Football

Halfway home: The highs, lows and belly-rubbing excitement from Longhorns’ first 6 games

At the season's midpoint, the Longhorns look like a far different team now than the group that left Washington

Posted October 10th, 2018

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Story highlights
  • “Yeah, we didn’t get the win, but we were a lot closer than we appeared to be.”
  • Sam Ehlinger, Brandon Jones win honors for most improved player so far this year.
  • Who had the best touchdown catch so far? Duvernay, Moore or Johnson?

Even now, more than one month later, Texas coach Tom Herman’s comments after the season-opening loss to Maryland look mind-boggling on paper.

“A lot of people are gonna want to say this feels a lot like last year,” Herman said back at FedEx Field on Sept. 1. “It doesn’t to me.”

What’s that? Come again? Operator, is anyone there?

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“We wanted it so badly that we got in our own way quite a bit, and that’s correctible,” Herman said two days later.

Turns out, the Texas coach who appeared out of his depth had the spot-on assessment. The Longhorns (5-1, 3-0 Big 12) have arrived at the season’s midpoint with a five-game winning streak and a No. 9 national ranking.

Texas defensive back Josh Thompson (29) celebrates with fans while wearing the Golden Hat following Texas’ 48-45 win over Oklahoma in an NCAA college football game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Instead of judging what happened against Maryland, permission to reframe the question, your honor. Does UT’s current hot streak, one that could continue Saturday against Baylor, ever happen without that loss to Maryland?

“As hard as that loss was, I think it was a very, very good thing for us,” senior tight end Andrew Beck said. “It gave guys specific things to work on they needed to fix before the next week.

“Yeah, we didn’t get the win, but we were a lot closer than we appeared to be.”

Statistically speaking, the Longhorns probably won’t finish the year with the Big 12’s top-ranked offense. But the Horns are winning the time of possession battle, grinding people up in the fourth quarter and closing out wins. It cannot be overstated how a program that’s struggled to win in recent years finished four straight wins in the victory formation.

It’s an offense that just scored 48 points on UT’s biggest rival and got OU’s defensive coordinator fired.

Defensively, fans can grouse about allowing 532 total yards to OU. Or, they can simply acknowledge what was obvious — quarterback Kyler Murray is exceptional. One game does not negate the physical bullying this defense did against USC, TCU and Kansas State.

“I want them to understand that each week is a freakin’ battle,” Herman said. And it will be for six more regular-season games.

Here’s a look at some of the high and low points in the season’s first half:

Texas wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey (84) runs with the football during an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Best play: Is there any doubt? Lil’Jordan Humphrey’s 19-yarder on third-and-21 against OU may end up being the play of the year. What got lost was how much help he had from teammates. Offensive lineman Zach Shackelford, Elijah Rodriguez and Sam Cosmi all forced Humphrey forward on a play that best symbolized what Herman wants this program to represent.

Best leaping score: It’s hard to say who had the best out-stretched touchdown catch — Devin Duvernay (Maryland, 39 yards), Joshua Moore (USC, 27 yards) or Collin Johnson (TCU, 31 yards). All three were spectacular. Duvernay and Johnson are used to getting into the end zone. For Moore, a freshman, it was a first.

Texas receiver Devin Duvernay scores on a diving catch against Maryland at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., on Sept. 1, 2018. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Biggest surprise: First-year offensive line coach Herb Hand is working wonders with a group that looked lost last year. Landing graduate transfer Calvin Anderson helped. Shackelford and Rodriguez returned healthy. Patrick Vahe is an old pro at this point. Derek Kerstetter and Cosmi are two building blocks for the future. 

Texas is averaging 157.2 rushing yards and allowing only 1.5 sacks per game.

Worst defensive effort: Has anyone tackled Maryland freshman Jeshaun Jones yet? In his collegiate debut against UT, Jones scored via running (27 yards), receiving (65 yards) and passing (20 yards) at FedEx Field.

It was the first time a freshman had scored in those three ways since Oregon’s Marcus Mariota did it in 2012. 

