Instant takeaways: Texas survives against K-State, keeping its CFP hopes alive

AUSTIN — Texas went from dominating Kansas State to fighting for its Big 12 and College Football Playoff life, but the No. 7 Longhorns ultimately emerged with a 33-30 overtime win over the No. 23 Wildcats in a thriller on Saturday.

Six quick takeaways from a wild one on the Forty Acres:

1. If Texas (8-1) ends up making it to the Big 12 championship, it will have its defense to thank more than anything. It’s that unit that suffocated Kansas State (6-3) early on, which allowed the Longhorns to build their 20-point second-half lead, one that could have been larger.

The Longhorns consistently pressured the quarterback and tackled well in the running game. Edge rushers Ethan Burke and Barryn Sorrell combined for three sacks, and Burke forced a fumble. Linebacker Jaylan Ford continued to show why he’s one of the best in the country at his position. A healthy Ryan Watts has given the secondary a big boost and led the team with seven solo tackles.

And defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat continues to be a force on the interior. His strength and power was on full display on the third-and-1 stop that forced the Wildcats to try — and miss — a field goal late in the fourth quarter. Sweat has been such a huge presence (literally, at 362 pounds, and figuratively). He’s made opposing coaches think twice about running up the middle on the Longhorns when he’s in the game. He probably won’t get any Heisman Trophy votes, but he’s been one of the best players in the country.

2. The game’s final series was symbolic of how important Texas’ defensive efforts have been to the team’s 2023 success. Kansas State had a first-and-goal at the Texas 6. The Longhorns stood tall, forcing fourth-and-goal at the 4, and Kansas State coach Chris Klieman made a bold call to try to win the game in overtime by going for it rather than settling for a field goal that would have sent it to a second overtime.

It was a backs-against-the-wall situation for Texas. Get the stop, and the Longhorns control their position in the Big 12 title and Playoff race. Give up the touchdown and everything flips — they’re out of Playoff contention and facing an uphill climb to get to the conference championship game.

Texas rose to the occasion in the most critical of situations. When Will Howard dropped back to pass, his first option was populated with burnt orange jerseys in the right corner of the end zone. By time he was assessing the alternatives, defensive tackle Byron Murphy was closing in, getting excellent push up the middle on K-State center Hayden Gillum and Sorrell was breathing down Howard’s neck coming off the edge.

Howard scrambled away from the pressure but lost his footing and threw the ball up in the air where it eventually fell harmessly to the turf.

This is a Texas team that, in the Steve Sarkisian era, hasn’t been in a November game with these types of stakes. The talent the Longhorns have is substantial and is the most important part of the equation. But Texas was assignment-sound on the last play. It is in critical situations like that where you see how the players’ chemistry, veteran leadership and understanding of their jobs,  as well as the coaching staff’s stability — all five full-time defensive assistants have remained the same since Sarkisian took over — have allowed for major growth by the team.

“That’s a huge component of it,” Sarkisian said. “Guys playing in the same system, getting coached by the same coaches for three consecutive years, there’s a level of consistency.”

Depth also plays into it. The recruiting Texas has done across the board, but particularly on the defensive front, shows up in long, tough game like Saturday’s.

“When you get into games like this in the fourth quarter, maybe we’re not as tired this year as maybe we were in the past when we were just playing 11 or 12 guys. When you start playing into the 20s … maybe we just have a little bit more juice in the tank to make those plays at the end.”

3. It was way uglier than Steve Sarkisian would have liked, but winning on Saturday is what mattered most. It’ll be a frustrating film review for the Longhorns, who could have won the game convincingly if not for their turnovers. Credit Kansas State for its part in some of those. The fumble by Jonathon Brooks came because of a monster hit delivered by Brendan Mott. And the Wildcats capitalized when the Longhorns stumbled. But at the end of day, escaping with a win — which keeps Texas in control of its Big 12 and CFP chances — was huge.

“I’d much rather win ugly than lose pretty,” Sarkisian said with a laugh. “I’ve never seen a pretty loss, so I’ll take this one.”

4. Props to Kansas State for its fight. The Wildcats had absolutely nothing going offensively in the first half. Their first six possessions amounted to 31 offensive yards and they never once crossed midfield in the first 27 minutes of the game.

But Klieman’s team refused to quake and inserted itself back into the game via the blocked punt on special teams, which triggered Kansas State’s first scoring drive of the game.

Even when the Longhorns took a 20-point lead late in the third quarter, Howard and the Wildcats were undeterred. They scored three touchdowns the next three times they touched the ball. Two Texas fumbles helped the cause, but that’s what good teams do: take advantage of opponents’ miscues. It’s easy to see why the Wildcats have been in the thick of the Big 12 race again this year.

5. The quicker Texas can get Quinn Ewers back in the lineup healthy, the better for the Longhorns. Maalik Murphy has flashed his talent and ability in his two starts, but Saturday showed why it’s so tough to have a young freshman out there in such a big game.

Making mistakes is normal and natural for young quarterbacks. But it was easy to see the difference between a seasoned veteran like Howard — who wisely threw the ball away multiple times when plays broke down or pressure closed in — and Murphy, an uber-talented prospect with size, arm strength and confidence, but lacking game experience. That shows up, especially in a high-stakes game like Saturday.

Sarkisian said afterward that he’ll talk with Murphy and emphasize that “Not every play is gonna be the play. . . . Sometimes your best play is throwing it away.”

To be clear, not every turnover or mistake was on Murphy. His first interception was the result of receiver Johntay Cook hitting the turf as Murphy let go of the ball. There’s nothing the quarterback could do about that.

As for Ewers, Sarkisian said Saturday that the quarterback is “moving in the right direction” in his recovery. “How quickly (will he be back?) I don’t exactly know yet.”

6. We saw the good and the bad of Sarkisian’s aggressive fourth-down approach on Saturday. In the early second quarter, facing a fourth-and-1 on the Texas 46, the Longhorns lined up as if they were going to try a tush push-esque quarterback sneak, but instead pitched it wide to CJ Baxter who answered with a 54-yard touchdown run. It was validation for Sarkisian in his approach.

But it backfired later in the second quarter when Sarkisian opted to pass up a makeable field goal for Bert Auburn to go for a fourth-and-2 at the Kansas State 12. Texas was up 17-0 at the time. The defense was playing at an elite level and the Wildcats had nothing going offensively. Adding another three points wouldn’t have substantially changed the game (it still would have been a three-score game) but maybe it makes a difference later.

Sarkisian opted to go for it and lined up running back Savion Red in the wildcat formation, an oft-used short yardage formation this year. Red bobbled the snap, which disrupted the play and Texas turned it over on downs.

“I love the play,” Sarkisian said afterward. “I’d call it again right now.”

Regardless, Sarkisian remains confident in his approach. Asked about whether he questions himself on the fourth-down decisions sometimes, he said no.

“That’s football. Sometimes, it happens like that,” Sarkisian said. “I can’t sit here and keep wondering, ‘Could I? Should I? Would I? Because if I think like that, I would have punted at midfield and we wouldn’t have had the touchdown from (Baxter).”

(Top photo of Barry Sorrell: Tim Warner / Getty Images)

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