HOUSTON — As Texas wandered through the college football desert the last three years, there were times you wondered if the Longhorns would ever find their way back.
Take the post-game locker room scene at Oklahoma State in 2016, for example. Breckyn Hager was visibly shaking after a demoralizing loss and said, “I’m not a loser. I don’t want to be a loser.”
Late Wednesday, Hager had a completely different attitude, a new outlook on football and probably life, too. Having slogged through three straight losing seasons, the Longhorns have been called many things. But after a 33-16 Texas Bowl win over Missouri at NRG Stadium, the Horns can now call themselves winners.
“It’s like you hit the light switch, and everything’s changed now,” Hager said with a Texas Bowl championship hat fitted atop his long, mashed-up blonde locks. “It’s definitely up from here. I know I’ve said that before — but for real this time. This is a game-changer. This was big time.”
For real, indeed. Texas finished with a 7-6 record, the school’s first winning season since 2013. It was the program’s first bowl win since 2012. The importance of ending that three-year losing streak cannot be overstated. That’s what this entire season has been all about — learning how to win again.
“No. You can’t overstate it,” UT coach Tom Herman said. “It’s really important for these guys to call themselves a winner.”
UT President Gregory L. Fenves, outgoing athletic director Mike Perrin and Herman all were beaming during the post-game trophy presentation. For Perrin, it was a capstone to his time as AD and made a fitting sendoff.
“Greater days are ahead, they just are,” Perrin said. “I believe in these guys, I believe in our coaching staff and most of all, I guess I believe in the enduring quality of the University of Texas’ fan base and pursuit of excellence.”
Missouri (7-6) was just plain awful, committing silly penalties and practically giving the game away at times. But this will long be remembered for the night Texas took a sizable step back toward respectability and the punter — er, The Punter — was the most valuable player.
Texas special teams ace Michael Dickson, the Ray Guy Award winner, had 10 of his 11 punts downed inside the Missouri 14-yard line. He constantly kept field position in UT’s favor. It finally paid off late in the third quarter when Mizzou quarterback Drew Lock mishandled a snap from the 10-yard line, and the ball went rolling out the back of the end zone for a safety.
Told that he was the game’s MVP, Dickson said, “I didn’t believe it when they told me at first or at second. When they led me up to the stage, it was, ‘Wait, why am I going on stage?’ They said you’ve won the MVP and I didn’t believe it.”
It was hard to believe the Longhorns could manage any victory, given how many players didn’t suit up. Connor Williams was in the stands, and Holton Hill hung over the railing to slap high-fives with his former teammates afterward. But the Horns got by, thanks in part to a slew of Tigers’ mistakes, including a bunch from the get-go.
Mizzou had three defensive penalties on the game’s opening drive, a major reason why Texas took a 7-0 lead. Shane Buechele faked a handoff to Daniel Young, who raced into the open field and caught a 22-yard touchdown pass. The Tigers simply didn’t cover him.
The Horns ran the exact same play later in the first half with a different quarterback. This time, it was Sam Ehlinger faking to Young and connecting with him for 42 yards. That helped set up Ehlinger’s 7-yard touchdown throw to John Burt. He got his toes down in the corner for the score — the second-best play of Burt’s season after his 90-yard dash against Oklahoma State.
Missouri finally got on the board after taking over at midfield. Davante Davis’ holding call set up an easy score. But Texas got it back when P.J. Locke III forced the normally sure-handed Ish Witter to cough it up at the Mizzou 31.
The ball took a room-service hop straight to Anthony Wheeler, who raced 38 yards the other way for the score. Last Saturday, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando predicted the Dallas Skyline product would make a big play, and he sure did.
It was UT’s sixth defensive touchdown of the year, tied for most in the nation with Wisconsin. UT didn’t have a single defensive score in 2016. “I really don’t have too many moves. I just went with the stiff-arm,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler’s touchdown gave the Horns a 21-7 halftime lead, but in all honesty, it should have been much bigger. On back-to-back drives to close out the half, Texas had to punt from the Missouri 36-yard line. Derek Kerstetter’s holding penalty hurt the former, and a bogus personal foul call on Young short-circuited the latter.
Granted, Dickson pinned the Tigers deep both times, but it spoke to the back-breaking necessity of getting a new kicker on campus. One is coming in the 2018 recruiting class ranked third nationally.
Asked if he’d seen a kicker like Dickson, Missouri coach Barry Odom said, “Nope. I guess maybe that’s why he won that award, right?”
Mizzou opened the second half with a 79-yard touchdown catch by Johnathan Johnson. A 16-play drive also ended with a 28-yard field goal. But the Horns got the safety and scored again on the ensuing possession with Joshua Rowland’s 41-yard field goal. Davis had a game-closing interception, and Armanti Foreman punched in a game-icing 18-yard touchdown.
UT’s quarterback situation will be dissected this spring. Ehlinger finished with 112 passing yards and played the entire second half after Buechele suffered a groin injury. The running game still lacks pop, as evidenced by Young’s game-high 48 yards.
The defense is losing play-makers all over the board, most likely including linebacker Malik Jefferson. And Dickson himself is moving on, a junior punter going into the NFL draft.
But the Longhorns are winners again, and that in itself is a major step for a prideful program aching to become nationally relevant again.
“Psychologically, we needed to know to that we’re that team that can go out and win against anyone,” Hager said. “I truly believe tonight, that’s what turned it on for us.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The post Texas 33, Missouri 16: Longhorns secure first winning season since 2013 in Texas Bowl appeared first on Hook ‘Em.
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