Texas running back Chris Warren III (25) celebrates his touchdown with teammates during an NCAA college football game against West Virginia in Morgantown, West Virginia, on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Texas’ defense, running game are planting the seeds for the future

Posted November 18th, 2017

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Story highlights
  • The Texas football team checked off a lot of boxes in Morgantown, W. Va., on Saturday, none bigger than qualifying for its first bowl game in three seasons.
  • Freshman running back Daniel Young keyed a resurgence of a ground game with 233 yards rushing, the team's second-most all season long.
  • Tom Herman said it's only one game, but the first win over a ranked team represented a big hurdle.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The checklist was on overdrive for an aspiring Longhorns football team as a chilly, rain-drenched Saturday in the West Virginia mountains gave way to royal blue skies at dusk.

Texas won on the road. Check.

Texas beat a Top 25 team. Check.

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Texas became bowl-eligible. Check.

Texas is a good team. Checkmate? Or check-might?

Well, appearances can be deceiving, especially ones that list the Longhorns at a pedestrian 6-5 with flirtations against strong teams from USC to Oklahoma to Oklahoma State. Texas coulda beat them all, but didn’t beat nary a one.

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However, that sure looked like a good team Saturday that dominated West Virginia —ranked 24th in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll — pretty much from start to finish in a 28-14 victory that could stamp the Longhorns as a team on the rise and one that will be reckoned with in the future.

Not saying near future because only a lame 5-6 Texas Tech with perhaps a lame-duck head coach remains on the schedule followed by a bowl opponent in probably the Camping World Bowl, Texas Bowl or Liberty Bowl.

But 2018 looms, and Tom Herman’s bunch showed some optimism and a winning blueprint that he hopes to follow for championships down the road: Outstanding defense, a chew-up-the-clock ground game, play-action passing and a 60-minute intensity.

Consistent, big-time quarterback play might remain a mystery, but Texas got inspired moments from backup Sam Ehlinger, who engineered two brilliant first-half drives of 91 and 87 yards but also had a brain-lapse play from the seat of his pants that resulted in a 94-yard pick-six.

Texas offensive lineman Connor Williams (55) signals touchdown during an NCAA college football game against West Virginia in Morgantown, West Virginia, on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Herman could say goodbye to some of his top talent on the defensive side this offseason, but Texas now has a relentless style and a terrific architect in defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, assuming he doesn’t wander off for a head coaching position. Daniel Young, a 220-pound freshman who runs like a grown man, should be the workhorse of the future, backed up by a very capable Toneil Carter. They did the heaviest lifting for a 233-yard rushing day, Texas’ best since it mashed impostor San Jose State in Week 2.

“This is the start of something great,” Young said.

It’s a winning formula that Herman desires and a proven one that could work in coming seasons despite the likely losses of seniors like Poona Ford and potential early NFL draft defectors like offensive tackle Connor Williams, linebacker Malik Jefferson and defensive backs DeShon Elliott and Holton Hill.

The Longhorns are physical now. All the time. They’ll hit you. Sometimes even too hard like linebacker Breckyn Hager, who will be excused from the first half of the Red Raiders game for a targeting penalty. Ford, Malcolm Roach, Gary Johnson and others had big hits that rattled the Mountaineers backs and receivers.

“I’d argue we’re the most physical team in the Big 12,” said Elliott, who batted away a potential touchdown pass on the first series of the fourth quarter and is loudly having an All-American season. “West Virginia came out fast, but they were soft, in my opinion.”

The Longhorns play solid defense week in and week out. West Virginia managed just 295 yards and one offensive score, which came with nine minutes to play. Granted, the Mountaineers played for three quarters with a backup quarterback who had thrown only 16 passes all year after Will Grier left the game for good with a finger that looked like something Edward Scissorhands might have.

Texas defensive lineman Chris Nelson (97) recovers a fumble during an NCAA college football game against West Virginia in Morgantown, West Virginia, on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The injury was enough to drive West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen to moonshine, given that he was without the nation’s fourth-ranked passer in yardage most of the day, but don’t cry on Herman’s shoulders about injuries. Assuming left guard Patrick Vahe’s sprained knee ligaments keep him out, he’ll become the ninth offensive starter to miss a game or more this season and the 10th starter overall. Three more starters, including Hill, were suspended for a time.

The Longhorns have clearly bought in if Williams will risk further injury and return for a team going only to a minor bowl, if running back-turned-tight end Chris Warren III can keep his mind right enough to stick it out and even score a touchdown and if wide receiver Armanti Foreman hangs on despite limited playing time.

As for those who haven’t jumped aboard, Jefferson said, “That’s on them. This game is motivation for everybody watching us and recruits. I think this win is a steppingstone. To complete a game like this was very awesome.”

Very few wins usually qualify as awesome in a 6-5 year, but with only three current Longhorns having experienced a winning season, this game just might represent a jumping off point for the future. Or jumping on, if you’re talking the Texas bandwagon.

“Obviously, today is just one game,” Herman said. “We have to finish the regular season in the right way on Friday. This was a big hurdle, but we tell them this journey is not over.”

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