By Steve Habel
A slap in the face usually serves as a stern wake-up call for a struggling football team like Texas. The hope is that such a notice — this time administered to the Longhorns by No. 24 Oklahoma State via a 30-27 loss Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in a game decided by a special teams gaffe in the final seconds — has sent the alarm bells ringing.
Many pundits billed the Big 12 Conference opener between Oklahoma State and Texas as a potential offensive shootout. The game, however, was decided by which team made the fewest mistakes — or, more importantly, the last mistake.
And for the second week in a row, Texas was the team that stumbled at the finish line.
On Sept. 19, kicker Nick Rose missed a PAT against Cal that would’ve tied the game; instead the play cost the Longhorns a chance at overtime and Texas lost 45-44. On Saturday, punter Michael Dickson, working at his own 24-yard line with 42 seconds left to play, dropped a snap and corralled it just long enough to get off a kick that never made it back to the line. The mistake gave Oklahoma State a final opportunity.
The Cowboys’ Ben Grogan nailed a 40-yard field goal with six seconds left to lift the struggling and mistake-prone Cowboys to victory, sending the 87,073 fans home disappointed for the second straight week.
“It’s a tough lesson to endure two weeks in a row, but we have to learn to finish,” head coach Charlie String said. “We had some plays today but we didn’t make them when we needed to the most. There are a lot of concerns about this team, but we’ll go back to work because that’s what we do.”
Texas (1-3, 0-1) forced three turnovers, two of which were returned for touchdowns — a 34-yard fumble return by defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway and a 41-yard interception by defensive back Holton Hill.
But the Longhorns had a hard time getting out of their own way, as penalties nullified two touchdowns and erased an interception deep in Oklahoma State territory — all in the first 32 minutes. Texas committed 16 penalties for 128 yards; even Strong picked one up in the fourth quarter on a drive that allowed Oklahoma State to kick the tying field goal.
“We have to pay more attention to the details and the little things that make a difference in a win or a loss,” Ridgeway said. “The only way we can get this bad taste out of our mouths is to win a game. We’ll keep fighting to get there.”
The Longhorns are 1-3 for the first time since 1956, the year before legendary coach Darrell K Royal was hired at Texas.
Oklahoma State (4-0, 1-0) rolled to touchdowns on its first two possessions, culminating its drives with a 17-yard pass from quarterback Mason Rudolph to wide receiver Brandon Sheperd and a 4-yard keeper by backup quarterback J.W. Walsh.
Texas answered with a pair of field goals by Rose, from 41 and 46 yards, the first of which came when senior receiver Marcus Johnson caught his first pass of the season. Johnson, who was injured in the season opener against Notre Dame, caught a 47-yard bomb from quarterback Jerrod Heard on Texas' second possession.
The game seemed to turn in the Longhorns’ favor after a major blunder by Rudolph. Working at his 45-yard line early in the second quarter, Rudolph dropped the football while setting up to pass and without getting hit. The loose ball bounced straight to Ridgeway, who stepped through a tackle attempt by Rudolph and rumbled to a 34-yard touchdown return that brought the Longhorns to within 14-13.
After a 34-yard field goal from Grogan pushed the Oklahoma State lead back to 17-13, the Longhorns took possession at their own 3-yard line.
Texas drove 97 yards on 12 plays and took a 20-17 lead thanks to a 7-yard keeper by former starting quarterback Tyrone Swoopes. Escorted by three blockers, Swoopes swept around the left end. The Longhorns ran on nine of the march's 12 plays and went to the second half with a 158-45 advantage in rushing yardage.
Both teams added touchdowns in a rough-and-tumble third quarter. Oklahoma State took a 24-20 advantage on a 1-yard touchdown pass from Walsh to fullback Jeremy Seaton at the 8:12 mark. The Longhorns reassumed the lead when Hill intercepted Rudolph's pass and returned the pick 41 yards for a score.
The Cowboys tied the game with Grogan’s 41-yard field goal with 2:30 left, setting the table for the final field goal.
- How did Oklahoma State control the Texas offense?
The Longhorns managed just 290 yards of offense against the Cowboys, 48 of which came in the second half as the Oklahoma State defense clamped down on Heard and his magical scrambling ability.
There’s no doubting that the Cowboys’ defense was a huge step up from California, which Heard abused for a team-record 527 yards and three touchdowns while Texas racked up 650 yards of total offense. But this was expected; Heard was playing against a real defense for the first time.
“We have to be able to get first downs — and we didn't,” Strong said. “We weren’t able to sustain a drive and burn the clock.”
