AUSTIN — After getting run over for three games, Johnathan Gray and Texas finally returned the favor.
The Longhorns’ defense entered the game allowing 308.7 rushing yards per game, including a program-worst 550 yards on the ground to BYU two weeks ago that cost Manny Diaz his job as defensive coordinator. At some point following last week’s embarrassing 44-23 loss to No. 25 Mississippi, however, Texas rediscovered its defensive pride and Gray played like the five-star recruit he was, helping the Longhorns potentially save their season with a 31-21 home win against Kansas State.
“The line did a great job of blocking and opened some holes, some big, open holes,” said Gray, who finished with 141 yards on 28 carries. “As backs, our job is to hit (the holes), and that is what we did tonight.”
With criticism of the team, and especially head coach Mack Brown, reaching a boiling point, the Longhorns put together a complete game for the first time this season. Texas produced 452 total yards of offense, and limited the Wildcats to 115 rushing yards to help end a five-game losing streak to the Wildcats.
“I’m proud of the offensive line, proud of Johnathan Gray … and the defense played their hearts out,” Texas head coach Mack Brown said.
But the Longhorns (2-2, 1-0) still suffered a couple setbacks.
Former Belton standout quarterback David Ash, who missed last week’s game with concussion-like symptoms, only played the first half against Kansas State (2-2, 0-1). Ash, who completed 14 of 25 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown, did not return after halftime due to a head injury.
“Doctors made the decision,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t make a decision to take him out of the game.”
With Ash’s night over, Case McCoy opened the second half under center after Texas recovered a fumble on Kansas State’s opening possession. The Longhorns used a fake punt to convert a first down and Gray ran for a milestone 15-yard touchdown with 9:29 left in the third quarter.
The run gave Gray the first 100-yard rushing game of the season for Texas, while also making him the first Texas player to run for triple digits against the Wildcats since 1942. Additionally, it was the first 100-yard, two-touchdown game of his career.
“Backs have to get in a rhythm,” Gray said. “Our line gave us a great chance, and those chances became opportunities.”
Kansas State answered early in the fourth quarter to cut Texas’ lead to 10 points, 24-14, but McCoy marched the Longhorns down the field and Malcolm Brown extended the lead back to double digits on a short touchdown run of less than a yard with 9:41 remaining.The Wildcats added another touchdown two minutes later, but Texas secured the victory with a pair of defensive stops in the final two minutes.
“This was really important for us to win tonight,” Brown said. “We wanted to start the Big 12 off right.”
Following their recent trend, the Longhorns offense started slowly.
Nevertheless, thanks to an early defensive stand, Texas struck first after fumbling the opening kickoff and going three-and-out on its first possession. On their second drive, Ash endured a pair of big hits and a lost fumble by Gray in the red zone was overturned before the Longhorns settled for a 27-yard field goal by Anthony Fera.
Despite being skewered over the past few weeks, Texas’ defense produced another stop against the Wildcats, who had quarterback Daniel Sams in to provide an additional rushing threat. The stop immediately yielded points as Ash capped off a three-play, 84-yard drive with a 63-yard touchdown pass to Kendall Sanders, giving Texas a 10-0 lead with 2:16 remaining in the first quarter.
The Longhorns defense continued to defy its critics, and the stops continued coming as Texas forced a third consecutive punt, setting up another explosive scoring drive by Texas that included a 24-yard return by Jaxon Shipley, a 16-yard run by Gray and 31-yard pass to Malcolm Brown. But after a personal foul negated Brown’s outburst, second-and-35 proved too much to overcome, and Texas punted the ball away.
Yet another punt by the Wildcats led to a drive fueled by big plays from Ash and Gray, who accounted for all 48 yards before Shipley hauled in a 10-yard pass to convert fourth-and-2. Two plays later, Gray ran in for a 21-yard touchdown to increase the Longhorns’ lead to 17-0 three minutes beforethe end of the second quarter.
Kansas State needed less than two minutes, however, to finally break through Texas’ defense, covering 82 yards in four plays, with running back and former Waco Midway star John Hubert bouncing off would-be tacklers for a 15-yard score to pull the Wildcats within 10 points, 17-7, going into halftime.