By Jim Vertuno
The Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas — After a 1-2 start, the No. 23 Texas Longhorns have rallied to contest for the Big 12 title with three games left.
It starts Saturday against No. 12 Oklahoma State, the team most had pegged for the league crown until an early stumble on the road at West Virginia. But like the Longhorns (7-2, 6-0), the Cowboys (8-1, 5-1) regrouped to keep the Big 12 title and the BCS bowl berth that comes with it in sight.
For Texas, this position seemed unthinkable after two blowout losses in September that got defensive coordinator Manny Diaz fired and the Longhorns punted out of the national rankings.
And coming off a home loss to Ole Miss, coach Mack Brown was jeered for immediately starting talk that Texas could still win the Big 12. The fans mostly wanted to talk about whether Brown would still have a job after this season.
“Our guys know we’ve got three games left to win the conference and they understand this one is the only thing they can do anything about. They’re proud of themselves,” Brown said.
Leading the resurgence has been quarterback Case McCoy, the backup who took over the starter’s job in September when David Ash sustained a concussion. McCoy’s gunslinger attitude and uncanny ability to deliver big plays in the clutch kept Texas from losses at Iowa State and West Virginia.
Texas rallied against six teams with a combined record of 23-33. The last three opponents — Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Baylor — are 23-4.
While the series history with Oklahoma State is lopsided in Texas’ favor, the road team has won each of the last four meetings.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we are a much better football team than we were a month and a half ago. That’s a credit to the players,” Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said. “They’ve made a decision to work hard together and improve, and they have. I like our leadership and I like the maturity of our team right now.”
Who stays healthy? Texas has been racking up key injuries but keeps plugging the holes with playmakers. The latest is defensive tackle Desmond Jackson, who took over Chris Whaley’s spot when Whaley was injured against West Virginia. Jackson hounded the Mountaineers’ quarterback all night, making several big plays in the Texas victory.
The quarterbacks: Oklahoma State’s Clint Chelf began season as starter, lost his job, then got it back after J.W. Walsh was benched in a 24-10 win over TCU. Chelf then led the team to three straight wins. McCoy, who has seven touchdowns and six interceptions in five straight wins as the starter, has given the Texas offense a swagger the Longhorns haven’t had since his older brother Colt last played in 2009.
“His brother was the same, so it has to go back to the family, their coaching and their confidence. He watched his brother do it and (the McCoys) love that. They just want the ball in their hand at the end,” Brown said.
The running backs: Texas lost leading rusher Jonathan Gray to a blown Achilles tendon against West Virginia, leaving Malcolm Brown to carry the load of the Longhorns’ resurgent running game. Brown is averaging 94 yards rushing the past four games and has seven of his eight touchdowns in the last three.
OSU’s Desmond Roland has 359 of his 506 yards rushing and eight of his 10 touchdowns rushing in the past three games. While the Longhorns have improved their run defense, they’re still in the bottom half of the nation and the conference in rushing defense at 185 yards per game.
Cool Mack: Credit Brown for keeping his team loose and staying in a title chase after the horrid start to the season. Under intense pressure to turn things around, Brown has done it with a smile on his face — just like the one he flashed before Texas converted a critical fourth down in the win at West Virginia.
The win streak eased some of the pressure, but if Texas loses, it could start all over again.
“In that situation where the game is on the line, we had to get a first down, and there was no anxiety, no one was freaking out, no one was — it was calm, cool,” McCoy said.
Who’s desperate? Texas can stay in the title chase with a loss. The Longhorns host Texas Tech on Nov. 28 and travel to conference leader Baylor on Dec. 7 in the season finale. But Oklahoma State can’t afford a second defeat in conference play. That’s where the September stumble at West Virginia comes into play. It’s make-or-break time for the Cowboys in the Big 12.
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