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AUSTIN — Texas forced West Virginia into a season-high four turnovers, including three in the third quarter, but turnovers do not put points on the scoreboard.
Texas’ inability to change takeaways into more than seven points and its season-low point total of 20 helped the No. 11 Mountaineers leave Austin with a 24-20 victory.
Texas remained in the game until the very end, when they received the ball down four on its own 12 with 1:25 left. UT had a chance at a Hail Mary at the end to win the game, but Shane Buechele’s ball intended for Collin Johnson fell to the ground. Following a replay review that confirmed the result, Texas left the field in defeat while the Mountaineers ran to their fans to celebrate.
Although Johnson could not bring in one more touchdown catch on the final play, he still hauled in seven balls for 68 yards and one 20-yard score in the third quarter that brought the game to within the final margin of four. Fellow receiver Dorian Leonard had the biggest day of the WRs bringing in seven catches for a career-high 125 yards.
Even with the stat sheet filled up, Texas never gave the scoreboard a reason to light up following turnovers.
“We had our opportunities and made enough mistakes on offense and defense and the kicking game that, with a game like that as close as it is, we just got to find a way to win it,” Strong said. “It was there for us to go get. We didn’t get it.”
The opportunities were there today, and they have also been there many times this season. Since Strong took over control of the defense from Vance Bedford, his team has only been able to score 24 points on 16 turnovers.
“I just know at some point we’ve got to hit it,” Strong said. “We didn’t hit it today. Defensively we were able to get some turnovers, and we gave up some on offense, but you like to capitalize. That was a good defensive football team. I don’t want to take anything away from them, but it was there for us and we just didn’t take advantage of it.”
Buechele set career highs with 318 passing yards, 31 completions, 48 attempts and 44 rushing yards, including a 10-yard scoring scamper in the second quarter.
Although the stat line was impressive, it could have looked disastrous. Several times throughout the course of the game, Buechele telegraphed throws that were nearly intercepted. Several of them bounced of Mountaineer defenders’ hands and made their way to the ground. After the game, Buechele complimented the WVU defense.
“I think our offensive line did a good job picking some of that stuff up,” Buechele said. “I think maybe that was the game plan, I don’t know. They were a real physical defense and it showed.”
Buechele’s offensive coordinator, Sterlin Gilbert, expressed a similar sentiment about the Mountaineers.
“We knew they were the best defense that we’ve seen this year, and those guys just do a really good job,” Gilbert said. “They’re activating, they’re applying pressure, but at the end we saw something come at us today and we just have to execute and be able to be efficient.”
The Mountaineers were able to “limit” D’Onta Foreman to only 167 yards on 35 carries. More importantly for Dana Holgorsen’s defense, they kept Foreman out of the end zone. Towards the end of the game, Foreman appeared to really labor for yards and in blocking, but continued to give max effort.
“They’re really physical,” Foreman said. “I feel like they had a good defense. I can’t really say why we didn’t put up the points. We had a lot of great drives and we just didn’t finish. I know that was a good defense but I can’t say that they stopped us. We really hurt ourselves.”
Foreman’s 167 yards allowed him to tie Earl Campbell’s record for consecutive games with 100 yards at 11. Foreman was honored with an announcement during the game, and even received congratulations from the man whose record he broke.
“He told me that he hopes I break it next week,” Foreman said “He also said if someone breaks my record to come back and congratulate him when he does it. I told him I definitely would.”
Texas’ defense was able to limit WVU to totals under their season average for both scoring offense and total offense, even without Malik Jefferson for much of the game, who was forced to leave after sustaining a head injury.
Although they played well, the team was struck by a difficult emotional situation prior to the game. Senior Tim Cole’s father reportedly collapsed as the team was walking into the stadium during pre-game festivities.
“Tim Cole’s father had an issue and I think now he’s in the ICU,” Strong said. “We told Tim – actually told the whole team before we played.”
Strong took a different approach to the beginning of the game, winning the toss and electing to put his offense on the field first. It paid off, putting three points on the board early with a 27-yard field goal from Trent Domingue.
West Virginia responded with a field goal of its own, giving the game a seemingly normal start with both teams feeling each other out. The next series, things quickly got turned on their head. Foreman fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, giving the ball to the Mountaineers on the 17-yard line.
Luckily for Texas, Kris Boyd and Anthony Wheeler made sure the ‘Eers could not take advantage of the short field, as both stripped the ball away from Justin Crawford.
Boyd recovered the fumble, setting Texas up for a three and out.
West Virginia would be the first team to reach the end zone, capping a 9-play, 66-yard drive with a strong 8-yard run from Kennedy McKoy. Texas would respond with a three and out, and West Virginia would take advantage of the UT’s offensive inability to get into the end zone.
Making one of the best plays of the season, Ka’Raun White hauled in a 29-yard pass from Skyler Howard even after being interfered with by Boyd. The play finished a quick 6-play, 70-yard drive. With a stop and another score, West Virginia could have taken control of the game.
“You look at a young team,” Strong said. “It’s very easy, like I said, in the past it could have gotten ugly, and it didn’t get ugly. We just continued to hang in there.”
Texas turned to two of the most reliable parts of its offense, Foreman and Leonard. A pass to Leonard got the drive going, and was followed up by a long Foreman run. Texas faced third and two from the Mountaineer 10 and with everyone expecting Foreman to get the ball, Buechele kept it and ran untouched into the corner of the end zone to bring it within one score.
The Longhorns dominated time of possession to end the second quarter. They went on a 21-play, 84-yard drive that included two fourth down conversions on the feet of Foreman, rather than using the sputtering 18-Wheeler package. A third fourth down conversion from the WVU two that would have likely been the last play of the half was folded in favor of a Domingue field goal to make it 17-13 heading into halftime.
“What I wanted to do was to try to get it to one,” Strong said. “I think we were down four. Just try to get it to one when we go in. We hit the field goal, it was 17 to 13 and I just didn’t want to take points away from us. If you don’t get it, then you’re second guessing yourself.”
Gilbert put it a different way.
“There were a couple conversions and we just decided that was what was best at that point in the game.”
Texas third quarter consisted of three interceptions, with two from senior Dylan Haines and the other from sophomore P.J. Locke. Haines now is tied for fifth in school history with 13 career interceptions. For Locke, it was his second pick of the season. Although the Texas defense held WVU to only seven points in the third, Texas could only match them on the scoreboard in the third quarter.
Texas’ next chance at bowl eligibility is in Lawrence next week against the Kansas Jayhawks. That is where Strong’s focus currently is, even with the pressure continuing to mount on his job.
“I can’t worry about that, and I really don’t worry about that,” Strong said. “I just worry about the next game. I have a really good group of guys, and I know they’re going to play for me. They’re going to battle. They’re going to give everything they’ve got.”