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Eyes on Texas: After back-to-back losses, will this season end up more like 2018 or 2014?

Lil’Jordan Humphrey saved the Longhorns’ season in 2018, igniting the team’s run to the Big 12 title game. Who can do it now?

All this talk about Texas’ psyche, the we’re-so-close team mentality, rock climbing videos and whether Baylor’s home stadium is tough is phooey, really.

From a motivational standpoint, all that rigmarole rates a three. Out of 10. And there’ll be no revisionist history, massaging or editing of that answer, either.

This weekend, it’s simple. It’s a bottom-line business. Are the Longhorns going to make a play or not?

Been here before, haven’t we? Numerous times.

“When you have two losses in the Big 12, you’re never out of the race,” the Texas receiver said. “I think we’re in a great position to win out.”

The tight end didn’t give a bleep about the past, only the future. “We have players, and good players,” he said. “And that's one thing we have to keep reminding ourselves. We have a lot of talent in our room.”

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John Harris and Geoff Swaim truly believed Texas still had a chance to reach the conference title game in 2014, even after back-to-back conference losses against Oklahoma and Baylor. 

“Somebody has to stand up and start making a play,” coach Charlie Strong said at the time.

The Longhorns finished the year 6-7 with a loss in the Texas Bowl.

Texas coach Tom Herman experienced the highs and lows of the Red River Rivalry with Oklahoma in the 2018 season. The Longhorns edged the Sooners at the Cotton Bowl in October, but OU had the last word in a 39-27 win in the Big 12 championship game at AT&T Stadium in December.

Optimism buoyed Texas' new coach after back-to-back conference losses in 2017. “This one's really close,” Tom Herman said in late October that year. “And I don’t know when we’re going to break through that barrier.” They didn’t. Those Horns finished 7-6 with a win in the Texas Bowl.

The next year, back-to-back Big 12 losses to Oklahoma State and West Virginia pushed Texas to the brink. That feeling of here-we-go-again was everywhere. “I think for whatever reason, we haven’t cut it loose at times,” Herman said after the infamous Will Grier/Horns Down loss to the Mountaineers. “That’s on us to figure out why.”

Hard to forget Dana Holgorsen’s hot mic moment that day. While yelling at an official, the West Virginia coach screamed, “Our guys have bigger balls than their guys! Get the (expletive) outta here!”

How should one respond when your, um, manhood is challenged?

Well, someone made a play.

Lil’Jordan Humphrey saved Texas’ season the next week in Lubbock with a jump-ball touchdown catch in the northeast corner of Jones AT&T Stadium. Texas won a 41-34 thriller.

Texas wide receiver Lil'Jordan Humphrey lunges for the end zone to score the winning touchdown against Texas Tech in Lubbock in 2018. It preserved UT's chance to make the Big 12 title game.

The next week, the UT scoreboard operator put the Oklahoma State game on the Royal-Memorial Stadium video board. Everybody there watched as the Cowboys lost their Big 12 game of the week — “in freakin’ high definition,” Herman said — giving Texas new life in the Big 12 race. 

Over the next three-plus hours against No. 18 Iowa State, Collin Johnson and Humphrey took turns making big catches. The defense stiffened. Texas captured a 24-10 win and had its mojo back.

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“We put ourselves in position to have a shot,” transfer running back Tre Watson said afterward. “We’ve got to finish. Finish the journey.”

Next came Texas’ first trip back to Kansas since the disastrous journey there in 2016. The Longhorns turned in a no-fuss, no-muss 24-17 win. “I can tell by the people on the team we’ve got a lot more in the tank,” defensive end Charles Omenihu said. 

The quarterback held firm to his constitution. “I don’t think we have reached our potential at all,” Sam Ehlinger said after the Kansas win. “I think we’re still limiting ourselves. We’re still stopping ourselves, and there are things I know we’re capable of doing.”

What happened in Arlington? Credit Oklahoma for making winning plays in the Big 12 championship game, like a corner blitz for a safety and Grant Calcaterra’s one-handed touchdown grab in a 39-27 victory. 

“We had a chance, and the play was on me. I didn’t make the play, and they scored,” Texas safety B.J. Foster recalled earlier this month, reliving the experience with reporters. “I didn’t make a play in that moment.”

Oklahoma wide receiver Marvin Mims celebrates a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter of the Sooners' victory over Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas this month. The Longhorns have lost two straight games heading into this week's trip to Baylor.

Foster said he put it behind him. The Angleton product was a freshman in 2018 and had lots of football ahead. He has played in 18 games and started 10 over the past two seasons.

The point is this game is about making plays. Period.

With five regular-season games left, Texas (4-3, 2-2 Big 12) has plenty of football ahead. Saturday’s game at No. 16 Baylor (6-1, 3-1) is merely the next step.

Will it be an uphill climb with a questionable offensive line and little defensive pressure? Absolutely. But can anyone say the Horns are totally out of it? Not after watching Texas build up double-digit second-half leads against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The only problem was an ability to finish.

Texas running back Bijan Robinson and quarterback Casey Thompson celebrate a first-half touchdown against Rice in September. The Longhorns have been brought down to earth with two straight losses.

Players must make winning plays at winning time. When Xavier Worthy is hauling in a 31-yard touchdown pass with 1 minute, 31 seconds remaining, the defense can’t let OU’s Kennedy Brooks go untouched into the end zone for a 33-yard game-winner. When the defense essentially lets Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders score to get the ball back with 2:18 remaining, the offense must properly execute a two-minute drill.

It’s possible this could be 2018 all over again. But it could just as easily be 2014 or 2017, too. 

“If I can remember, the (2018) team stayed close to each other,” senior Josh Thompson said Tuesday. “Basically what we’re doing now.”

He said the whole team is simply trying to stay level-headed.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m definitely loving this year’s vibe,” he said. “Our focus right now is the Baylor game. We’re going to go step by step, game by game, and that’ll be it.”

Everything gets overcomplicated these days. But it’s simple. Somebody must make a play.

If not, Houston is lovely in late December.

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS

Saturday's game

Texas at No. 18 Baylor, 11 a.m., ABC, 104.9