Even though the Longhorns held a commanding three-score lead with just over two minutes of play remaining, many members of the defensive squad stood frozen in the middle of the end zone as Iowa State running back David Montgomery trotted in for a touchdown.
The touchdown would prove meaningless to the raucous crowd of 102,498 fans in attendance on Saturday night as Texas upended the red-hot Iowa State Cyclones, 24-10, soon after. But regardless of the insurmountable lead the Longhorns had already put on the scoreboard, many players were unsatisfied after allowing the score.
“We’re competitive guys. When we hold somebody to three points, we want to keep them there,” defensive end Charles Omenihu said after the win. “It wasn’t a good feeling at all. We’re going correct that and make sure that’s not something that repeats itself.”
Through their previous three games, the Longhorn defense allowed an average of 38 points per contest to opposing offenses. Then, the Texas coaching staff decided a change was needed. During Tuesday’s practice, the Longhorns decided to go full pads — an unusual exercise for them — to ramp up the unit’s physicality.
The results of that practice came to fruition Saturday when Texas held its opposition to just 210 total yards while recording six sacks and nine total tackles for a loss of yards.
Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy especially struggled with the defensive pressure, going just 10-for-23 through the air and passing for a measly 130 yards.
“I love it when we get after the quarterback,” Omenihu said. “When you make the quarterback feel uneasy and antsy, like, what can they really do? They can’t do nothin’.”
Texas’ enhanced physicality was noticeable from the opening drive as the defense quickly smothered any chance for the Cyclones to get points, allowing just 12 yards over six plays.
But the excited crowd shifted into a nervous bunch as quarterback Sam Ehlinger left the field right before halftime with an AC contusion. The sophomore never returned to action, making a strong defensive performance all the more important for Texas.
“Really proud of our defense,” head coach Tom Herman said. “This is a defense that has taken a lot of hits lately. A lot of people thought we had forgotten how to play defense or how to coach defense.”
Herman continued, “I can’t credit them enough for the way they responded.”
While Texas secured its first eight-win season since 2013 with the victory, it also took a major step toward gaining a spot in the Big 12 Championship after Oklahoma State defeated West Virginia earlier in the day. Now, the only thing now standing between the Longhorns and a trip to Arlington is next week’s game against Kansas.
“It’s surreal, my freshman and sophomore year, I’d be fighting to clinch a bowl game right now,” safety P.J. Locke III said. “We need one more win, per se. Just to be in this situation to where we pretty much control our own destiny, it’s unbelievable. It’s an unbelievable feeling, I can’t explain it.”
Texas will likely enter its next matchup as a heavily favored team, but with Kansas scoring 40 points against No. 6 Oklahoma, the path to a conference championship won’t pave itself.
“They’re a good team, don’t let anyone fool you,” defensive end Breckyn Hager said. “We’re going on the road. It’s going to be a tough game. I will do everything I can as a captain to make sure these young guys understand how important this is because we can’t let one detail slip because we are this close, and the only thing that matters is beating Kansas.”