AUSTIN, Texas — After making a key defensive play in the end zone late in the game, Chris Brown flexed.
Texas’ senior defensive back had just snuffed out a fourth-down pass to West Virginia’s Ali Jennings. It wound up being the Mountaineers’ last play of the game, so the senior captain and starting safety had a reason to celebrate. “That’s the epitome of Chris Brown right there,” defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham said. “That’s him. He’s 5-8, maybe 200 pounds soaking wet. But you know, hey, he plays big.”
For the record, Brown is 5-11. He also wasn’t the only Longhorns defender who played big in Saturday’s 17-13 win. The defense overall was a strength for the 22nd-ranked Longhorns (5-2, 4-2 Big 12), who have now won three games in a row.
“Some people around the country are going to be surprised that we won a game 17-13,” Graham said. “On the outside looking in, you can say that good defense was played and that it was a heck of a fight. We definitely fought and we came out with the outcome that we wanted.”
Technically, there are four downs in football. Defenses, though, are judged by how they fare on third and fourth downs. Texas held firm on Saturday, stopping the Mountaineers on 10 of their 16 third-down conversion tries and also going 3-0 on fourth downs, which included a pair of pass breakups in the end zone.
On paper, those third-down numbers were good but not spectacular. Texas entered the game having allowed opponents to convert 36.6% of their third downs, which ranked seventh in the Big 12.
The timeliness of those third-down stops stood out on Saturday.
Twice in the third quarter, West Virginia had the football inside the Texas 10-yard line. Twice the Mountaineers had to settle for a short field goal. Backup defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat, playing because Keondre Coburn left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury, swatted down a third-and-2 pass from Jarret Doege. The Mountaineers had to kick a field goal after linebacker DeMarvion Overshown shot through the line and sacked Doege on third-and-goal.
“Huge,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “Game winners, if you will.”
With the Longhorns clinging to a 17-13 lead for the entire fourth quarter, they twice denied West Virginia on fourth-down tries in the red zone. B.J. Foster broke up a pass by knocking the ball out of tight end Mike O’Laughlin’s hands, and with 4:44 left, Brown’s highlight play came at Jennings’ expense.
“I feel like when the pressure’s on, that’s when we try to play our best,” Graham said. “I feel like we’re pretty locked in and we stay calm and collected. We’re starting to execute the things that we’re being coached to do. We’re playing like a disciplined defense.”
Saturday’s win kept Texas in the Big 12 championship game picture. None of the conference’s teams are spotless, and Texas still has fellow contenders Iowa State and Kansas State on the schedule.
The Longhorns have won three straight Big 12 games for only the third time in Herman’s four years. Texas is on bye for next week and plays at Kansas on Nov. 21.
“I think the mindset of the team is that we understand what’s in front of us,” quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “We have won some really close games but we’re also not playing our best football, which is encouraging but also frustrating at the same time because we know we’re not even anywhere close to how good we can be but we’re still finding ways to win.”
Texas allowed 360 yards of offense and held a Big 12 opponent under 14 points for the fifth time since 2017. That defensive effort lifted the Longhorns on a day that the team’s offense produced a season low in points.
Brennan Eagles and Jake Smith closed out the first possessions of the first and third quarters with touchdown catches. Texas, however, mostly crawled after each score. The Horns finished the game with 363 yards of offense, 140 of which were collected on those two scoring drives.
Texas had other chances to score. In the first half, Bijan Robinson was stuffed on a fourth-and-1 play at the WVU 39, Ehlinger underthrew an open Eagles for what should have been a 53-yard touchdown and Cameron Dicker missed a 48-yard field goal try at the end of the first half. Ehlinger threw it deep on back-to-back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter and three different receivers — Eagles and graduate transfers Brenden Schooler and Tarik Black — were unable to come down with catches.
Texas did get a season-high 113 rushing yards out of Robinson. The five-star freshman scooted 54 yards on the game’s first snap. On the final play of consequence, he set up Texas’ two final kneel-downs with a 35-yard catch for a first down.
“You know as poorly as the offense played at times, we took the first possession of the game, scored a touchdown, took the first possession of the second half, in the third quarter, and scored a touchdown,” Herman said. “So, we’re getting better in the third quarter, we’re getting better running the football, now we got to find a way to be more productive on the perimeter in the throw game.”
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