LAWRENCE, Kan. — Following Texas’ 24-17 win over Kansas on Friday, Longhorns linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch found his mother, Deborah, in the stands at Memorial Stadium.
He gave her a huge hug, then posed for pictures with family and friends, high-fived a handful of UT fans and autographed a burnt-orange American flag. “We earned that,” McCulloch told left guard Patrick Vahe.
What McCulloch earned was a spot on UT’s year-end highlight reel. The junior’s first career interception was arguably the biggest play on Friday, a pick that wiped out a Kansas scoring opportunity in the red zone and, after his 65-yard return, set up a key fourth quarter field goal. The Longhorns (9-3, 7-2 Big 12) now will play in next week’s Big 12 championship game in Arlington.
“It’s been a long road,” McCulloch said. “We have gone through a lot, and I am ecstatic that we are finally getting there, and we have the opportunity to go 1-0 again and earn the Big 12 championship.”
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Texas built a 21-0 lead but Kansas cut into that deficit on the second snap of the fourth quarter on Pooka Williams Jr.’s 57-yard touchdown run. Three plays later, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger was intercepted and Kansas set itself up at UT’s 22 with 13:18 remaining.
After moving the Jayhawks to the 17, Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender was intercepted by McCulloch. Kansas ran a play-action pass to top receiver Steven Sims Jr., who had lined up in the backfield on the play. A leaping McCulloch got a hand on the football and then corralled the deflected pass.
He returned the football 65 yards to the Kansas 25. Texas eventually turned that turnover into a 34-yard field goal.
“It was just a play I made,” said McCulloch, who also had a sack. “I couldn’t have done it without my defensive line getting pressure on the quarterback and forcing him to throw the ball early. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Said Texas safety Caden Sterns: “For him to make that play was definitely huge, obviously. If they score there, who knows what the score might be right now?”
Normally UT’s “B” linebacker, McCulloch started at the rover position after senior Gary Johnson was issued a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules. Texas coach Tom Herman has long stressed versatility and cross-training among position groups, so McCulloch said he has practiced at all three linebacker sports. With McCulloch moved to Johnson’s position, freshman Joseph Ossai made his first-ever start and contributed five tackles.
“I think we did good as a whole. Them boys were going hard all practice knowing that Gary wasn’t going to play this game,” senior linebacker Anthony Wheeler said. “They went in (for) extra time, watching extra film, staying after practice trying to get the coverages and blitzes down.”
A five-time starter, McCulloch was appearing in his 34th game as a Longhorn. After the game, the 6-3, 250-pound Houston native’s acrobatic catch got a nod of approval from one of his offensive teammates.
“They say don’t catch it twice, but I’ll give him an exception for that one,” said junior receiver Collin Johnson, who caught a 26-yard touchdown.