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Hang on tight: Ten key moments from Texas’ roller-coaster season with twists, turns galore

Longhorns went from having serious CFP aspirations to being unable to make the Big 12 title game

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger looks down after watching place kicker Cameron Dicker's 58-yard field goal try just miss at the end of the 23-20 loss to Iowa State on Nov. 27. The kick would have forced overtime; Ehlinger lost four yards on a third down sack on the prior play.

Even in a pandemic, Tom Herman always knew this season counted. No amount of doomscrolling on Yahoo News would change that.

“Should any of us be judged by the craziness that is this season? That’s for you to decide,” the Texas coach said in October. “I’ve got my opinions.”

And we’d love to hear them.

“I know you would,” Herman shot back with a grin, “and I’d like to keep them to myself.”

Forget outrageous fan expectations. The Longhorns did not even meet their own in 2020.

This was supposed to be the year it all came together. These Horns had senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger — statistically one of the best passers in school history — and a locker room built off three top-10 recruiting classes.

And yet again, Texas (6-3, 5-3 Big 12) found itself sidelined for the league championship game. Buried well within the footnotes of the Big 12 rulebook, it was discovered that UT technically finished third in the league standings instead of fourth. Whoop-de-do.

Looking back, there were critical moments that shaped the weekly narrative and the always-evolving perceptions about Herman’s job status and the program itself. Some were obvious, others were critical in the moment but quickly forgotten. 

Here’s a look at 10 key plays, decisions or moments throughout the year that guided Texas down a path back to the Alamo Bowl, which will be played Tuesday night in San Antonio against Colorado:

Sept. 12: Moore’s season-opening smash

It’s impossible to start a new season any better than Texas did on the first play of the opener. Wide receiver Joshua Moore caught an inside slant over the middle against UTEP and raced 78 yards for a touchdown. Two Miners gave chase, but it was futile. 

Talk about a high-water mark. It would stand as the longest offensive play of the year. 

Texas’ 59-3 victory sparked fresh optimism that maybe this was the year. “I think the game against UTEP was what it was,” Herman said that following Monday. “We did what we were, quote, supposed to do.”

Sept. 26: Lucky bounce in Lubbock

Texas’ new four-man defensive line didn’t look so good the following week in Lubbock. The defense got almost no consistent pressure on Texas Tech quarterback Alan Bowman, who threw for 325 yards and five touchdowns.

Some lackluster tackling was at the heart of SaRodorick Thompson’s 75-yard touchdown run that gave Tech a 56-41 lead. Was this defense any better or not? Ehlinger quickly found Brennan Eagles for a 12-yard touchdown pass to get back in it, but Texas needed one more possession.

Kicker Cameron Dicker’s onside kick took the perfect room-service hop right to Malcolm Epps. If the Red Raiders had recovered, the game was over. Instead, with new life, Ehlinger found Moore for an 18-yard score, then Eagles for the tying two-point conversion. Texas went on to win 63-56 in double-overtime.

Texas Tech would go on to finish 4-6.

Texas' Malcolm Epps recovers an onside kick during the overtime win at Texas Tech on Sept. 26.

Oct. 3: Goal-line fumble changes everything

TCU coach Gary Patterson owns Texas. Once again, the Horned Frogs had their way most of the day, methodically building up a 23-14 lead in the third quarter. But Roschon Johnson’s seven-yard score and Epps’ seven-yard touchdown catch kept UT alive.

Max Duggan’s 26-yard touchdown with 4:01 remaining gave TCU a 33-29 lead. Texas took over at its own 25. Wanting to go up-tempo, Ehlinger completed two passes and then found Keaontay Ingram for a 52-yard gain. The Horns were in business.

Texas rushed to line up again. Ingram got 16 yards on the ground to the TCU 1-yard line. Hurry, hurry, hurry. On first-and-goal, Ingram was stopped and tried to stretch the ball over the goal line — where it was punched loose by Horned Frogs linebacker Garret Wallow. TCU recovered with 2:32 remaining and won 33-31.

