizing them to their full capacity.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Kansas State is scrapping to try and replace nine departed starters from last year’s defense, including the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in Arthur Brown and the Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year in Meshak Williams. In their place is a group that includes four former walk-ons.
In short: beating this Wildcat squad isn’t the same as grabbing a victory over last year’s Big 12 champions.
But now isn’t the time to hem and haw or add vague qualifiers. Texas was in desperate need of a win after back-to-back crushing defeats, with the needle of perception about the program, and by proxy, Texas coach Mack Brown’s future, pointing in a negative direction. One win won’t clear everything up, but despite the rough start, the Longhorns are 1-0 in Big 12 play.
Now, Texas gets a bye week to heal up — Texas star linebacker Jordan Hicks was also among the injured — install more of Robinson’s defense, and prepare for a Thursday night road trip to Ames to take on Iowa State. Just a week after that comes Red River, and with it, the Longhorns’ true testing ground.
“We told them in the dressing room, this is a start, this isn’t the end,” Brown said. “We had to get this game tonight. We had to get back on the right track. We had to get 1-0 against the Big 12 champs from last year that we have not been successful against in a very physical ballgame. All those things were good for us because nobody thought we could do it in any of those categories. We did it. I’m really proud of the guys.
Iowa State and Oklahoma represent worries for another day. Saturday night, Texas built a lead, and despite an injured roster, a targeting penalty that ejected starting middle linebacker Steve Edmond, a pass-interference call that set up a fourth-quarter Wildcat touchdown and big Kansas State plays that threatened to turn the game around, the Longhorns never caved. When it came time for the defense to stiffen its back, the ‘Horns — while still working without a complete defensive package — were only too happy to oblige.
“The first week we didn’t know very much about Coach Robinson,” said senior defensive tackle Chris Whaley. “He’s a great guy and came out the second week with a better attitude. He made the promise that he was going to give us all he had, and that’s what we did. We made the promise that we’ll give him all we have, so it was a great second week.”
Brown spent much of the preseason lauding a team that he thought had a chance to be a strong one … one that could compete for a conference title and shoot up the national rankings. And he said Saturday’s night’s bounce-back gave a glimpse into what the Longhorns could become.
“This is part of the team that I expected to see and expect to see for the rest of the year,” Brown said. “This can be a really good football team before we finish.”