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) scrambles away from TCU defensive end L.J. Collier (91) in the second half of a Big 12 Conference football game at Royal-Memorial Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Most improved player I: Quarterback Sam Ehlinger was 2-4 last season as a freshman starter and committed key turnovers in three critical losses. The sophomore has turned things around and may not look back. He’s now 7-5 as a starter and hasn’t thrown an interception in five consecutive games, all victories.

Ehlinger now holds the school record with 163 pass attempts without an interception, breaking the old mark of 156 held by Major Applewhite (1999).

Most improved player II: With a slew of young freshmen on the roster, junior safety Brandon Jones entered this season needing to show something. He’s become the defense’s leading tackler (44) and has two interceptions. Jones’ closing speed on the fourth-down, goal-line stand against USC was sensational.

Texas defensive back Brandon Jones (19) drives USC running back Stephen Carr (7) out of bounds in Austin on Sept. 15, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Worth every penny: What can be said of Bevo Boulevard and the pre-game concerts at Longhorn City Limits that haven’t been said? Take a bow, athletic director Chris Del Conte. No, check that. Go sign Paul McCartney or Metallica for the West Virginia and Iowa State home games, then we’ll give out some atta-boys. Surely, the ACL folks can help with that.

Worst football injury: The Horns have been fortunate in this area. Still, running back Keaontay Ingram tweaked his knee late against Tulsa and slowed down. The freshman had to miss the USC game and needed a few weeks to get back to full strength. He had a season-high 86 yards against Oklahoma on 13 carries. Ingram’s season average is 6.2 yards per carry.

Texas Longhorns running back Keaontay Ingram (26) scores a touchdown against Tulsa Golden Hurricane safety McKinley Whitfield (5) in the first half in the NCAA college football game, at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, in Austin, Texas Saturday, Sept. 8 , 2018 RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Scary medical injuries: Herman downplayed it at the time, but offensive lineman Patrick Hudson had to be taken to the hospital with a heat-related illness. He remained under doctors care for an entire weekend and still hasn’t been fully cleared to return.

Speaking of hospitals, offensive coordinator Tim Beck developed a bacterial infection in his elbow the week leading up to the Kansas State game. Beck missed the trip to Manhattan, which was a win in itself, and rejoined the team the Monday before OU.

Player we miss the most: Receiver Jerrod Heard. He’s got only two catches this season. Still, he’s a terrific ambassador for the UT program and loved by fans. Same goes for John Burt, who had his first catch of the year against OU.

Texas linebacker Gary Johnson (33) hits Maryland Terrapins quarterback Kasim Hill (11) in the second quarter at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., on Sept. 1 , 2018. Johnson was ejected for targeting on the play. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Yes, that’s a penalty: Safety B.J. Foster’s targeting call on a USC receiver was more justifiable than linebacker Gary Johnson’s targeting flag on a Maryland quarterback. In Johnson’s case, the player was sliding down and Johnson had nowhere to go.

No, that’s not a penalty: If a defensive player makes a sack or big play, jumps up, moves toward his bench and rubs his belly in a celebratory fashion, that is not a flag. Chris Nelson, keep doing your thing.

Texas defensive lineman Chris Nelson (97) rubs his belly while wearing the Golden Hat following Texas’ 48-45 win over Oklahoma in an NCAA college football game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Maybe that’s a penalty: The moment Breckyn Hager went to his knee and offered up his turnover to the “football gods” against OU, he probably should’ve been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Eh, but it was in front of UT’s bench, far away from the Sooners. OK, maybe just a warning.

Texas defensive lineman Breckyn Hager (60) celebrates his fumble recovery with defensive lineman Charles Omenihu (90) during an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Best quote so far I: “As we’re looking up, I was thinking, ‘God told me we’re going to win this game. So why would he miss it?,’ ” Hager said on Cameron Dicker’s game-winning field goal against OU.

Best quote so far II: “Have you seen the last four years?,” Herman on why the Longhorns can’t just expect to win.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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