What was the rush? Texas needed to eat clock anyway. Why did Ingram stick the ball out? Coaches preach that’s something you don’t do.

Oct. 10: Coaching calls in Red River Rivalry

Two coaching decisions swung the Texas-Oklahoma game. It never should have reached overtime, much less gone four overtimes. 

OU coach Lincoln Riley’s biggest mistake was green-lighting a pass play on third-and-9 from the OU 47-yard line. The Sooners were up 31-24 and needed to run clock. But Spencer Rattler’s pass to Austin Stogner was incomplete, stopping the clock and OU had to punt.

Texas took over with 1:52 remaining. Turns out, that was plenty of time for Ehlinger to engineer an eight-play drive capped with a comeback story. Ingram caught a two-yard touchdown pass that got UT within one. 

Herman should have gone for two right then and there. The Horns had all the momentum as the Sooners were back on their heels. Instead, Herman played it by the book, kicked the extra point and tied the game at 31-31.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger crosses into the end zone for a touchdown in overtime against Oklahoma on Oct. 10. The Sooners ended up winning the game, however.

Oct. 10: Ehlinger’s moment dashed

Ehlinger was darn near unstoppable at that point of the Texas-OU game. He scored from three yards out in the first overtime, then raced in from 25 in double OT. Ehlinger looked rather incredible. 

But he proved mortal. Rattler found Drake Stoops for a 25-yard touchdown pass in the fourth overtime and tacked on the two-point conversion. Texas had to score. On second-and-goal from the OU 19, Ehlinger threw toward the end zone. OU’s Tre Brown was there for the game-ending interception.

OU won 53-45, but this was no epic. It was not a well-played game overall, just a crazy finish.

Afterward, Ehlinger remained on the field with his “Hook ’em” hand sign up during the singing of “The Eyes of Texas.” A photograph of the Texas quarterback standing by himself while most of the team had already left became a public-relations disaster for the university and could not be ignored.

Oct. 24: Players return for 'The Eyes'

The 2020 season will forever have one question lingering overhead. Did this team care more about social justice or winning football games?

Multiple players walked to the State Capitol in June as a way of doing something, anything, to show displeasure over George Floyd’s death in Minnesota. That led to a push to get rid of “The Eyes of Texas,” the century-old school song that debuted at a minstrel show in 1903.

School officials agreed to a list of requests put forth by the football team. UT changed the name of the football field to honor Texas' two Heisman winners Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams. They also erected a statue of Julius Whittier, the school’s first Black letterman.

The details of a 27-16 win over Baylor mean little. It’s what happened afterward. Players agreed to stay on the field for the postgame playing of “The Eyes.” They weren’t forced to sing it, but school officials requested they at least stand out there together. 

Herman was trapped. Should he support his players and risk losing them? Or should he do what his superiors and boosters demanded and force players to sing the song? The players’ decision to go along with the plan and stay on the field quieted but did not end the controversy.

Texas players stand for "The Eyes of Texas" after the Oct. 24 win over Baylor at Royal-Memorial Stadium. "The Eyes" has been a sore spot with players, school officials and fans throughout the season.

Oct. 31: Max blitz in Stillwater

Now with two conference losses, Texas couldn’t afford another slip heading into Stillwater on Halloween. Oklahoma State’s high-flying offense went after Texas’ corners early and often. The sixth-ranked Cowboys ran up a 31-20 lead.

Then, lightning struck in the form of D’Shawn Jamison. His 100-yard kickoff return supercharged the Texas sideline. Jake Smith’s 12-yard touchdown catch gave Texas a fourth-quarter lead. The game went into overtime, and Moore’s 15-yard score gave UT the upper hand.

That seven-point lead is why first-year defensive coordinator Chris Ash called a max blitz as OSU faced fourth-and-8 from the Texas 12. Ash wasn’t around for the LSU game in 2019 when a max blitz led to Texas’ doom. This time, Joseph Ossai exploded out of his stance and chased down Spencer Sanders for a 13-yard sack to win the game.

