NEW ORLEANS — Tom Herman hated the question last spring. Absolutely hated it. From first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, why can’t Texas line up, blow somebody off the line of scrimmage and punch it in?
In the biggest moment of the biggest game this decade, the 15th-ranked Longhorns showed just how tough they really are.
On fourth-and-goal at the 1, quarterback Sam Ehlinger took the snap and bullied his way across the goal line for a game-clinching touchdown against No. 5 Georgia. It was the signature moment of his three-touchdown performance in a 28-21 win Tuesday in the Sugar Bowl.
“I don’t know what was said on the headset,” Ehlinger said. “I’m just glad they trusted me and gave me the opportunity to punch the ball in.”
No need for the binder. At this point, Herman had zero doubts. “No. Not with that guy carrying it,” the coach said of the game’s Most Outstanding Player. The sophomore from Westlake had 233 total yards and cemented himself as an early Heisman Trophy candidate for 2019.
“Longhorn Nation,” Ehlinger said on the trophy stage, “We’re baaaack!!”
The UT fans among the 71,449 went wild. “I just started laughing,” senior tight end Andrew Beck said. “OK, he’s been talking enough, but now here’s ‘We’re back’ and the crowd erupted. I love that kid. I’ll never forget that. It was awesome.”
The Longhorns (10-4) captured their first 10-win season since 2009 and sent an unmistakable message. A proud program that’s been kicked around since 2010 won’t be embarrassed anymore.
“Stop disrespecting us,” receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey said. The Horns entered the Superdome as double-digit underdogs. Asked who was disrespecting Texas, Humphrey said, “Everybody. Doesn’t matter who has or who was. They see it now.”
Athletic director Chris Del Conte, now 2-0 in bowl games, was doing an interview when Herman grabbed him from behind and bear-hugged the boss. “How ‘bout them apples, huh?” Del Conte said. “I’m just so proud for Tom and the boys. They played unbelievable this year.”
After receiving the Sugar Bowl trophy, players went swimming in confetti in the end zone. It’s a moment they’ll remember forever.
The seniors, the ones who experienced two 5-7 seasons, waited their entire careers for this moment. Georgia, the SEC’s No. 1 rushing team, had just 72 yards on the ground and 296 overall. If not for a late touchdown with 14 seconds left, the favored Dawgs (11-3) would’ve lost by double digits.
“Georgia fought back, and that’s one hell of a team, man. For real,” senior defensive end Charles Omenihu said. “But we had the resiliency and the fight that only this team will understand. I love this team, I love this university, I’m so proud to call myself a Longhorn. I’ll forever be a Longhorn.”
In retrospect, Bevo XV knew exactly what he was doing by charging at Georgia’s mascot, Uga X, during a pregame photo opportunity. The Horns went right at the Dawgs after kickoff, too. Georgia got off to an awful start, which Ehlinger was happy to capitalize on.
Humphrey said he wanted to “spread our culture. Let them feel it a little bit.” And there he was on the second play of the game, carrying Bulldogs down the field on a 19-yard gain in his signature fashion. Texas opened with a 10-play scoring drive capped by Ehlinger’s 2-yard touchdown run.
Ehlinger walked into the Dome wearing a replica Drew Brees jersey from his Westlake days. Senior Davante Davis saw it in a storefront and had to get it for his quarterback. Brees now makes his living as the New Orleans Saints’ quarterback.
“Coming into the Superdome, I had to respect Drew because of all the amazing things he’s done in this building,” Ehlinger said. “And I wanted to play like him and have a little magic. I was just paying my respects to him.”
After Georgia’s first possession, Texas got a huge break. Georgia punter Jake Camarda put his knee down to field a low snap, and UT got new life at the Georgia 27. It resulted in a quick three-and-out, but Cameron Dicker hit a 37-yard field goal.
The Dawgs went three-and-out themselves, and Carmarda uncorked an 11-yard punt. On Georgia’s next drive, UT’s Ta’Quon Graham knocked the ball from D’Andre Swift. The Horns had to cash in on this one, and they did. Ehlinger escaped pressure and ran nine yards straight to pay dirt, giving Texas a 17-0 lead.
“People don’t respect their league like we do, especially from a scoring standpoint,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “They do a great job in their league of uptempo, fast. But when they have to play physical, they played physical. They did a good job of that.”
At that point, Georgia had minus-4 yards on the ground. Maybe a 17-point deficit is what it took for Georgia to finally settle in. The Dawgs finally looked like their normal SEC selves and put together a 12-play, 75-yard drive to get on the scoreboard.
The Horns answered with another field goal, fueled by another magical moment from Ehlinger. Freshman linebacker Azeez Ojulari whiffed on an easy sack, and Ehlinger dashed for a 17-yard gain. The drive ended with Dicker’s 30-yard field goal, and Texas had a 20-7 lead.
Texas put it away in the fourth quarter. Ehlinger ran the ball six consecutive times from the Georgia 16-yard line and finally punched it in on fourth down.
“When you get down there, you’ve got to be able to punch the ball in,” Herman said. “It certainly provided us a validation of our confidence heading into the game that we can do that.”
Georgia quickly put together a touchdown drive to get back within 14 and then forced a Texas punt. But Gary Johnson sacked Jake Fromm with some help from UT’s Chris Nelson, who jumped up and gave a belly rub. Two incompletions later, and Georgia had to punt it away.
Texas had the ball 11 minutes, 53 seconds in the fourth quarter. When Collin Johnson gobbled up a late onside kick, game over. It was Texas’ biggest postseason victory since the Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State to end 2008 season. Yes, it’s been that long.
“Be legendary,” cornerback Kris Boyd. “Winning this game, that makes you immortal. They can’t take it away from you. I’m just blessed to be in this position. I thank God for it. I’m just so thankful.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.