STILLWATER, Okla. — Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin mauled the players heading into the visiting locker room, squeezing every player like he’d just won a BCS bowl.
No, Texas’s 41-36 come-from-behind win at Oklahoma State Saturday night wasn’t just another victory. This wasn’t just “Texas being Texas,” trampling a foe with fewer resources and a smaller shot at a Big 12 title. Sure, the Longhorns hadn’t lost in Stillwater under coach Mack Brown. But the Cowboys entered Saturday night’s showdown as the defending Big 12 champ. And the Cowboys filed into the Boone Pickens Stadium with two consecutive double-digit wins over the Longhorns, both in Austin.
Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz summed up the emotion after the game.
“You just went into the Big 12 Conference defending champion’s house and won in an instant classic style game,” Diaz said. “We knew it was going to be hard. We talked about that. We talked about just persevering throughout the course of the game. When it comes out like that, these are the types of games that a young football team has to know that they can win. We had a couple similar type situations last year, and now all of a sudden they look around like we can win a game like this. And that’s going to really help us out down the road.”
In the two seasons since the last time the Longhorns played in Stillwater, Texas saw its program turned upside-down. In 2009, the Texas was pushing toward the BCS National Championship Game. In the two seasons since, the Longhorns have gone 13-12, plowed through a staff transformation and put much of the program’s burden on younger players. Those players have upped the talent level considerably, but they also took their lumps in close games in 2011.
Offensive guard Mason Walters redshirted during that 2009 season. As a redshirt freshman, he was thrust into the starting lineup on a struggling offensive line of a 5-7 team. Last year, the Longhorns were 8-5, but struggled to close in losing several winnable contests.
“You’ve got to enjoy and understand what this was,” Walters said. “This was a team that hasn’t been able to, for some reason, achieve that success. Tonight we had a tough game, they had the home crowd, it was really loud, we were able to stay the course through the game and get the win. I think that’s why it was such a big game. You just got to see a lot of people mature tonight.
“Especially after tonight, I really think … you have to learn how not to worry about that stuff and just do your job,” Walters said. “And we were able to do that. We were able to block [everything] out.”
That’s how Texas (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) executed its final drive. Facing a fourth-and-six from the Texas 29, with the stadium rattling from the riled-up home fans, the offensive line did its job. That allowed quarterback David Ash and tight end D.J. Grant to do theirs. Ash calmly flipped a touch pass to Grant, who snagged it and rumbled downfield for a 29-yard gain.
“Give David credit: he will not be under anymore pressure than this,” said Texas coach Mack Brown. “He couldn’t have done this at the same time last year. He has really grown up. He’s the leader of this football team. The throw to D.J. Grant was unbelievable.”
How dialed in was everybody to their specific job? Walters was so locked up in protecting Ash that he never saw receiver Mike Davis pull in a huge 32-yard jump ball that set up the Longhorns just five yards from the eventual game-winning touchdown. Walters didn’t even know it was Davis who caught the pass.
“I was like, ‘oh this is money’,” Davis said of his thought process when the ball was in the air. “Let’s win this game.”
Two plays later, Texas had the winning score, a two-yard Bergeron plunge. But even that wouldn’t have been possible had the Texas defense not stiffened up when it needed to, holding Oklahoma State (2-2, 0-1) to field goals on three of its four red zone trips, including a field goal with 2:34 remaining. Texas allowed 576 yards of total offense, missed tackles and gave up big plays. But when it mattered most, when the Cowboys had a first-and-10 at the Texas 13, the Longhorns held, with Quinn Sharp booting through a 24-yarder.
“We’ve said it all along … a great offense like theirs, you have to win in the red zone,” Diaz said. “They’re too dynamic, they’re too good, they’re going to move the ball between the 20s. I thought there was a bunch of red zone stops, even the ones where you’re holding them to field goals as the game was going on, just sort of keeping the score down, to me was vital in the football game.
“They battled. They battled like champions,” Diaz said. “Lord knows we didn’t do everything right. But the one thing you can’t fault for those guys was their effort.”
The kick put the Cowboys up 36-34, and set the stage for Ash’s final comeback.
“When the entire offense went came there, I felt those guys had poise,” Harsin said.
A heaping portion of that poise came from Ash, who hit on 30-of-37 throws for 304 yards and three touchdowns. In a way, the sophomore quarterback’s development mirrors that of the Longhorns as a whole. He came to Texas and was thrust into the starting lineup as a true freshman, a 6-foot-4, strong-armed confident kid who has had to mature as he’s taken his bruises. Among the wounds he took was a 22-for-40, three-turnover performance against these same Cowboys last year.
“A righteous man falls down seven times and gets back up seven times,” Ash said. “I think it showed that we have some resilience and that we’ve got some fight inside of us and we aren’t going to lay down ever. That’s probably what I’m most proud of: guys giving everything they have. If we had lost that game, I’d still be proud of those guys because we battled, and we battled hard against a great team.”
But the fact that the Longhorns didn’t lose a game, that they didn’t fold despite trailing twice in the fourth quarter says something about how much the Longhorns are growing up, Alex Okafor said. Now a senior defensive end, Okafor played as a true freshman in 2009, and he noted how on that team, every unit stepped up at its given time to pull out close games.
“In the past, we probably would have lost these games,” Okafor said. “We’re not perfect right now. We’re not even close to being where we want to be at. But as long as we can keep going out there and fighting every down, and finding a way to win, that’s what we want.”