Longhorns content to pass short to beat OSU defensive game plan

Longhorns content to pass short to beat OSU defensive game plan

Defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo said the Cowboys entered the game with a plan to take away Texas’ deep passes down the middle. It left the Cowboys exposed on the sidelines and in screen passes.

Ben Hutchens

By Ben Hutchens

| Dec 2, 2023, 6:25pm CST

Ben Hutchens

By Ben Hutchens

Dec 2, 2023, 6:25pm CST

ARLINGTON, Texas — Bryan Nardo has said the same line after blowout losses and tight wins. The OSU defensive coordinator repeated his signature phrase again on Saturday, after the Big 12 Championship.

“Today is the worst we’re going to be.”

It sounded about right, after a 49-21 loss to the Texas Longhorns. OSU couldn’t slow down the Texas passing attack, as the Longhorns scored touchdowns on their first four drives.

Nardo said the Cowboys entered the game with a plan to take away Texas’ deep passes down the middle. It left the Cowboys exposed on the sidelines and to screen passes. Texas running backs C.J. Baxter, Jaydon Blue and Keilan Robinson combined to catch nine short passes for 88 yards and a touchdown.

“We wanted to make them throw check downs and they took them,” Nardo said. “They ran a couple more screens because we were closing the middle a little bit more. They did a really good job of just taking what we were going to give them and running with it.”

Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers set a career-high in passing yards before the Longhorns first punted with 9:36 left in the third quarter. Ewers finished the game throwing for 452 yards, breaking a Big 12 Championship Game record set by former Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford in 2008.

“We knew going into it how talented they are, when you turn on the film,” Nardo said. “We have talented players, too and tried to put ourselves in the best matchup. They did some really good things, had some really good players and it felt like no matter who they got the ball to he was going to do something with it.”

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The OSU secondary was young entering the matchup, and when an undisclosed injury took senior corner Korie Black out of the game after the first defensive series, it got even younger. Freshmen D.J. McKinney, Dylan Smith and Cameron Epps played nearly the entire game, along with sophomores Kendal Daniels and Cam Smith. Safety Trey Rucker was the only senior.

“I looked out there, and there was three freshmen (in the OSU secondary) at once,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “I think one time we had four freshmen out there at once. So they had to grow up really fast.”

Texas lined up junior receivers Xavier Worthy, Adonai Mitchell and junior tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders. Pro Football Focus projects Mitchell and Sanders as first-round NFL draft selections, while Worthy is projected to go in the second. 

The three combined for 20 receptions and 300 yards. 

“They got athletes that are really skilled,” OSU linebacker Nick Martin said. “They’ve got speed on the perimeter. They really played the perimeter game early on. It seemed like we started playing catch-up.”

The inexperienced players in the Cowboy secondary that put OSU at a disadvantage against Texas’ dynamic pass catchers have somewhat defined its season. Without them, the Cowboys wouldn’t have gotten to the Big 12 Championship Game, and without them, the game may have been more competitive.

After a season-ending injury to safety Lyrik Rawls in week three thrust Epps into a bigger role, Epps struggled against Iowa State. Against Kansas State the next game, he intercepted two passes, including one he returned for a touchdown just before the half that ignited a 29-21 win. 

It was corner Dylan Smith who made the game-winning tackle in Bedlam. OSU coaches had planned to redshirt Smith, but that was scrapped after the injury to Rawls. 

Against Texas, though, OSU ran out of answers. 

“Unfortunately, when they’re young, they’re going to give you a lot of gray hair because they’re going to make plays and they’re going to have plays that they don’t make,” Nardo said. “Not for lack of ability, not for lack of anything other than just that experience.”

Considering what OSU could have if it’s able to retain the young players in the secondary, Nardo will take it, gray hairs and all.

“I love looking at the positives of it,” Nardo said. And in the fourth quarter I see Dylan Smith coming down, tackling their big running back (Baxter) for a gain of three. I was like ‘Yep, that’s a true freshman sticking his face in there, knowing exactly where to be. In a year, maybe that’s a tackle for one’… All the positives are what we have to build upon.”

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Ben Hutchens and his twin brother Sam cover Oklahoma State for the Sellout Crowd. After a decade of living in the state, Ben finally feels justified in calling himself an Oklahoman. You can reach him at [email protected] and continue the dialogue @Ben_ Hutchens_ on social media.

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