Nov. 7: Bijan’s breakout moment

Throughout the year, Herman and assistant coach Stan Drayton stubbornly clung to a three-man rotation at running back. It was Ingram, Johnson and freshman Bijan Robinson. But anyone who was actually watching the games could tell who deserved more carries as the season wore on.

Robinson, a five-star recruit, started against Baylor and Oklahoma State. He’d get a few carries, then disappear for several quarters. Against West Virginia, he left no doubt. He opened the game with a 54-yard sprint straight through the Mountaineers’ defense.

Robinson finished the first quarter with four carries for 75 yards. He got one, four and three carries over the next three quarters. Just for grins, he iced a 17-13 win with a 35-yard catch-and-run out of the backfield. 

By this point, there should be little doubt who is Texas’ best tailback going forward. Whether Herman adheres to the rotation is the wildcard.

Texas running back Bijan Robinson sprints past West Virginia safety Tykee Smith at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Nov. 7. The five-star freshman ended up starting the last half of the season.

Nov. 27: Taking a critical sack

The Iowa State game had two standout defensive plays. B.J. Foster, who had quit the team during halftime of the season opener and was allowed back, knocked away a ball in the end zone. Chris Brown broke up another pass in the end zone, denying the Cyclones a chance to score. Both were key fourth-down stops.

But the biggest moment came during Texas’ two-minute drill at the end. Ehlinger moved the ball downfield with completions of nine, 13, 13 and nine yards to the Iowa State 43-yard line. Texas still had 27 seconds left.

Ehlinger ran for seven yards and got out of bounds. Then, he threw two incompletions. On third-and-10, he couldn’t get rid of the ball in time and took a pivotal sack for a four-yard loss. You simply cannot take a sack in that situation. 

Dicker’s longest made field goal of the season was 43 yards. His career longest was 57 yards indoors against Rice in 2019. He was summoned for a 58-yard attempt to send it to overtime. It just missed as Iowa State captured a 23-20 win. Iowa State running back Breece Hall said it was “five-star culture versus five-star players.”

Dec. 5: Working out frustrations

Having been eliminated from the Big 12 race, Herman’s job status moved front and center. He was pounded in the following Monday news conference as school officials started looking elsewhere. The American-Statesman later reported that UT officials reached out to Urban Meyer, who passed on the job citing health issues.

Herman needed a big win at Kansas State to quiet the noise. That’s exactly what Texas delivered in a 69-31 thrashing. Robinson had a season-high 172 yards and three touchdowns on just nine carries. Jamison had another sizzling kickoff return, this time going 98 yards. 

But the game will be remembered for what happened to senior offensive lineman Derek Kerstetter. He suffered a gruesome dislocated left foot injury that brought the game to a halt. Fortunately, he was taken to the hospital and was back with the team for the postgame celebration.

Texas head coach Tom Herman, in his fourth season in Austin, was the subject of job speculation over the last half of the season. But UT athletic director Chris Del Conte addressed Herman's future at the end of the regular season, saying Herman would be back in 2021.

The aftermath

The regular-season finale against Kansas was canceled because of COVID-19 protocols. Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte issued a statement meant to back Herman but came off looking tepid. And the Alamo Bowl had to grin-and-bear-it while picking Texas to play in San Antonio for a second straight year.

According to the College Football Playoff selection committee, Texas ranks 20th nationally. The program has never come close to the top four spots needed to make the playoff since the CFP began in 2014. Its highest finish was 15th in 2018.

Five team captains opted out of the bowl game, and with Kerstetter injured, that leaves Ehlinger as the only healthy captain. The Horns missed on several in-state offensive linemen, and the newest recruiting class was ranked 17th nationally by 247Sports' composite team rankings.

A season with so much promise ended with Texas fans furious at Herman and Del Conte, team captains jumping ship, a middling recruiting class and an uncertain future heading into 2021. 

Unfortunately for Herman, all of this counts in 2020.

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