AUSTIN, Texas – Kansas State is on a roll and making noise in the chase for the Big 12 championship. Texas is reeling and just trying to hang on to its title hopes.
That's quite the role reversal from the expectations for both teams when the season began.
Texas ended 2018's 10-win season with a "We're back" declaration from quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Two losses in the last three games have Texas (5-3, 3-2) now needing to beat the No. 20 Wildcats (6-2, 3-2) on Sunday just to have a chance to get back to the Big 12 title game.
"We've left the margin of error very slim, and that's OK," Longhorns coach Tom Herman said. "We're on the ropes. You can do one of two things. You can fight your way off the ropes or you can tell your trainer to throw in the towel. And from all accounts, everybody is pushing in the same direction saying, we want to fight our way off the ropes."
Texas had a week off to regroup after a loss at TCU. Kansas State, meanwhile, has been on a tear of three straight wins under first-year coach Chris Klieman. None was bigger than a 48-41 stunner over conference favorite No. 9 Oklahoma two weeks ago. The Wildcats followed that by crushing rival Kansas, the team that took Texas to the final play in a shootout.
The Wildcats haven't been bowl-eligible this early in the season since 2014. They even showed up in the season's first College Football Playoff rankings at No. 16. That makes the drive for the Big 12 title game even more important.
SKYLAR ON THE RUN: Kansas State's rise can be traced to quarterback Skylar Thompson's mastery of the new offense. The Fort Osage High School graduate has seven of Kansas State's 11 rushing touchdowns the last two games in a throwback to what Collin Klein did for the Wildcats years ago. Klein is now the Kansas State quarterbacks coach.
Thompson needs just 30 rushing yards to become just the fourth Kansas State quarterback to have more than 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in a career.
"We're not an option offense, so we don't practice that much more than a few handful of times a week," Klieman said.
CRUNCH TIME: Both starting quarterbacks have led game-winning drives in the fourth quarter this season. Thompson did it against TCU and Mississippi State. He accounted for 91 of 95 yards in an 11-play drive and in the winning touchdown against TCU. Ehlinger drove Texas to the winning field against Kansas, competing six passes and running for a first down to set up the final kick on the last play.
HEALTHY LONGHORNS: The Texas defense has been severely depleted by injuries and gets a key player back this week in sophomore safety Caden Sterns. An All-Big 12 player last year, Sterns has missed four games with a leg injury and his absence left gaping holes in coverage and run support.
SLUMPING SAM: Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger is still on a tear through the school's single-season passing records, but his last few games have been kind of rough. He's completing less than 60% of his passes the last four games and has six interceptions to eight touchdowns. Herman, however, says he has "no issues" about Ehlinger's play and that only one of the turnovers against TCU was his fault.
"Everybody wants to look at sacks and say the O-line stinks," Herman said. "Everybody wants to look at interceptions and say the quarterback stinks or had a bad game. He made one bad decision."
TEXAS KICKING ITSELF: Longhorns special teams never fail to deliver highlights and lowlights. Kicker Cameron Dicker booted the game-winner against Kansas, then shanked a 26-yarder against TCU. Then Texas punter Ryan Bujcevski broke his collarbone against TCU, leaving backup Chris Naggar to handle punts and holding duties on extra points and field goals. And Texas ranks dead last nationally in punt return yards with minus-12.