AUSTIN, Texas — In arguably the biggest conference game of Steve Sarkisian’s tenure on the Forty Acres, the No. 7 Texas Longhorns host the No. 23 Kansas State Wildcats on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium with kickoff at 11 a.m. Central on FOX.
Texas sits at 4-1 in the conference, part of a five-way tie that also features Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, and Kansas State. With head-to-head matchups between the Longhorns and Wildcats and the Sooners and Cowboys in the final Bedlam game, two of those teams are guaranteed to fall behind the pack, setting up a more difficult path to Arlington and the Big 12 Championship game.
In Sarkisian’s estimation, the Longhorns also possess the season’s best win so far, the Week Two triumph over the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, a team that remains without another blemish on their record this year. Over the short history over the College Football Playoffs, teams in the same position as Texas haven’t made many appearances, but to the extent the Horns have any control over that possibility, it’s in winning out, including the Big 12 Championship game.
But injuries also loom over Saturday’s matchup. Texas starting quarterback Quinn Ewers will miss a second straight game with the AC joint sprain in his throwing shoulder, leaving redshirt freshman Maalik Murphy to start once again. During the early part of pregame warmups, sophomore Buck end Ethan Burke started getting loose with a large brace on his right knee even though Sarkisian officially listed Burke as “week to week.” In the same category but less likely to play is senior safety Jalen Catalon (leg), who hasn’t seen game action since leaving the loss to Oklahoma nearly a month ago.
And then there is the specter of potential injuries during practice this week. Horns247’s Chip Brown asked a pointed question on that subject on Thursday, but Sarkisian was notably evasive with pregame warmups et to provide some further perspective prior to kickoff.
Some of the injury concerns were alleviated, at least for the moment, when Murphy was one of the first Longhorns out of the tunnel and moving without impediment, as was junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders. And, as expected given the activity out of pads, Burke came out dressed for warmups.
When the entire team came out for stretching, senior right tackle Christian Jones was out with the offensive linemen, but redshirt freshman backup center Connor Robertson was not dressed and neither was Catalon with the secondary. In 11-on-11 warmups, however, Jones was not with the first-team offense, replaced by sophomore Cam Williams.
Noted Texas nemesis Kevin Mar is the lead official for Saturday’s game.
Kevin Mar is in Austin to officiate this game. Longhorn opponents have been called for 4 total penalties in the last 3 Texas games called by Mar and his crew. #HookEm
— HornSports (@HornSports) November 4, 2023
The Wildcats are averaging 5.3 penalties per game on the road this season and 4.6 penalties per game overall.
After Kansas State won the toss and deferred to start the second half, Texas started the game on offense with the ball at the 25-yard line following a touchback just inside the pylon.
With Williams starting at right tackle, the Longhorns opened the game with a stop route run-pass option to junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy for a 24-yard gain. The subsequent run was redshirt sophomore running back Jonathon Brooks was stuffed, but Murphy picked up another chunk play through the air with a bullet of a throw to junior wide receiver AD Mitchell for 12 yards. After a batted pass put the Horns behind schedule again, Sanders caught a slot for five yards, then gave it back on a false start. On 3rd and 10, Worthy was running free on a go route, but Murphy put too much air under the ball and it fell incomplete, sending senior punter Ryan Sanborn onto the field after an intentional delay of game. The Stanford transfer pinned Kansas State deep in its own territory with a punt downed at the 7-yard line.
A second-down run by Wildcats running back DJ Giddens picked up a first down, but a pass broken up at the line of scrimmage by senior linebacker Jett Bush and a run stuff forced Kansas State into a 3rd and 7 that resulted in a sack by junior Jack end Barryn Sorrell thanks to some tight man coverage on the back end by Texas.
Once again, Worthy looked dangerous on a punt return, gaining 19 yards for the Longhorns to stop the drive in positive territory at the Wildcats 47-yard line.
Kansas State loaded the box on first down to stop Brooks for a two-yard gain before the Texas starter found a seam up the middle on second down for eight yards. With one-on-one coverage on the outside, Mitchell hit the Wildcats defensive back with a little hesitation move on a go route to get open and Murphy dropped a perfect pass over the top for a 37-yard touchdown pass to take a 7-0 lead with 8:36 remaining in the first quarter.
In a sign of how different this Texas defense looks in terms of toughness, Burke was able to motor through a clear hold to get a chase-down sack of Howard and senior cornerback Ryan Watts delivered a huge hit on the perimeter, then junior linebacker Mo Blackwell flew up to drop Howard on a called run on third down to force a punt.
Kansas State was called for an illegal formation on its subsequent punt attempt and Texas opted to make the Wildcats kick it again, but paid for it in field position when the Kansas State punter connected on a 58-yarder.
Brooks came off dinged on a short first-down run and Worthy narrowly avoided a drop or an interception on a catch he bobbled for most of the eight yards he gained. Looking for another shot play, Murphy put it on the diving fingertips of Mitchell, who came up with a sensational catch to pick up 47 yards.
