AUSTIN, Texas -- Few things wake up a bored crowd and a sputtering team better than a 300-pound lineman rumbling for a touchdown.
Chris Whaley just has that knack for stealing scenes and swinging the emotions of nervous Texas fans in an instant. His 31-yard interception for a score was the game-changer in Dallas last month, the kind of confidence-booster the Longhorns needed to finally knock off Oklahoma.
The senior defensive tackle struck again Saturday, giving Texas precisely the jolt it needed in a 35-13 win over Kansas to improve to 6-2 and 5-0 on the Big 12.
Midway through the third quarter, with Texas up just 14-6 on the conference’s worst team, fate called Whaley’s number once more. Cedric Reed blindsided a panicked KU quarterback Jake Heaps from behind. The ball squirted out.
“I thought, ‘Aw, it’s happening again,’” Whaley said.
The football took two quick bounces off the turf, then off a nearby referee’s knee and right into Whaley’s arms. He rumbled 40 yards untouched, the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium crowd exploded and the suddenly excited Longhorns rolled from there.
"The strip-sack fumble was honestly the key play of the game where all of the momentum changed in one play, and that was it," Kansas coach Charlie Weis said.
How did Whaley, a former running back, fare in his impromptu 40-yard dash? Maybe 4.4 seconds? He giggled.
“Maybe,” he said.
Maybe not, though Whaley couldn’t help but embrace perhaps the only opportunity he’ll get to high-step to a score.
“He’s definitely not Prime Time,” cornerback Quandre Diggs said. “If he keeps scoring touchdowns, people are going to start trying to imitate him.”
Like Whaley’s moves in the open field, the rest of this game wasn’t exactly pretty. But Texas’ offense churned out two more touchdown drives and held KU to 24 yards and two punts on its next three drives to finish off an otherwise inconsistent showing against the now 2-6 Jayhawks, losers of 26 consecutive Big 12 games.
The ever-optimistic Mack Brown finds the joy in every win.
“It was a great game,” Brown said. “It’s a ‘W.’ We’ve won five straight. We’re 5-0 in the league. We’re leading the league. The objective was to get a ‘W.’ When you can win and have a lot of things to fix, I think it’s wonderful. Better than last year’s Kansas game, too.”
There’s plenty that can be nitpicked in this ballgame. The Longhorn offense got off to a slow start and didn’t seem to overwhelm KU’s well-prepared defense physically, at least not until late. Case McCoy threw two interceptions and admitted he needs to play better.
But Texas’ defense once again took care of business, not allowing a touchdown until less than four minutes remained. This unit has let opponents enter the end zone just once in each of their past three games and is holding teams to 13.3 points and 271.6 yards per game during that span.
“We have to keep doing it. That’s the challenge,” defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said. “You have to keep doing it day in and day out.”
The last time Texas played in this stadium, 42 days ago, it was trying to convince themselves they still had a chance at playing for a Big 12 title. They’d just beaten Kansas State 31-21 to begin this streak.
Wins were hard to come by back then for a frustrated 2-2 squad. Now they’re back to a more familiar situation: Winning games by decent margins and having plenty to improve upon.
“When you stop celebrating a win, when you start taking them for granted, that’s when the game doesn’t come as fun,” McCoy said. “We’ve learned wins are hard to come by in this conference. People can sneak up on you any time. We’ll take a win any day in this conference.”
Running back Johnathan Gray, typically the workhorse of this team, had his least-effective game since the season opener with 68 yards on 18 attempts. So Malcolm Brown more than picked up the slack with 119 yards and four touchdowns.
And Gray is going home happy, he said, because he’ll take a win. The sting of those early-season losses makes days like these sweeter, no matter the margin of victory.
“This is definitely why I came to Texas,” Gray said. “Guys loving to play football and having a passion for the game -- that’s what we have right now in the room.”
Whaley doesn’t know if he has more rumbling, stumbling scores left up his sleeve. He can't explain why these footballs keep finding his hands. But he does know his Longhorns are ready to keep this run going.
“We’re not done yet,” he said.