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Texas defense shuts down Kansas State, stops six-game skid on Roschon Johnson's career day

There’s a razor-slim chance the Horns could make a bowl game, even with a sub-.500 overall record.

For the first time since early October, the Longhorns were smiling on Friday. They were happy. Mostly, they looked relieved.

This season has been a hard slog. Losing six straight will take the starch out of anybody.

Friday’s 22-17 win over Kansas State was most likely the final game of the season. The Horns got a big performance from Roschon Johnson and made two massive fourth-down, fourth-quarter stops.

At this point, Texas is held together with duct tape and bubble gum, but it was good enough in front of 75,072 at Royal-Memorial Stadium. 

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Texas players celebrate running back Roschon Johnson's touchdown during Friday's 22-17 win over Kansas State. Johnson, playing in his final game as a Longhorn, rushed for a career-high 179 yards in the victory.

“I think it’s OK to smile,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We won a football game today, and it’s OK to smile and be happy for our players, our fans and everybody involved to win a ballgame at home.”

Sarkisian’s first season comes to a 5-7 finish. Texas was 3-6 in Big 12 play. The win over Kansas State (7-5, 4-5) eliminates the embarrassing possibility that UT could have finished dead last in the league standings.

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There’s a razor-slim chance the Horns could make a bowl game, even with a sub-.500 record. There are potentially four of 82 bowl slots remaining, if the right teams win or lose this weekend. But are the Horns healthy enough for another game? Would they even want to do it?

“I want a bowl game. We want a bowl game,” senior defensive end Jacoby Jones said. “I hope they’re hearing us. We do want to play in a bowl game.”

If Friday was indeed the end, it cleansed the palate. The prospect of taking a seven-game losing streak into the offseason — the longest since 1956 — would have been stomach-turning, indeed.

“I fought my tail off trying to make sure everything we did, guys didn’t just check out mentally and physically,” Johnson said. “So, I feel like going forward, every day, however we can get better, I'm going to try my best to do that.”

Johnson probably felt the full brunt of Longhorn Nation on his back. Both quarterbacks Casey Thompson and Hudson Card were banged up in last week’s loss at West Virginia. Sarkisian said the coaches implemented new wildcat plays specifically for Johnson during the week. The coaches weren’t sure they’d have a quarterback at all.

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Texas players and mascot Hook 'Em pose for photos after Friday's 22-17 win over Kansas State. The Longhorns finished their first season under head coach Steve Sarkisian with a 5-7 regular-season record.

On Friday morning, Card was scratched with a high ankle sprain, one that will not require surgery, and Thompson was cleared to start. But the game plan focused on Johnson.

Johnson finished with 179 yards on 31 carries, both career highs. Thompson lined up out wide at times and swore he could catch a pass, even with his busted right thumb injury. “No, he can’t catch my heat,” Johnson said with a laugh.

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Many probably forget that Johnson came to UT from Port Neches-Groves as a quarterback. He only moved to running back under former coach Tom Herman when the Horns had depth issues. He did it for the good of the team. The team definitely needed him Friday.

“I would say to a man, every guy in that locker room respects No. 2. He’s a warrior,” Sarkisian said. “The only way he knows how to demand more of others is to give more of himself.”

It wasn’t just the quarterback. The Horns knew they’d be coming in shorthanded in multiple spots. Sarkisian announced before the game that linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, UT’s leading tackler, was out along with Card. Luke Brockermeyer, another starting linebacker, was ruled out midweek.

Texas wide receiver Xavier Worthy holds on to the ball after an awkward landing on a tackle while making a reception Friday. The freshman was trying to catch Jordan Shipley's school record of 13 receiving touchdowns in a season but was held out of the end zone and finished with 12.

As the first half progressed, trainers were running onto the field almost nonstop. Defensive tackle Keondre Coburn, guards Tope Imade and Junior Angilau, defensive tackle Moro Ojomo and receiver Xavier Worthy all had to be helped off. Officials even sent Thompson off the field late in the first half to be checked after a rough hit from K-State’s Daniel Green.

Playing with one able-bodied quarterback, Sarkisian got creative and leaned on the wildcat right from the start. Texas ran the wildcat four times on its opening possession and got 24 yards en route to a 7-0 lead.

The wildcat kept working. Johnson had a 16-yard gain out to spark another push. Thompson, who threw an interception into almost triple coverage earlier, came back with a pinpoint pass to super senior Cade Brewer for a 10-yard score in the northeast corner. But in true 2021 fashion, Cameron Dicker, the kicker, watched his extra point ricochet off the left upright.

Those wishing to keep the defensive coaching staff intact had their mettle tested on K-State’s next possession. 

Backup quarterback Will Howard, starting in place of the injured Skylar Thompson, raced through the line for a 71-yard score. Credit D’Shawn Jamison for trying to dive and punch the ball out. But B.J. Foster’s pursuit angle and lack of effort the final 20 yards was cringeworthy.

Contrast Foster’s effort with that of Jones, who missed the last five games with a foot injury. Jones showed no quit on a second-and-4 play just after halftime. He nearly lost his balance but kept moving to bring down Phillip Brooks for a 10-yard loss. David Gbenda came flying in for a sack on third down. 

Texas tight end Cade Brewer jumps to make a touchdown catch during Friday's win over Kansas State. It was the third touchdown catch of the season for the super senior playing his final game.

“I didn't love our effort by a couple of our players, quite candidly,” Sarkisian said of Howard’s long score. “I think we got the kind of the right guys in there that were playing hard.”

Texas had a 19-17 lead going into the fourth quarter. Kansas State faced fourth-and-1 from its own 30-yard line. Ojomo swallowed up K-State’s Deuce Vaughn for no gain. Texas collected a 22-yard field goal off the turnover as Dicker passed Phil Dawson for the most made field goals in Texas history.

The Wildcats got it back and faced another big moment — fourth-and-1 from the Texas 17. This time, it was Coburn jamming things up at the line and stopping Howard for a turnover on downs with 4:03 left.

Pete Kwiatkowski’s unit has taken a lot of grief this season, and much of it rightfully so. Texas will likely finish the season eighth in the Big 12 in run defense and seventh in pass defense. Why corners are giving so much cushion on third-and-short situations remains a mystery. 

But the Horns made two massive stops when they needed them.

Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian smiles while talking to other coaches during a timeout Friday. The Longhorns won 22-17. "As tough as it's been over the last couple months, to have a last ballgame go like that for them and some veteran players make some plays in this game, you know, that's awesome," Sarkisian said.

Johnson closed it out with six rushing attempts that drained the clock. When it was over, players lingered on the field a little longer after “The Eyes of Texas.” Fans stayed a few extra minutes. Coaches took photos with their position groups afterward.

The end is never welcome. This win certainly was.

“As tough as it’s been over the last couple months, to have a last ballgame go like that for them and some veteran players make some plays in this game,” Sarkisian said, “you know, that’s awesome.”

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