Texas moved into the red zone with a dart from Murphy to senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington and nearly scored a touchdown against the stingy red-zone defense of Kansas State, but freshman running back CJ Baxter wasn’t able to step through the final tackle and Williams was called for a false start. Two incompletion from Murphy, including a pass nearly intercepted in the end zone, caused the Longhorns to settle for a 32-yard field goal and a 10-0 margin.
Looking for a spark, Kansas State offensive coordinator put change-of-pace quarterback Avery Johnson in the game for the third Wildcats drive. The move didn’t pay off in the first quarter with Giddens gaining one yard on two carries.
Keeping Johnson in the game for 3rd and 9 didn’t pay off, either — Kansas State was called for a false start and then meekly handed the ball off to Giddens for a two-yard gain in conceding the drive.
Lined up in a Diamond formation to start the drive, Texas motioned Worthy out before handing it off to senior running back Keilan Robinson for an eight-yard gain. Another false start on the Longhorns and an illegal snap kept the Longhorns moving backwards trying to run a play on second down. Murphy connected with Worhty and Whittington on consecutive passes stopped short of the first down, prompting Sarkisian to leave the offense on the field for 4th and 1 in Texas territory. The Longhorns lined up and looked ready to call a quarterback sneak, instead tossing the ball to Baxter, who broke a tackle and found the open field for a 54-yard touchdown run and a 17-0 lead.
A short run and an incomplete pass forced Kansas State into a third and long again. Looking to pass, Howard had to scramble instead and wasn’t able to find the line to gain thanks to pursuit from Texas senior linebacker Jaylan Ford and senior defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat.
Back in the game, Brooks nearly broke a second-down run, settling for seven yards and a first down instead. When Sanders leveled a Kansas State defensive back on an end around to Worthy for 16 yards, Texas looked ready to blow the game open. Instead, freshman wide receiver Johntay Cook was tripped up on a shot play that resulted in an interception.
Faced with a sudden change, the Longhorns defense continued to swarm, stuffing the Wildcats on consecutive runs before Watts nearly came up with an interception when he broke on the third-down pass by Johnson.
Worthy finally had another chance to return a punt, collecting the ball on the bounce and getting downhill with incredible speed to gain 33 yards and come close to another punt return touchdown.
Behind a good block from Mitchell, Brooks took the left edge on first down for 21 yards, setting up a second red-zone attempt against one of the nation’s best defenses in red-zone touchdown rate. Brooks put the Longhorns into a 3rd and 4 with two runs, but came up short on third down when he was caught from behind, sending the RedCat onto the field. As the trigger man, sophomore running back Savion Red fumbled the exchange on what looked like a potential pass to Sanders to turn the ball over on downs.
The extremely experienced Kansas State offensive line continued to get whipped by the Texas defensive front with a tackle for loss on second down and a ball thrown away by Howard on third down that featured an impressive tackle of Longhorns junior defensive tackle Byron Murphy.
An ugly drive by Texas followed that featured an uncalled pass interference on an underthrown shot play to Worthy that fell incomplete and a near interception on third down throw into coverage. It got worse on the punt when Kansas State came clean for a block in a rare breakdown for Texas on the punt unit.
Howard finally found a chunk play in the passing game, connecting down the sideline over Watts son second won with a big gain into the Texas red zone. When running Howard up the middle couldn’t produce a touchdown, a timeout and picking on senior safety Jerrin Thompson did for a six-yard score to Phillip Brooks.
Trying to make something happen late in the half, Murphy lost his accuracy to allow Kansas State a final chance in the first half and the Wildcats were able to move the ball into Longhorns territory with passes of 22 yards and 11 yards. Head coach Chris Klieman called his final timeout with nine seconds remaining and the ball at the 42-yard line. After a timeout by Texas trying to get the right personnel on the field, the Longhorns forced Howard to quickly sail the ball out of bounds and a final play that also went incomplete to send the game into halftime.
After the running game struggled so much in the first half, the Wildcats opened the second half with a run-pass option that picked up nine yards through the air. Trying to hit a big play down the field, Howard nearly connected with Keagan Johnson, who bobbled it long enough for sophomore safety Michael Taaffe to come up with his third interception in the last three games.
Intent on establishing the run out of halftime, Sarkisian called three straight plays on the ground before Murphy put the ball in danger on a check down intended for Sanders. A tackle for loss put the Longhorns into third and long, a situation worsened by two penalties against Texas, including a holding penalty ultimately enforced. Sanborn made up for the lost field position, if not the lost momentum, with a 51-yard punt that died when it hit the ground and was downed at the Kansas State 7-yard line.
The Wildcats picked up a first down before Burke sacked Howard and forced a fumble that was initially called a recovery by Howard, who had questionable control over the football, although it certainly took some time for Ford to come into possession of it. After a long review process, the call on the field was overturned, giving the ball to the Longhorns at the 5-yard line.
And despite the red-zone struggled against Kansas State and throughout the season, Texas was able to punch it in quickly and without drama as Brooks crashed into the end zone from five yards to make it 24-7.
