STILLWATER — Alex Elkins immediately jumped up and celebrated after stopping Jeremy Hills short of the sticks.
One problem: It was third down.
There was still another chance for No. 12 Texas, with the Longhorns down two in the game's final two minutes. And on the next play, quarterback David Ash found D.J. Grant over the middle then down the sideline for a 29-yard gain and a first down.
Then, Ash found Mike Davis leaping over Justin Gilbert near the sideline for a 32-yard grab, which got UT to the OSU 5-yard line. Two plays later, running back Joe Bergeron found the end zone with less than 30 seconds remaining.
Touchdown Longhorns. Ballgame Longhorns.
On a night when the Cowboy running game racked up 275 yards while picking up an offense that was without injured starting quarterback Wes Lunt — and in relief, Walsh threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns — the defense couldn’t finish in a wild, back-and-forth 41-36 victory for the Longhorns at Boone Pickens Stadium in OSU’s first game as the Big 12’s defending champions.
Often couldn't finish off a drive. Ultimately couldn't finish off the game when the Cowboys grabbed a late lead.
“They made a play at the end,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “I give them credit for them converting a third down and a fourth down…We came up short.”
Added UT coach Mack Brown: “Give David credit. He will not be under any more pressure than this, and he couldn't have done this this time last year. He has really grown up. He is the leader of this football team.”
The OSU defense wasn't consistently burned like it was against Arizona, where it gave up 52 points in Tucson. But it allowed the Longhorns (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) to convert 9 of its 17 third-down tries, and all three of their fourth-down attempts, including the crucial one on UT's final drive.
OSU (2-2, 0-1) took a 36-34 lead with 2:34 to play in the game when, after the Cowboys went conservative with three straight running plays inside the UT 15 to burn clock, Quinn Sharp connected on a 24-yard field goal.
That left the game up to the OSU defense, the unit that was touted by Gundy and coaches as faster and more athletic and perhaps the group to lean on in the early season as a freshman quarterback — at the start of the season, Lunt; in this case Walsh — got comfortable.
The trouble on third and fourth down made a difference early in the contest, as well.
On UT's first drive, it converted three third downs, which set up a 44-yard pass from Ash to Jaxon Shipley to tie the game 7-7 early in the first quarter. Then following a Walsh interception, the Longhorns' next chance to convert a third down turned into a touchdown when a busted coverage led to a wide open Shipley in the back left corner of the end zone.
“We didn't get off the field on third down,” Gundy said. “We know that. We're aware of that.”
The defense then held strong until late in the third quarter — UT's only other score came on a kickoff return for a touchdown by D.J. Monroe — when the Longhorns scored 20 points in the final 16 minutes.
The Cowboys now head into their second bye in three weeks. One priority, of course, is Lunt continuing to work his way back from the left knee injury sustained in early in their win against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 15.
But another is the defense learning how to finish.
“They just got to make a play,” Gundy said. “You can't put yourself in that situation. Coaches will have second thoughts about plays that were called. There's a chess game that's involved. We have to be able to make those plays.”