LAWRENCE, Kan. — It’s fairly obvious to anyone who has paid attention this season that Texas doesn’t do easy.
However, the Longhorns will do a Big 12 championship game.
Thanks to Friday’s scary 24-17 escape over a last-place, 3-8 Kansas team at Memorial Stadium, Texas competing for the conference title next Saturday in Arlington will do just fine.
A 14th-ranked Texas team that all too often plays to its level of competition did so once again against the overmatched Jayhawks, who have a lone, one-point conference win against TCU and haven’t won any game since Sept. 15. And one more time, the both exceptional and exasperating Longhorns risked blowing a three-touchdown lead after taking a 21-0 advantage into the fourth quarter.
But head coach Tom Herman keenly reminded that “they don’t draw pictures on a (golf) scorecard. We know we’re an unfinished product.”
But they did finish off the Jayhawks, thanks to Jeffrey McCulloch’s spectacular tip-drill interception and 65-yard return and a defense that suffocated Kansas for most of this stark, overcast afternoon before 15,219 onlookers, a crowd so thin it couldn’t even have generated a ripple, much less the wave.
This followed a script they rarely have deviated from. The unpredictable Longhorns won with offense against Oklahoma and Texas Tech. They won with defense against TCU, Kansas State, Iowa State and (for three quarters) Kansas. They won in the last seconds against Baylor, and they lost that same way to West Virginia.
More often that not, this team does what’s necessary. They do enough. They’re tough, they’re physical and they’re grinders. Kneel-down games, by and large, are for sissies although they had a few of those in their six-game win streak at midseason.
In general, they don’t do pretty.
Charlie Strong, Herman’s predecessor, would have killed for an ugly win here two years ago in a game that cost him his job. And Herman gladly took a gritty victory in an abstract art of a regular-season finale that stamps him as the leader to return this program to national prominence because it guaranteed his team a berth in the conference title game.
“This team has grown up a lot. If we play our best,” Herman said, “I think can we can play with anybody in the country.”
I’d have to agree, save Alabama and maybe one or two others.
This is a team known for high-voltage (usually) offense and high-wire defense (always). It’s all about pesky fourth-quarter, 21 point-lead letdowns and Sam Ehlinger throws to Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson and risky, mind-boggling special-teams play.
But mostly it’s all about “resilience,” McCulloch said. “We will not go away. Whatever happens, we don’t break.”
And they didn’t on this day even though they were down a starting linebacker in Gary Johnson, who was suspended for breaking a team rule; a starting safety in Brandon Jones, who got cold-cocked on a first-quarter punt return; and for a while a defensive end, Ta’Quon Graham, who hurt his knee but returned to play. Ehlinger wasn’t 100 percent himself, battling a sore shoulder and tricky winds and throwing his first interception (two actually) in 308 perfect attempts since the Maryland game.
Oh yeah, that game.
How long has it seemed since that dreary, rain-delay defeat at FedEx Field against Maryland?
“Eons,” Herman said, elongating the e. “What’s the longest period of time?”
Well, for Longhorns fans, it’s the nine years since Texas’ last Big 12 championship in 2009, which is also the duration of time since the locals have been good. But they’re good now. Really good. Even 9-3 good within a breath of being 11-1 good, but for two losses by a total of four points against Oklahoma State and West Virginia that honestly could have gone either way.
In fact, three defeats by nine total points have kept Texas from going undefeated. Chew on that for a minute.
“We’re ecstatic,” said linebacker Anthony Wheeler, one of 26 seniors who have witnessed Texas’ turnaround. “Coming off where we used to be, if you asked us two years ago about having a chance to win the Big 12, we probably would have brushed it off.”
That was then, and this is unbelievably better now.
“We’re not going there just to play it,” Herman said emphatically of next week’s game.
So no one should gripe that Kansas made it close, that lame-duck David Beaty in his final game as head coach made Texas sweat. The Longhorns are used to sweating. But they weren’t going to bookend losses to two fired coaches (Maryland’s D.J. Durkin, who was suspended for the opener, and Beaty, who’s giving way to Les Miles) around a fantastic season.
As spirit leader and tenacious defensive end Charles Omenihu said, “A W’s a W.”
Even if it occasionally stands for Wacky.
So a team that stubbed its collective toe big-time in the season-opening devastation that was a trip to Maryland is now positioned to put rings on its fingers if it can win one more next Saturday.
Texas will be playing for only its third Big 12 championship since John Mackovic’s underdogs rolled left to upset three-touchdown favorite Nebraska in 1996 and first since 2009. The Longhorns have patiently bided their time.
“The Class of 2015 hasn’t been the glorious ride we thought, but our senior year it’s been pretty good. The Maryland game?” Omenihu said, shrugging. “It was one game.”
And now they have one more.