14th-ranked Longhorns clinch a spot in Arlington by knocking off pesky Jayhawks
Posted November 23rd, 2018
LAWRENCE, Kan. — The last few weeks, Texas coach Tom Herman has been saying his 14th-ranked Longhorns are “overachieving.” He said it again Friday after a 24-17 win over Kansas with one additional tidbit.
“We’re an unfinished product,” a jubilant Herman said inside a cramped equipment room at KU’s Memorial Stadium. “We’re overachieving right now. We’ve done just enough to earn the right to play for our conference’s title game.”
In the same room where Texas’ previous coach knew his time was up two years ago, Texas’ current coach knew that he’s just getting started.
The Longhorns (9-3, 7-2 Big 12) are now headed to Arlington for next Saturday’s Big 12 championship game. In what looked like a lost decade at times, Texas can now win a league title in Herman’s second year. The Horns haven’t been this close to a championship since 2009.
Overachieving? Maybe this team hasn’t reached its full potential yet. Maybe it hasn’t even come close. “We haven’t,” defensive end Charles Omenihu said. “I can tell by the people on the team we’ve got a lot more in the tank.”
Maybe this is indeed a championship-caliber team after all. For as cornerback Kris Boyd said, “We in the championship, ain’t we? All right?”
Texas will face either Oklahoma or West Virginia at AT&T Stadium, and frankly, neither Herman nor the Longhorns seemed to really care. The Sooners and Mountaineers played late Saturday in Morgantown, W.Va.
The Eyes in Lawrence. pic.twitter.com/TtZ5a1ILtS
— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) November 23, 2018
The Longhorns beat the Sooners 48-45 at the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 6 via a last-second Cameron Dicker field goal. The Mountaineers won 42-41 in Austin on Nov. 3 with a successful two-point conversion attempt with 16 seconds remaining.
Taking in the whole moment, linebacker Anthony Wheeler said, “Kind of a loss for words a little bit. We’ll go home, watch that game, see who we’re going to play and come in Sunday ready to work.”
Omenihu, Boyd, Wheeler and others in the senior class have been through an emotional wringer during their time at Texas. There’s been a head coaching change, a slew of assistant coaching changes, losing seasons and an uphill struggle just to become bowl-eligible.
“Knowing that you’re going to go to a bowl game and have an opportunity to raise the trophy up, it’s a blessing,” Omenihu said. “I’m very excited. Ready to face whoever.”
Said senior tight end Andrew Beck: “Oh, it was awesome. Everybody’s excited. This is where we wanted to be when we set forth in January.”
But first, Texas had some unfinished business with Kansas (3-9, 1-8). Two years ago, the league’s worst team forced six Texas turnovers and captured a 24-21 overtime victory, one that triggered the end of Charlie Strong’s three-year run in Austin.
Herman let out an audible guffaw when asked last week if this team was chasing any sort of ghosts in the nation’s heartland. He simply wasn’t around to know how embarrassing it truly was.
The Horns knew they’d have to “bring their own juice,” Wheeler said. The announced crowd of 15,219 was as sparse as it sounds in a stadium that holds 50,000. Some pranksters livened things up by flying a Texas state flag atop Fraser Hall on the KU campus, which was visible from the stadium.
The Horns were pinned back at their own 2-yard line after D’Shawn Jamison let a punt go after UT forced an opening three-and-out. No big deal. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger engineered a 98-yard touchdown drive and had no issues hitting Collin Johnson for a 26-yard score.
Ehlinger saw his Big 12- and Texas-record streak of 308 consecutive passes without an interception come to an end in the second quarter. Before Friday, his last interception came against Maryland in the season opener.
Still, the defense controlled the tempo most of the day playing without linebacker Gary Johnson, who was suspended one game for a violation of team rules. Herman said it was a “one-game thing,” and Johnson should return for the Big 12 title game.
Texas went up 14-0 on Ehlinger’s swing pass to Beck for a 5-yard score. Then Ehlinger kept it himself and ran it in from 3 yards out to give the Horns a 21-0 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Of course, no Texas game is complete without some final-quarter drama. Kansas running back Pooka Williams Jr. got loose for a 57-yard touchdown run. Ehlinger threw another interception, and Kansas was in business at the UT 25.
But on second-and-5 from the Texas 17, quarterback Peyton Bender threw a ball that linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch tipped into the air and intercepted. He dashed 65 yards the other way and gave Texas a serious jolt. The Horns got a field goal off the turnover and led 24-7.
“I saw the back come out of the backfield and I didn’t see anybody around him,” McCulloch said. “OK, so I guess the ball is going there.”
Kansas got another late touchdown and even secured the onside kick when the ball bounced off Beck’s chest and squirted into the open. The Jayhawks got their own field goal, but Lil’Jordan Humphrey grabbed the next onside kick and it was over.
“Yeah, our team has fought, scraped, clawed, trained and you wonder why we put them in such adverse conditions in the offseason,” Herman said, “it’s for fourth quarters like that one.”
The final stats were relatively even. The football school is now playing for the Big 12 title while the basketball school is changing football coaches.
“I don’t think we have reached our potential at all,” Ehlinger said. “I think we’re still limiting ourselves. We’re still stopping ourselves and there’s things I know we’re capable of doing.”
Overachieving, huh? It looks more like a team with a lot more ahead.
“We look back and we were 5-7 two years in a row sitting at home watching the Big 12. Now we’re actually playing in it,” Boyd said. “That just shows you that hard work pays off.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email email@example.com.