Those Texas- Oklahoma tickets just got a helluva lot cheaper.
Texas' 41-21 home loss Saturday against Kansas State, coupled with the Sooners' 27-24 last-second upset at Colorado, not only diminished the Big 12's annual marquee match-up next weekend but, consider this: the loser in Dallas falls to 0-2 in league play and, consequently, into also-ran status. But the Longhorns had enough to ponder after a 20-point home loss that pretty much exposed every shortcoming the 2007 program currently has.
Three touchdowns on three Wildcat returns (an 89-yard punt return, an 85 yard KO return, a 41-yard INT return for TD) were the difference-makers -- even against a Texas team with a defense that still tackles poorly and runs nowhere fast with its sideways rushing offense.
"Turnovers and the kicking game was the difference in this one. Period," a somber Texas coach Mack Brown said. "We're not used to losing around here, especially not like that."
QB Colt McCoy suffered not only a four-interception outing but also a blow to the head late in the second quarter. He left the field just before intermission, returned for the second half and later became sick on the sideline late in the game. McCoy was being evaluated during the post-game press conference and was unavailable for questions. Though McCoy eclipsed the 200-yard mark for the sixth straight game (19-of-39 for 200 yards), Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis was asked a couple of times during the post-game press conference if he thought his emphasis on a short passing game contributed to the deflected balls.
"It could have," Davis said, adding that every aspect of the offense would be evaluated before returning to practice. McCoy is a gamer and as tough as they come. But he's a slightly-undersized QB (6-3, 210) who's going to suffer his share of batted balls. The jury is still out, however, on whether McCoy can consistently complete the deep passes. Texas' top two vertical threats (Limas Sweed, Billy Pittman) totaled 22 yards on four catches. Part of it was K-State DBs making outstanding plays on Sweed, wrestling the ball away after McCoy put it in his hands. Other times, McCoy puts too much air under the deep balls and just misses on long completions. However, Davis suggested that he may have given players too much latitude, or too much responsibility, with the offense.
"Colt played hard and had some miscommunication, obviously," Davis said. "We do a lot things based on the receivers doing things based on what they see and what the quarterback sees. That's probably my fault, I probably gave them too much and allowed too much flexibility within the system."
Davis' comments, though vague, probably should be interpreted as his assuming responsibility, rather than blaming players, for the breakdowns.
"Everybody is real disappointed right now," Brown said, "so everybody feels like it's their fault."
With plenty of fault to go around, the dagger may have been Jordy Nelson's 89-yard punt return for TD with 1:55 remaining in the third quarter. At that juncture, Texas trailed 27-21 after battling back from a 10-point halftime deficit. Nelson's TD return was his second score of the day and put Texas in a 13-point hole. On the very next play, McCoy was picked for the fourth time with SS Courtney Herndon's INT at the Texas 37.
"Every time the kids would come back," Brown said, "Kansas State would do something to take it away."
And take it away. And take it away. It's something the Texas defense failed to do all afternoon.
"The biggest thing we've got to do is create more turnovers ourselves," Defensive Coordinator Duane Akina said. "We've got to evaluate where we are on special teams because we can't give up those kinds of chunks in a game."
Three of McCoy's INTs came on tipped-balls, putting the Wildcats in prime real estate on their own 46, the Texas 39 and the Texas 30,
"It puts you in a difficult situation," NT Derek Lokey said. "It's hard for a defense to stop an offense that has a short field even one time, but to do it three, four or five times in a row is almost impossible. I think the defense was pretty resilient as far as that goes, but we've got to do some things better."
The defense's 'To Do' list includes wrapping up, taking better angles and forcing turnovers.
"We did miss some tackles," DT Frank Okam said, "but the guys were out there trying real hard. Sometimes we try so hard that we lose sight of fundamentals."
Texas managed 113 yards on 32 carries while the Big 12's leading rusher (Jamaal Charles) was held to 72 yards on 17 totes. Granted, K-State entered the game boasting the nation's No. 9 defense, limiting foes to 68.0 rushing ypg. Even so, Texas' pass-first offense still cannot pound the ball when it wants to against quality competition.
"It (the running game) wasn't very good," Brown said, "and when you get behind like we did it makes it worse."
Overall, Kansas State played more physical, with more intensity and was more fundamentally sound than Texas in every facet of the game. And they did it with players who, across the board, are less talented than the ones wearing Burnt Orange. That comes back to coaching. (SLB Ian Campbell will certainly be playing on Sundays this time next year; rangy QB Josh Freeman has all the physical tools, but is Jekyl-Hyde inconsistent. However, he saves his best outings for Texas. Said Wildcat coach Ron Prince: "Texas is like the New York Yankees. Everybody gives them their very best every week.")
On Saturday, Texas played more like the New York Mets. The Horns have dropped three straight conference games for the first time in the Mack Brown era. Two of those losses, of course, are to Kansas State. The 'Cats now sport a 4-2 mark against Texas since the formation of the Big 12 Conference. Texas has not lost a conference home-opener since those darn 'Cats came to Austin in 1999 and upended the Horns, 35-17.
"We haven't played them well since we've been here," Brown said. "It's a tough series."
