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And so, the show goes on: Texas must find purpose in playing hard at Kansas State

Longhorns eliminated from Big 12 race, coach on edge, players opting out but Texas still must battle in Manhattan

Texas is that touring rock band that’s performed all the big rooms in all the big cities. Now the Longhorns must fulfill their contract at these last two random outdoor festivals in Kansas.

That means playing just as hard two weekends in Manhattan and Lawrence as they did in Austin, Lubbock, Dallas and Stillwater this season.

Oh, sure, the notes won’t sound the same and some have already quit the band. But the music plays on, and so does the tour.

Saturday’s trip to Kansas State is a gut-check moment for many in burnt orange. Can you play just as hard knowing there’s no Big 12 championship at stake, only pride? Same is true next week in the regular-season finale at winless Kansas.

Kansas State's Wildcat mascot celebrates after a touchdown against visiting Texas in 2018. The Longhorns can expect a rude welcome again Saturday.

Texas (5-3, 4-3 Big 12) can still lock in a winning season by knocking off Kansas State (4-5, 4-4). It’s hard to sell that $40 souvenir T-shirt. It’s been a season not remotely satisfying, especially now that Texas coach Tom Herman’s job is in jeopardy.

“It’s unfortunate, and I would love to be competing for a championship, and that was always something that I wanted to do here,” senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “But I will never, I will never take my foot off the gas just because that's out of sight.”

Ehlinger said the Horns should play hard for anyone who has a touch point with the university.

“It’ll really show who loves the game of football for the game of football,” Ehligner said, “or who loves what the game of football brings them.”

Translation: Do you truly love the game, or do you just love wearing the uniform?

“They matter to me because this is my last ride,” defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham said. “This is my senior year. And I want to finish these two games and finish the ride, you know? I just want to be a part of the finish and leave on a good note.”

Herman’s status has been the main topic since Texas was eliminated from Big 12 title contention with last Friday’s 23-20 loss to Iowa State. UT officials have not made any final decision to change coaches, two sources told the American-Statesman.

All the internet and talk radio speculation has focused on Texas landing Urban Meyer, who is 187-32 in 17 seasons with a pair of national championships won at Florida and Ohio State. He’s currently doing TV work with Fox. 

Luring Meyer away from TV is no slam dunk, sources said, and there is no clear alterative as Plan B. If Texas decides to move on from Herman but can’t get Meyer, administrators could find themselves in a serious jam. Thus, it’s tricky. 

Sources said athletic director Chris Del Conte will be Texas’ point man on negotiations, not a UT System regent or even new UT President Jay Hartzell. That said, all parties would have to sign off on any final package presented to Meyer — or whomever Texas targets.

Texas coach Tom Herman tells his team to watch the clock late in the fourth quarter at Kansas State in 2018.

On Monday, Herman deftly stiff-armed all questions about his future. “I am absolutely and completely focused on getting our team ready to beat Kansas State and not worried about anything other than that,” he said.

Only two players were made available this week — Ehlinger and Graham. Both of them dodged questions about their coach’s future. “Honestly, I haven't thought about Coach Herman's situation at all,” Graham said. “That's not really for me to speak on or think about.”

Herman’s coordinators spoke up Wednesday. “I'm not naïve to the fact that these guys live on their phones," defensive coordinator Chris Ash admitted. Having been a fired head coach once himself, Ash knows the most important thing right now is a constant message coming from the coaching staff.

Control what you can control.

“I know (reporters) follow the program, but you’re not here every day. The sky is not falling inside this complex,” Ash said. “It’s really about having pride in your performance and being a pro and finishing what you started the right way. That’s what our guys have been focused on. 

“I don’t anticipate that changing, but again it’s 2020 — who knows?” he added.

Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said the players really have only two options. 

“You can get better, or you can gear it down. It’s either one or the other. And that’s life,” Yurcich said, morphing into a motivational speaker in the process. “If you lay it on the line and you came up short and your dreams get crushed, it makes it really, really hard.”

Still, Ash said he’s proud of what he’s seen this week. “It’s a joy to coach here because of those players' attitudes and their intensity and their focus and their desire to get better,” he said.

Left tackle Samuel Cosmi, a three-year starter, opted out of the final two regular-season games to start getting ready for the NFL draft. He’s projected anywhere from the middle to late first round or early second round.

The Horns rearranged the depth chart and now list sophomore Christian Jones at both right and left tackle. Freshman Andrej Karic and sophomore Reese Moore are listed as the backups at both spots. It’s possible that all three will play against K-State.

On defense, starting safety Caden Sterns also opted out. He’s projected to go much lower than Cosmi in the draft. Junior B.J. Foster, who briefly quit the team in September over a lack of playing time, is now listed as the starting strong safety. 

Of Texas’ defensive players, junior end Joseph Ossai probably has the strongest case to opt out. He’s expected to play this week and next. 

“There’s two things that people just need to understand happening in college football — recruiting deep commitments and opt-outs,” Ash said. “Regardless of the situation or how they came to that decision, I'm here to support our guys.”

Herman said this week that Ehlinger will start and lead the Longhorns these final two games. Backups Casey Thompson, Hudson Card and Ja’Quinden Jackson must wait for spring practice to battle it out for 2021. 

Saturday is another chance for freshman running back Bijan Robinson to get playing time. It’d be a good chance to get Jordan Whittington and Jake Smith more targets out wide, too.

Junior corners Josh Thompson and D’Shawn Jamison have both flashed this season. Every game is good experience for them. Jalen Green is likely out with an ankle injury. 

Kansas State has plenty of motivation, having lost on a game-ending field goal last week at Baylor. The Wildcats have been a different team since quarterback Skylar Thompson suffered an “upper body” injury in October. He had season-ending surgery.

But Texas should expect a rude welcome in Manhattan, whether the Horns want to be there or not.

“I think it tests your character is what it does,” Ash said. “I think we have really good character in this locker room, on this football team.”

What's at stake?

After last Friday's loss to Iowa State, which all but eliminated Texas from Big 12 title game hopes, and again on Monday, UT coach Tom Herman laid out several goals that are still important in these final three games of the season (including the bowl game). Among them:

• Securing as good a bowl invitation as possible.

• A winning record for the fourth straight year.

• Finishing with a .700 winning percentage, "much like the .714 winning percentage we had in '18," he said.

• Winning a fourth straight bowl game.

• Help Texas' 2021 and 2022 recruiting efforts.