No. 13 Iowa State 23, No. 17 Texas 20: ‘Wish it didn’t have to go this way’
In the end, after multiple last gasp passes fell incomplete and an inspired kick hooked left, Sam Ehlinger stood, then kneeled and ultimately jogged off the field alone.
The Texas quarterback hustled out of Royal-Memorial Stadium after watching his last home game go awry and the last flicker of a Big 12 championship get extinguished.
“Frustrated and confused,” Ehlinger said. “Wish it didn’t have to go this way.”
No. 13 Iowa State squeezed the home team’s optimism throughout the second half and then snuffed out two fourth-down gambles. Ehlinger tried to engineer another late-game comeback, but Cameron Dicker, the kicker, missed a game-ending 58-yard field goal as time expired.
No. 17 Texas' 23-20 loss Friday effectively eliminated the Longhorns from Big 12 title contention. Close, but not close enough. It’s been the same story at Texas for more than a decade now.
There are some mathematical ways the Longhorns can still backdoor their way into Arlington. But it would require some stumbling by Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Iowa State (7-2, 7-1) is now in the driver’s seat.
“The feeling of being eliminated,” cornerback Josh Thompson said, “it hurts a lot.”
The questions about coach Tom Herman’s future will begin in force even though the Horns (5-3, 4-3 Big 12) have two regular-season games left. Herman is 30-18 in four seasons and has three years left on his contract. Should Texas force a change, he would be owed $15 million in guaranteed money.
“That’s not for me to decide,” Herman said when asked if he’s still the right man for the job. “I feel like where we have the program right now, compared to where it was when we took over, the future is very bright.”
Actually, the future is rather murky considering the 2021 season will have a new quarterback under center. This was supposed to be Ehlinger’s year. He was up-and-down at times, but in crunch time Friday, he was at full throttle.
Texas had a 20-13 lead after Iowa State reached UT's 5-yard line but settled for a 29-yard field goal. Defensive tackle Keondre Coburn rode quarterback Brock Purdy to the sideline and eventually wrangled him down as “Snacks” got a monster sack.
Then, D’Shawn Jamison pumped life in the crowd of 16,555 with a 39-yard kickoff return to midfield. Texas had the lead and its best starting field position of the day. But the Horns went three-and-out and out trotted Dicker, who was doing double duty as Texas' punter.
On fourth-and-8 from the Iowa State 48, Dicker faked the punt and connected with Cade Brewer. However, the Cyclones stopped Brewer for a five-yard gain and got the turnover on downs at midfield.
“The thinking on the fake punt was that we’d worked it for two weeks, and knew it was there,” Herman said. “You know, they did a good job defending Cade.”
Coach Matt Campbell’s team suddenly had good field position. Purdy found Charlie Kolar for a 44-yard catch, moving the Cyclones to the Horns’ 13-yard line. That set the stage for another field goal, this one a 38-yarder as Iowa State drew within four, 20-16.
A Texas defense that had held up fairly well badly needed the offense to string together some first downs. Ehlinger, who was trying deep throws all day, hit Brennan Eagles for a 15-yard gain and then ran for gains of six and three himself. He found Jake Smith tight-roping the sideline for 30 yards, then he ran for 10 more.
Finally, Texas reached a critical juncture, both in the game and, ironically, the Herman era: fourth-and-2 from the Iowa State 13, up 20-16 with 8:11 left. Ehlinger took a shotgun snap and tried to run himself. He was tripped just before reaching the first-down marker.
If coaches hammer home anything, it’s that you do not stick the ball out — as running back Keaontay Ingram learned against TCU at the goal line. But if Ehlinger had stuck the ball out while falling, maybe he gets the first down.
“We faked the inside zone handoff and tried to kick out with the running back,” Ehlinger said. “Something was on my feet immediately.”
After the two teams traded punts, Iowa State started up again with 3:09 remaining. After two Purdy completions and a Breece Hall run, the Cyclones had second-and-1 at the Texas 3-yard line. In that scenario, it might have best to let Iowa State score intentionally to get the ball back, and Herman said “we talked about it.”
It became a moot point when Hall punched it in, giving Iowa State its first lead of the day. Texas would get the ball back with 1:25 remaining, as all eyes turned to Ehlinger.
A 13-yard completion to Jordan Whittington gave Texas a chance. Ehlinger’s seven-yard run moved the ball to the Iowa State 36. But on third-and-10, Ehlinger took a sack with three seconds left. It was up to Dicker.
Dicker hit a 57-yard field goal against Rice last season. But that was at NRG Stadium, an indoor venue with perfect conditions. This was a 58-yard attempt with swirling winds on a gloomy day.
The kick looked terrific en route. But the ball drifted left and tailed off toward the end. A kick that looked good was suddenly no good. Iowa State players exploded onto the field in celebration while Texas players froze in place.
Ehlinger finished with 298 passing yards compared to Purdy’s 312. Eagles led the Longhorns with five catches for 142 yards. But that wasn’t as impressive as Kolar’s six receptions for 131 yards. In the end, Friday’s numbers don’t really matter.
All Texas fans care about is four years of Herman and no Big 12 titles. Four-and-no.
“Heartbroken for our seniors,” Herman said. “Heartbroken for the rest of the team, but still understand that we’ve got a job to do. And that job is to prepare to try to 1-0 in Manhattan, Kansas in eight days.”
A jubilant Hall said it’s about “five-star culture versus five-star players.” At Texas, it’s never about the talent. School officials are left wondering about the coaching.
As Ehlinger said, “That’s a million-dollar question everybody’s been trying to figure out the last 10 years.”