Posted September 9th, 2018
Saturday should have been a terrific day for anyone wearing burnt orange.
Thousands of fans packed the new Bevo Boulevard just outside Royal-Memorial Stadium. The student turnout alone was off the charts. The rain held off, and the Longhorns got to finally wear black socks and new black Nike shoes with their famous jersey tops and white pants.
“It’s a little swaggy,” defensive back P.J. Locke III said of the somewhat retro look. “Bring that old Texas swag back.”
So when it was all said and done, why was everyone so disgruntled about a 28-21 win over Tulsa? Disengaged was more like it. Players jogged off the field showing no emotion. Get those Horns up! Light the Tower! Sure, whatever.
After all, the Golden Hurricane went 2-10 last year and hadn’t won a road game since November 2016. They were three-touchdown underdogs. Never mind that they missed three field goals and dropped two sure-fire touchdown passes in the end zone. Trivial minutia at this point.
Some in the announced crowd of 90,563 up and left after the Longhorns (1-1) went up by 14 points with 6:25 remaining. Who cares if Tulsa (1-1) made it a nail-biter late? Right?
“No matter who we play,” linebacker Anthony Wheeler said, “a win is a win.”
It sure didn’t feel like it even though Texas pieced together an impressive 13-play, 75-yard drive to take a convincing 28-14 lead in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger has been criticized for his late-game turnovers. This time, he was 7 of 7 on that drive going with check-down passes. Texas finally scored on a swing pass to Tre Watson, who galloped in from 11 yards out. For a team that’s often struggled at winning time, this was a serious step in the right direction. Gobbled up 6 minutes, 13 seconds, too.
Tulsa’s quick-moving offense needed just 1:32 to get back within one possession, though. No worries, right? Running back Daniel Young, who hadn’t been seen all night long, made his first appearance at an odd moment. He ran three times for 3, 9 and 30 yards to close it out.
“To end it in victory formation,” UT coach Tom Herman said, “that’s a sign of a team that can finish. Was really proud of that.”
Texas finished with 478 total yards. Ehlinger threw for 237 of those while completing 21 of 27 passes and two touchdowns. Watson had a team-high 74 rushing yards while freshman Keaontay Ingram flashed serious potential. He tallied up 64 yards on 10 carries and had a dazzling 29-yard score.
Lil’Jordan Humphrey had seven catches for a team-high 109 receiving yards and shook off a defender for a 40-yard touchdown. It’s clear he can handle more.
“I thrive on being able to make the team better,” Humphrey said in his first interview of the season. “My mentality is just to do whatever I can to help this team win.”
Freshman B.J. Foster also had his first career interception. Another freshman, Brennan Eagles, had a key 35-yard catch. That was his first career catch. The defense didn’t have a sack but that was more about Tulsa quarterback Luke Skipper’s quick release than anything.
There was a lot to like. Still, it was obvious afterward that something felt off.
The Longhorns had plenty of juice early. So did the crowd. Credit Bevo Boulevard, the pregame concert, a street parade with Bevo XV himself, $5 beers — all of it, really. On the game’s first play, freshman Caden Sterns made his first career interception. The place was rocking.
Ehlinger came out firing, throwing a strike to Humphrey, who was racing down the seam. The next play, Ehlinger ran it in himself as Texas took a 7-0 lead.
But then, on its second drive, UT couldn’t punch it in on second-and-goal from the Tulsa 1. The drive ended with Ehlinger misfiring on fourth down to Collin Johnson. No big deal. Ingram’s and Humphrey’s touchdowns gave UT a 21-0 lead, and all seemed fine. Or, so it appeared.
“I was pretty hard on our guys at halftime, and I think you sensed a little bit of that pressing again,” Herman said. “So I’ve got to remember what brought us to that point of being up 21-0, and that was playing loose and playing carefree.”
Herman got after his troops at the break, and they froze up? Does that fully explain a dreadful third quarter where Texas had 12 plays for a rather drab total of 48 yards? Four drives went nowhere, and one ended on an Ehlinger fumble.
“I don’t know why everyone tightens up,” Ehlinger said. “When we have a voice of saying, ‘Loosen up, loosen up,’ playing tight is not going to make you better and there’s no point of doing it. I don’t know one specific reason why, and I’m hoping that moving forward we’ll never have that happen.”
This is the same problem Texas suffered in the season-opening loss against Maryland. According to Herman, players were so afraid of making mistakes, they essentially played not to lose instead of playing to win.
“I don’t think it’s the pressure of (playing at) Texas,” Herman said. “I think it’s more of the wanting so badly to play well for their teammates that, you know, we tense up a little bit.”
Every player in that locker room has a winning pedigree. That’s how they got to Texas. Yet for some reason, they apparently tense up now while playing a game they’ve played most of their lives.
“It’s a lot of stress. It’s a big stage,” Watson said. “A lot of guys, I really don’t know. I like to go out there and have fun, so I can’t talk for other people. But that was Herman’s main focus this week, just go out there and play our game and enjoy the game we play.”
Said Locke: “We’ve been playing this game since we were little kids. Nothing has really changed. It’s just better competition.”
Elijah Rodriguez, who played center in Zach Shackelford’s absence, said he planned on enjoying this one. Things only get harder from here. USC, TCU, a trip to Kansas State and then a date with Oklahoma are next on the docket.
If these Longhorns can’t handle the pressure of playing Tulsa, heaven help them moving forward.
“I just want to encourage guys to stay happy,” Rodriguez said. “Just encourage them to stay positive and know that a win is a win. celebrate that. Let that momentum take us into this week’s preparation.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.