Part of the problem was that Texas couldn’t forge a solid run game, gaining just 171 yards on 42 carries. The majority of those yards came on a 42-yard burst by Johnathan Gray and 29 more on a Heard scramble.
“It hurt us that we weren’t balanced,” Strong said. “You have to be able to run the ball and throw it. [Oklahoma State] was able to come in, rush us and put pressure on us. When Jerrod stepped up, they were fast enough to run him down and keep him contained.”
Heard carried 19 times for 48 yards and had only 119 yards in the air. His bomb to Johnson accounted for 47 of those yards.
“We had our opportunity on offense and we just didn't get anything out of it,” Strong said.
Texas offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said the offense’s struggles came down to execution and better adjustments from Oklahoma State.
“We knew people weren’t going to let Jerrod run around like Cal did last week,” Norvell said. “That’s the reality. They’re going to make adjustments watching film and make you earn it. We have to make sure to protect [the quarterback] so we can give ourselves the opportunity to throw on third down and make plays. [What we did against Oklahoma State] obviously wasn’t good enough.”
- How did the Texas defense improve?
Oklahoma State had 395 yards of offense but just 103 yards on the ground, a marked improvement by the Longhorns from their past three games.
Texas was much better in the middle, especially against the run, and recorded eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including three sacks.
“It's all about getting turnovers and we were able to get some good pressure on their quarterback,” Strong said. “We haven't played well the previous three weeks but today we played pretty well. We have to build on that.”
The Longhorns’ defensive lineup is chock-full of young players. Against Oklahoma State, 10 players — who were either freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores — accounted for tackles. However, this fearless bunch of players will need more time to get their feet under them. The battle won’t get any easier in the coming weeks.
- What was the game’s biggest factor?
The biggest factor was — without a doubt — the disparity in penalties called on the two teams. Texas’ 16 penalties were the most in the 17-game Strong era on the 40 Acres.
“I told the officials it was like we were getting all their holding calls,’” Strong said. “I know this — their defensive line can't block our guys. But we have to be a disciplined football team.”
There were plenty of dubious calls (e.g., a defensive holding on a run play?) to go along with the correct ones (the letter-of-the-law roughing the passer call that wiped out an interception by Kris Boyd). On Oklahoma State’s game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter, Strong had seen enough and said something to the officials that he shouldn’t have.
“I probably shouldn't have said what I said but I got upset,” Strong said of his rant to the officials after the defensive holding call. “I need to learn to keep my composure.”
“The play before we got the interference call, and the very next play we got a defensive holding call and they’re running the football,” he explained. “I've never heard of that. In all my years of coaching, I've never seen that. On a run play on the offense that cannot happen, but it did.”
The real impact of the plethora of penalties was when they came and how they stymied the Longhorn’s offense.
“All the penalties we had were a big turning point,” Texas guard Sedrick Flowers said. “You can’t give up all of those yards and still expect to win the game. It’s sloppiness. A holding call can go 50‐50 — there’s holding on every play in the game of football.”
- What was the Longhorns’ most innovative offensive twist?
The move of former starting quarterback Tyrone Swoopes to a short-yardage, running quarterback made Norvell look like a genius. Swoopes ran three times for 35 yards and his touchdown showed none of the tentativeness that plagued the 6-foot-4, 244-pounder when he was the main man behind center.
“It was something we practiced and we were going to use,” Swoopes said. “It’s another chance to get on the field and help the team out. I was excited.”
Strong has said in the weeks since Swoopes’ demotion that he still expected the junior quarterback to help the team win games. While those comments were often snickered at, there’s no question about this version of Swoopes’ ability to impact games.
“We knew that we didn't want Jerrod to take a lot of hits, so we put Tyrone in there to let him be the short yardage guy,” Strong explained.
- What’s next for Texas?
The Longhorns return to the field Oct. 5 when they face TCU, a 55-52 last-second winner against Texas Tech Saturday, in Fort Worth. The Horned Frogs will be the fifth consecutive undefeated team Texas will play in 2015.
After that game, Texas will square off against currently undefeated Oklahoma in Dallas and then — after an open date — host Kansas State on Oct. 26.
While the Longhorns are improving, there’s a real chance that Texas could enter November 1-6. The Longhorns need wins in five of its final eight games to be bowl eligible, a daunting task when one remembers that the road ahead still has games against four teams that are ranked in the latest Associated Press Top 25 (No. 4 TCU, No. 5 Baylor, No. 15 Oklahoma and No. 23 West Virginia), all away from home.
“We have to bounce back, go back to work and get ready for TCU,” Strong said. “That's going to be a big one.”