QB Sam Ehlinger, LB Joseph Ossai win MVP honors as Texas throttles Pac-12 South champions
Posted January 1st, 2020
SAN ANTONIO — Texas ended 2019 by making a lengthy list of New Year’s resolutions.
In 2020, the Longhorns intend to play ferocious defense week in and week out, sort of like what linebacker Joseph Ossai did Tuesday night against No. 11 Utah.
“Joe is a dog,” safety Caden Sterns said. “I didn’t even know he had three sacks. I was like, ‘Dang, bro! That’s crazy.’”
The Longhorns intend to be innovative on offense, like when they showed a new “snug” receiver formation on the game’s first play. Receiver Collin Johnson said the Utes would use their default cover-2 defensive formation, so he split the safeties and caught a 34-yarder that set the tone.
“We actually won the toss and decided to take the ball because we wanted to prove a point,” Johnson said.
Tom Herman normally defers to the second half. Not against the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense. This time, Herman wanted the ball, demanded his players set a physical tone and implored Texas to impose its will on the Pac-12 South champions. The result was a 38-10 tail-kicking in the Alamo Bowl.
Herman’s club finished this season with an 8-5 record. Just like in last season’s Sugar Bowl, Texas proved it can play exceptional at times. To reach any consistency, Herman said the Horns must develop their depth and “it’s got to be a mentality that permeates the entire organization.”
“I don’t have all the answers right now on New Year’s Eve as to how to get that done,” Herman said after his third straight bowl win at UT. “But I’m excited for the offseason to challenge these guys to understand what they are capable of when they do play that way.”
Despite being seven-point underdogs, Texas had only eight bowl practices leading up to the game. The team changed both coordinators, a sideline drama that could have consumed younger players. Interim defensive coordinator Craig Naivar “put in almost a whole new defense that we never ran before,” defensive end Malcolm Roach said.
It helped that Naivar had Sterns and B.J. Foster back in the lineup, although Brandon Jones (shoulder) ultimately couldn’t play. The Horns swarmed the Utes, holding them to just 254 total yards and 4-of-14 converting third downs.
Afterward, Naivar pulled a reporter close and said, “There’s my job interview.” It’s still unclear who, if any, of the current assistants will be kept next season. The staff is not expected to be finalized for a few weeks.
So why was this defense so wildly inconsistent this season, so much so that it cost defensive coordinator Todd Orlando his job?
“When one side performs poorly, the other side’s been up and down,” Naivar said. He also noted the mountain of injuries in the secondary and how that afforded more playing time for younger players. “We’re a young team, and when both sides click, it clicks.”
Ossai, the cornerstone of the 2020 defense, looked like a man possessed. He finished with nine tackles, an eye-popping six tackles for loss and three sacks.
Utah (11-3) never crossed midfield in the first half and had only three points in the first three quarters. Former walk-on Cort Jaquess made five tackles in his first career start. Defensive back Chris Adimora made the game’s biggest defensive play when he swatted away a long pass that would’ve moved Utah to Texas 5-yard line at the end of the first half.
“We’ve done a poor job — I myself have done a poor job in the past of executing,” Ossai said, “and today I feel like we executed at a high level and the result was pleasing.”
Running back Keaontay Ingram watched Ossai accept his Alamo Bowl defensive MVP trophy and said, “I’m so speechless, man. I’m going to give that dude a kiss when he comes down. I love to see my boys get it.”
Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley had a long face and made a rather stunning admission. “I just feel like this last game, we took more of a vacation than really preparing for a game,” he said. “That really came to bite us in the butt.”
The Texas offense had a field day in front of a mostly pro-UT crowd of 60,147.
The Horns scored on the opening drive sparked by Johnson’s catch; they got a 29-yard field goal. Most fans were just happy to see Johnson back on the field after a frustrating year with a loathsome hamstring.
Johnson had three catches for 62 yards and a 5-yard touchdown catch that gave Texas a 10-0 lead. Fellow senior Devin Duvernay was simply sensational, making three incredible catches for 92 yards and a 15-yard touchdown. His tape will make NFL scouts drool.
Ingram had 108 yards, hurdled one poor would-be defender and looked terrific on a 49-yard touchdown run that sealed the victory.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger was the game’s offensive MVP for completing 12 of 18 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed 11 times for 73 yards and relished it when a Utah player shoved him down for an unsportsmanlike penalty.
Ehlinger said when this team plays mistake-free football, “watch out.”
Athletic director Chris Del Conte sure enjoyed the night. “I love the way the kids responded,” he said.
The Texas seniors left the Alamodome feeling good, too. Center Zach Shackelford said the players passed around cigars in the locker room. So maybe 2019 had too much inconsistency, but hope always springs eternal.
“We stayed solid from the first day,” Roach said of his fellow seniors, the group that won three bowl games for the first time at Texas in more than a decade. “We could have broke, but the core of our class stayed solid and I’m so proud.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.