On 3rd and 3, Kansas State had a chance to extend its drive, calling a shovel pass to running back Treshaun Ward, but Texas senior linebacker Jett Bush stayed home on the edge and combined with Ford to make the stop and force an important punt by the Wildcats.
Texas did better on its own 3rd and 3 with Brooks looking slippery on a 27-yard run into opposing territory before the drive stalled on a run stuff, an incompletion, and a throw to Worthy short of the chains. From 49 yards, junior kicker Bert Auburn tied his career long to extend the lead.
Three false-start penalties weren’t enough to slow down a methodical Kansas State drive that closed the third quarter with a 26-yard touchdown pass against suddenly soft coverage by Texas. The eight-play, 75-yard drive by the Wildcats was the longest of the game in total plays and total yardage.
The Texas offense couldn’t get started thanks to a run staff, a false start, and Murphy’s inability to hit Mitchell open down the sideline while taking a big hit, then disaster struck on an attempted screen pass when Murphy threw the ball at a lineman and found a Kansas State defender instead for a massive turnover.
In a flashback to the Houston game, Kansas State hit a crosser on second down for a 12-yard touchdown pass and Texas was suddenly in danger of giving the game away.
With sophomore left tackle Kelvin Banks in the locker room after suffering an injury on the interception, junior right guard Hayden Conner moved to left tackle. And then another disaster hit Texas when Brooks fumbled on the second play of the drive on a second effort recovered by Kansas State at the 32-yard line of the Longhorns.
The Wildcats only needed one play to tie it, a touchdown pass that cooked sophomore cornerback Terrance Brooks in coverage. A bizarre point-after attempt by Kansas State included an offsides penalty on Texas and a snap that ended up in the hands of the place kicker and a tie game at 27-27.
A short kickoff by the Wildcats earned some field position gained back with a run-pass option to Mitchell for 12 yards, followed by another completion to Mitchell on the ensuing second down for 18 yards. On 3rd and 3, Brooks took a toss play for a tough conversion on the edge. Looking for a chunk play to Worthy, Murphy’s pass fell short. Brooks looked to have a positive gain on second down, but sophomore right guard DJ Campbell was called for holding. To get back into a third-and-manageable situation, Murphy completed a pass to Mitchell for 14 yards, but the crossing route to Worthy on third down came up short by several yards. Characteristically aggressive, Sarkisian went for it on fourth down and Murphy came through by finding Sanders over the middle for a huge 16-yard gain. Needing to navigate the red zone, Texas failed to convert, leading to a 34-yard field goal by Auburn to make the score 30-27.
The defense had a chance to put the Wildcats well behind the chains on a third-down hold, but Watts was called for a late hit out of bounds as Howard scrambled to give Kansas State first down. Reeling in the secondary, Texas gave up pass plays of 16 yards, 17 yards, and 17 yards to move into the red zone. Sorrell made a touchdown-saving tackle on a second-down tunnel screen close to the marker on second down. On a run by Howard, Texas stopped the Kansas State quarterback on third down to force a 27-yard field goal by the Wildcats that missed.
Texas took over with 1:43 remaining and Kansas State still holding all three timeouts. The Wildcats used their first after stopping Brooks for no gain. Brooks was able to find a narrow crease up the middle on second down, gaining seven yards and forcing Kansas State to use its second timeout. With Sanders hobbling and Brooks out, the Longhorns called a toss play to Baxter, who was stopped for a two-yard lose with 1:29 remaining. Under some pressure, Sanborn didn’t hit the punt particularly well — the ball only traveled 35 yards and bounced backwards when it hit, but Thompson was there to down it.
Kansas State started at its own 40-yard line, completing a swing pass for five yards, then a ball to the sidelines for six yards. The Texas defense finally forced an incompletion on the following pass attempt, a limited gain on a tunnel screen, and another incompletion with Howard under pressure, setting up a fourth down to decide whether Kansas State could stick in the game, which it did as Howard moved into field-goal range with an 18-yard completion to Brooks. After clocking the ball, Howard had to throw it away twice to send the place kicker onto the field again for a 45-yard attempt after a Texas timeout. Despite the issue on the point-after attempt and the miss from 27 yards, Chris Tennant came through to tie the game.
Kansas State won the toss, giving Texas to ball to start overtime, which started with Murphy throwing an incompletion on a run-pass option. When Brooks only gained one yard on second down, the Longhorns faced a 3rd and 9, another incompletion from Murphy. To save the drive and possibly the game, Auburn connected from 42 yards.
Immediately looking dangerous, Howard hit tight end Ben Sinnott over the middle for a 19-yard gain on first down. Texas stopped Howard on a run on first down, then deflected a pop pass on second down, and forced an incompletion on third down before Klieman kept his offense on the field for fourth down. Sarkisian called a timeout and the Longhorns forced an incompletion by Howard, who couldn’t find an open receiver on the game’s final play as Texas pulled out the win.