AUSTIN, Texas — As the ball sailed through the air, Ramon Richards had one thought and one thought only.
“My ball,” he recalled later.
The Oklahoma State senior safety’s game-ending interception put a fitting end to a low-scoring, arduous battle with Texas. The pick of Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger in overtime secured a 13-10 win for the No. 10 Cowboys and keeps their Big 12 and College Football Playoff dreams alive for at least another week.
On the surface, it was a simple pitch-and-catch. Ehlinger threw an errant pass into no-man’s-land and the ever-aware Richards made a break for open space to snag it. In reality, it was the final result of an impressive performance by an oft-overlooked defense, which customarily plays the undercard to the Oklahoma State’s main event — it’s high-powered, nationally ranked offense.
The tables turned on Saturday, though, as the nation’s top offense sputtered and the Cowboys needed its defense to bail them out. They responded in kind.
“I’m so happy and proud,” Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. “There’s tears. I’m hugging their neck, because I know what they’re up against every week, playing in this style of offense and against all the NFL skill guys. It’s tough. It’s tough to coach in this type of environment. It’s tough to play in that type of environment. They’re not getting the love. They’re not getting the adulation. ESPN’s not coming by to interview them. So, for a night, great job.”
The Longhorns, playing in their third overtime game of the season, faced a third-and-4 at the Oklahoma State 6-yard line, needing only a field goal to tie. A touchdown would have given Texas the upset victory. Ehlinger took the shotgun snap and rolled left, looking for junior receiver Jerrod Heard. The Longhorns ran a “rub” route with Heard and Lorenzo Joe crossing on the far left side of the field in an effort to get Heard open, but the throw was never made.
“We were supposed to throw it out in the flat on five steps, get it out as a little sprint pass, throw it to the flat, a little slant flat versus man coverage,” Texas coach Tom Herman said afterward. “And for whatever reason, he didn’t throw it early to the flat so he’s scrambling around. And obviously, in that situation with only needing a field goal, we need to throw the ball away.”
Richards said the defensive call was for man-to-man coverage and he anticipated the play.
“Pick route,” Richards said. “Saw it on the film all week, I was ready for it.”
Richards sat patiently behind Heard as Ehlinger scanned the field and bought a few extra seconds. Then he threw it into open space on the far left side of the end zone, Richards read it and made a break for it.
“I knew when Ramon went up and I saw his hands, I knew he would make the catch because he’s a former quarterback and it was kind of a soft pass,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “I knew right then, and I was trying to figure out why that happened. I didn’t know I had been living so good.”
Said running back Justice Hill, who was witnessing it all from the sideline: “It seemed like that ball was in the air forever.”
After securing the ball, Richards sprinted across the field toward the Oklahoma State section of the crowd to celebrate. His teammates elatedly joined him and eventually tackled him in the opposite end zone.
What could be categorized as a gift at the end is something the Cowboys will happily take, feeling that they earned it with their effort for more than 60 minutes.
“Everyone’s going to talk about the last play,” Spencer said. “It was a freshman mistake by him. I’m going to talk about all the plays that led up to that last play, that we had a chance to win on the last play.”
“Honestly, before that play, that front seven made it happen,” he said. “That D-line and linebackers made it happen. They gave everything up to that point. I know it looks like I made the play to win the game, but that front seven was balling all game. So shout out to them.”
Ehlinger told reporters afterward that he made a mistake on the throw.
“I thought Jerrod [Heard] was going to circle back up to the back of the end zone for a jump ball. That’s why I put it up there for him for a chance to win,” he said.
“That’s not anything I should’ve done,” Ehlinger said. “That was a mistake.”
The Cowboys’ offense was held to 428 total yards, nearly 200 yards under their average. Gundy was happy to see his defense win them a game.
“Forever around here, it’s been the offense that saved us,” Gundy said. “For six, eight years. Defense, can’t stop anybody, offense saved ’em, offense saved ’em, we gotta score more. The text messages I get all the time from all my buddies that I grew up with that don’t know anything is, ‘You’ve got to score more than them, better keep scoring.’ Really? I mean, I know that! So the defense played their ass off, period, and won the damn game.
“For a guy who has a history on offense and likes to see things happen, it was pretty much a drag. Our defense won the damn game and they played big time.”