AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Twice this season Texas faced a top quarterback and held a lead in the fourth quarter.
Both times the Longhorns lost as USC’s Sam Darnold and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield made big plays to lead their teams to critical late scores.
So now here comes No. 10 Oklahoma State (5-1, 2-1 Big 12) and gunslinger quarterback Mason Rudolph, whose Cowboys are rolling defenses up and down the field. The Longhorns are still smarting from a close loss last week to rival Oklahoma and need a win to keep coach Tom Herman’s first season from turning desperate.
“Not very often do you get to play the No. 1 offense in the country in back-to-back weeks, but we get that distinction this week,” Herman said.
Yet the Texas defense has kept the Longhorns in games until the offense found its rhythm. It will be under pressure to do it again Saturday against an Oklahoma State team averaging nearly 611 yards per game.
The Cowboys began the season as a favorite to win the Big 12. An early home loss to TCU dented those plans and the Cowboys can’t afford another if they want to contend for the league title and possibly bigger things.
Oklahoma State has dominated Texas of late with four straight wins in Austin. Cowboys linebacker Calvin Bundage doesn’t expect an easy game this week.
“It’s going to be crazy. This is the best Texas team I’ve ever played against, and I don’t think their record shows how good they are,” Bundage said.
Texas (3-3, 2-1) is at a crossroads for the season. Another win keeps them in the thick of the Big 12 title chase. Lose and just making a bowl game looks difficult. Herman got hired at Texas because Charlie Strong had three consecutive losing seasons and didn’t make a bowl his last two years.
“I wouldn’t say that it would make or break us just because we’ve become so close as a family and as a team,” Texas senior linebacker Naashon Hughes said.
Some things to watch for when the Longhorns and Cowboys play:
PASS CATCHING COMBO
Rudolph has two of the best targets in the country in wide receivers James Washington and Marcell Ateman. Those two have combined for more than 1,400 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. They’ll challenge a Texas secondary that has been great at creating turnovers but gives up long touchdowns passes. Herman praised Washington’s ability to “thread the needle” to find open space in double coverage.
“Last year a bunch of people only thought of me about just deep routes, but I try to maximize every attempt that I get and I see the same thing in my teammates,” Washington said.
TO KICK OR NOT TO KICK?
Herman says he hates kicking short field goals, but decisions to go for it on 4th down have been costly in every loss. At some point, he’s going to have to try to take the points. Texas field goal kicker Josh Rowland has struggled when he does get to kick and is just 5 of 10 on attempts with a long of 49 yards.
Junior punter Michael Dickson is having a potential All-American season averaging 48.26 yards and his ability to flip field position will be critical for Texas. Dickson also has some making up to do. His bobbled snap and shanked kick late in 2015 set up Oklahoma State’s game-winning field goal.
The quietly effective and overlooked part of Oklahoma State’s offense is running back Justice Hill, who averages 6.0 yards per carry. Few teams have run to on the Longhorns but if Hill and Cowboys control the line of scrimmage, they could roll. Texas freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger has been the team’s best rusher, which is good and bad. He’s moving the chains with first downs but also taking a beating. Herman called him a “wild horse” who needs to learn more patience in the pocket. That would suit Oklahoma State just fine.
“We have to stop their quarterback run. We have to make the quarterback be a quarterback and stay in the pocket and throw the ball instead of trying to run,” Bundage said.
FOURTH QUARTER FOLD
For all the games Texas lost the past three years, it’s easy to forget how close the Longhorns were to turning many of them in their favor. In 2016, four of their final five losses were by five points or less. Against USC and Oklahoma, Texas had fourth quarter leads but lost after giving up big drives.