If it's any consolation to McCoy, former QB Major Applewhite's worst outings came against K-State; he finished his otherwise illustrious collegiate career with an 0-2 mark against the 'Cats. Yet, it's apparent that all those "fixable" inconsistencies that have dogged Texas during its three outings (in every facet of the game) are still ever-present. It reinforces what Brown has said all along: this year's team has very, very little margin for error. The type of performance Saturday gets Texas beat in every remaining game this season, with the possible exception of Baylor and Iowa State.
"We just have to do the best we can do to get rid of this one in 24 hours like we do when we win," Brown concluded.
One positive development was that coaches trust backup QB John Chiles to figure into the offense, albeit in limited fashion, as a potential change of pace. It was probably as obvious to fans as it was to K-State that Chiles was going to be on the receiving end of that double-pass play, resulting in a TFL. He got nary a block from a WR on that one but netted 26 yards on seven carries. He'll be a weapon as the season develops. Horn fans can be heartened by the progress of backup linebackers Roddrick Muckelroy (seven tackles, including a vicious special teams stick) and Jared Norton (six tackles, including one six-yard TFL).
K-State drew first blood and made it look easy. Freeman hit all six of his passes for 59 yards on the march, including the four-yard scoring toss to WR Jordy Nelson. That capped a ridiculously efficient 11-play, 80-yard opening drive, giving the visitors a 7-0 lead 4:31 into the ballgame.
Texas answered with a 15-play, 68-yard march and Chiles had a direct hand in the scoring drive. Chiles checked in on 1st-and-10 from the 41 and kept for 11. The freshman then lined up in the slot and collected a nine-yard reception from McCoy. FL Nate Jones' eight-yard reception out of an empty set gave the Horns 1st-and-goal from the three. Texas stared down a 4th-and-goal from the one. No quarterback sneak this time. The option right toss scored Vondrell McGee behind TE Peter Ullman's clearing block. The score was tied with 3:50 left in the opening frame.
First-Team All-Conference SLB Ian Campbell stepped in front of a pass intended for Billy Pittman and returned it 41 yards for the pick-six. Texas responded with an eight-play, 84-yard drive. A scrambling McCoy connected with a leaping Quan Cosby in the back of the south end zone against double coverage for a highlight reel 26-yard TD reception. For a moment, all was right with the world.
That's when James Johnson collected Hunter Lawrence's 55-yard KO and returned it 85 yards untouched.
"Texas has the fastest man in the Big 12 (Jamaal Charles)," said Johnson, a Port Arthur teammate of Charles, "but I think, overall, we have better speed than Texas."
At this point, K-State trailed in nearly every offensive statistical category but owned the lead, courtesy of defensive and special teams' scores. Coby's 45-yard return set up shop for Texas at its own 49 with 2:06 remaining until intermission. But McCoy suffered his second pick of the quarter when MLB Justin Roland came up with the theft at the KSU 46. McCoy was knocked woozy and went to the locker room early. The defense held KSU to a 33-yard FG following a seven-play drive, but the Horns trailed 24-14.
A monsoon hit during the break, clearing half the stadium. Those who remained saw Texas go three-and-out on its opening series, followed by a 13-yard Trevor Gerland shank. KSU operated in prime real estate, starting from the Texas 48. But the defense salvaged the series, punctuated by DE Aaron Lewis' seven-yard sack of Freeman on third down.
The Horns moved the chains with three huge third-down conversions, each with McCoy running for his life on a slick field. Facing a 3rd-and-10, a scrambling McCoy outran a corner blitz, and, throwing across his body just as he was knocked out of bounds, hooked up with FL Jordan Shipley in the middle of the field. The catch-and-run generated 32 yards. Next time around, McCoy's 13-yard keeper kept the drive alive on 3rd-and-six from the 44. Then, on 3rd-and-14 from the 35, TE Jermichael Finley adjusted his quick-out and turned up field. His 29-yard reception set up 1st-and-goal from the six. Operating out of the 'I', it took Texas all of one play to cash it in with Charles' run up the gut. Texas narrowed the deficit, 24-21, following the 80-yard, 10-play drive.
Freeman passed his team to the 33, but a hard-charging DE Lamarr Houston helped blow up the bubble screen. Brooks Rossman's 51-yard FG fell short. The Cats, however, found new life when a diving RCB Justin McKinney came up with his squad's third INT of the afternoon on a tipped ball at the Texas 39. The defense forced a 44-yard Rossman FG following the six-play drive.
Justin Moore punted for Gerland and all Jordy Nelson did was return it 89 yards for the score. It was a 34-21 Wildcat lead with 1:55 left in the third quarter. On the first play from scrimmage, McCoy threw his fourth INT of the day, another tipped ball. SS Courtney Herndon collected the freebie at the 37, returning it seven yards. The eight-play, 30-yard drive was capped by Johnson's two-yard TD run to cap the scoring.
At that moment, the only Longhorn capable of orchestrating a super-human comeback was wearing street clothes on the sideline, having opted to forgo his senior season after guiding Texas to the 2005 national championship. Former QB Vince Young came calling Austin during the Tennessee Titans bye-week. His pregame pep talk was very brief and in retrospect, prophetic: "Play hard. And hang on to the ball."
The Horns, at least, played hard.