The biggest issue wasn’t necessarily bringing the ball out of the end zone — it was poor blocking and then fumbling at the end of the play by not adequately protecting the ball.
In four plays — including a two-point conversion — the Texas Longhorns went from a win probability over 90 percent to the Oklahoma Sooners possessing a win probability of nearly 85 percent, a key stretch contributing to the shocking 55-48 loss.
Starting with the off-schedule 52-yard pass from Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams to wide receiver Marvin Mims to convert a 3rd and 19 midway through the first quarter, the Sooners then tied the game at 41-41 with a two-point conversion and then took the lead two plays later.
The ensuing kickoff produced the only Longhorns turnover of the game and one of its most defining plays. In what Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian called a game with well-coached special teams on both sides, the Horns blocked a punt in the first quarter, but otherwise struggled to create any separation.
With Oklahoma cross kicking to keep the ball away from senior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison, Sarkisian replaced junior running back Roschon Johnson with freshman wide receiver Xavier Worthy, who was in the midst of what became a record-setting performance. Sarkisian and special teams coach Jeff Banks believed that Texas could create an explosive play in the return game.
“We felt like we were close and that we’d have something there,” Sarkisian said on Monday during his weekly press conference.
Starting in 2018, the NCAA revived kickoff rules to allow any fair catch inside the 25-yard line to result in a touchback out to the 25-yard line in an attempt to reduce injuries, particularly head injuries.
So the coaching point on attempted returns now is for the the return man to start two yards deep in the end zone and call for a fair catch or let the ball simply land in the end zone on anything over their head.
“The unfortunate thing for Xavier, he kind of had to drift to catch the ball and as he was drifting, he kind of drifted back,” Sarkisian said.
But the decision to bring the ball out wasn’t among the biggest issues on the play, according to Sarkisian — several players on the return team didn’t execute their blocks correctly and then Worthy had the ball in his left arm instead of his right arm. When Worthy hit traffic short of the 20-yard line, Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly was able to rip the ball away from Worthy thanks to Worthy’s poor ball security.
The turnover led to the final key play for the Sooners in that four-play stretch — an 18-yard touchdown run by running back Kennedy Brooks on a direct snap Counter play.
Sarkisian’s confidence in Worthy didn’t flag. On the sideline, he went up to Worthy with a smile and told him that he’d get the ball to the explosive young wideout. And so did, as Worthy caught a four-yard pass to start the ensuing drive and then a 48-yard bomb from junior quarterback Casey Thompson.
Texas wasn’t to able to score, turning the ball over on downs just outside the red zone, but the defense got the ball back and Worthy made three more catches, including a 31-yard touchdown catch that tied the game again.
The fumble was one of the most crucial plays contributing to the loss. While Sarkisian called it a “teachable moment,” the way that Worthy was able to bounce back and keep making plays speaks to his competitive toughness — the freshman remains a budding superstar and although the fumble may not be his last teachable moment, the expectation is that he’ll keep making more positive plays than mistakes.