MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Like it or not, Texas coach Tom Herman’s going to win or lose in Austin doing things his way. And on some level, it’s respectable.
If that means playing this quarterback or that running back, so be it. Winners get T-bone steaks, and losers get soggy pancakes. Lose track of your water bottle, and even team captains have hell to pay.
The payoff hasn’t been clear at times as the Longhorns struggled this season. But the post-game electricity was unmistakable Saturday after Texas knocked off 24th-ranked West Virginia 28-14 at Milan Puskar Stadium. Finally, Herman and his Horns have a win over a ranked team after starting 0-4 in that category.
After wandering through the wilderness for two-plus seasons, the Longhorns (6-5, 5-3 Big 12) are back in the bowl business for the first time since 2014. This team, with at least two games left, now has an outside track at an 8-5 finish. That would represent real progress after three straight losing seasons.
“After the game? It was rowdy,” linebacker Malik Jefferson said. “I’m surprised y’all didn’t see it yet? It’s not on Twitter and everything?”
Jerrod Heard nearly broke his back trying to pick up a wet, oversized Texas flag. Kris Boyd posed for cellphone pictures. Multiple players slapped hands with fans. Men’s athletic director Mike Perrin held up double-barreled “Hook ’em” hand signs.
“Yeah, you can tell there was a different type of energy, being bowl-eligible again,” senior defensive tackle Poona Ford said. “It was a good feeling.”
Freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger threw two touchdowns — and another to the Mountaineers (7-4, 5-3) in what’s become his signature unpredictability. The running game, fueled by left tackle Connor Williams’ return, had an eye-popping 233 yards. It’s the highest total since the San Jose State game.
The defense stood tall again as safety Brandon Jones knocked West Virginia starter Will Grier out of the game in the first quarter. DeShon Elliott had a huge fourth-down pass breakup in the end zone, and Malcolm Roach and Gary Johnson tag-teamed for a game-clinching turnover.
“These guys, the smiles on their faces,” Herman said, “we know we’ve got one left, but this was a big one. This was a big hurdle.”
Sometimes, life under Herman’s direction isn’t easy. You have to wait your turn. Graduate senior Kendall Moore, who transferred from Syracuse, waited 11 games for his first catch. He sure made it count, reeling in a 4-yard grab for a touchdown to give Texas a 7-0 lead.
Sometimes, it means swallowing your pride. Take Chris Warren III, for example. The junior running back with 1,150 career yards has been forced to accept a position change. The Horns are thin at tight end, and the freshmen runners are more dynamic. So what’s Warren to do? Sit and pout or play and thrive?
Warren was rewarded against the Mountaineers, who looked baffled at times trying to stop Ehlinger. They dropped 10 into coverage on third-and-9. Ehlinger spun away from the lone pass rusher and gained 17 yards. On the next play, Heard threw it back to Ehlinger, who scampered around the end for 23 yards.
On first-and-15 from the WVU 15, Warren was called for a false start when he fell out of his stance waiting on the snap. The next play, he zipped up the seam and caught a 20-yard touchdown that made it 14-0.
“You gotta win. You gotta win,” Warren said. “It sucks not playing the position that I feel like I can play, that I feel like I can contribute at. But I want to win more than I care about whatever stats I’m getting. I’d much rather win. The past two times I played that position, and I’m not saying there’s a correlation, but we’ve won.”
Warren, who always speaks with genuine honesty, was asked how he’s handled all of this. It’s quite uncommon for any upperclassman to accept a position change. “Just roll with it,” he said.
Herman could’ve totally discarded Warren, or anyone else who doesn’t buy into his vision. Asked if he felt anything seeing Warren score, Herman said, “Just pride.”
“The culture — and I know that word gets used a lot, but I don’t how better to describe it — is palpable. It’s believable,” Herman said. “We’re slowly but surely going from a bunch of guys who are compliant to guys that are committed and convicted. It’s really cool to see when you see something like that happen, it’s pretty neat.”
There’s no telling what Shane Buechele was thinking on the plane ride home. The plan was for him to play the first two possessions, and then Ehlinger to come in on the third. Two penalties hampered the first two drives, and John Burt flat dropped a first-down gainer.
On the first play of the game, it was obvious what kind of impact Williams had. The burly junior just pancaked his man like the All-American he is. Nothing soggy about it.
Speaking of big hits, Jones may have delivered the most important blow of the game late in the first quarter. West Virginia’s Justin Crawford appeared to score on a 10-yard run when he hit the pylon. Officials ruled him down at the 1-yard line, though.
On third-and-goal, Grier went around the left end and reached for the same pylon. But Jones came flying in and smashed Grier, who lost the ball in mid-air. The loose ball hit the pylon and was ruled a touchback. Grier got up, and his crooked right middle finger was pointing toward Pittsburgh.
“It was gross. It was gross,” Jefferson said of the injury to Grier’s throwing hand.
Ehlinger came in when Texas took over on the 20 and never looked back. His only mistake was not eating the ball on first-and-goal from the WVU 5 while being sacked by Dylan Tonkery. Ehlinger let it fly, making for an easy interception for Kenny Robinson, who went 94 yards the other way for the score.
“I was trying to throw it away, avoid the sack down on the goal line,” Ehlinger said. “Just a stupid mistake, just got to eat that. Can’t make a play on every single one.”
The last four years have been full of teachable moments and growing pains, it seems. There are still no guarantees Herman can fully restore the Longhorns to national prominence. But getting back to bowl eligibility is a good step in the right direction.
“Every game is the Super Bowl for us,” Elliott said. “Coach preaches that every week. Go in there, work hard, give a great effort, play physical. That’s what we do.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The post Texas 28, West Virginia 14: Longhorns are back in the bowl business after road win appeared first on Hook ‘Em.
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