17th-ranked Longhorns can't make a critical stop late, may have seen their Big 12 title hopes dashed
Posted November 3rd, 2018
Quintessential Big 12 football always comes down to one key element: Who gets the ball last.
That was never more apparent than Saturday’s wild finish at Royal-Memorial Stadium.
Both Texas and West Virginia had more than 500 yards of total offense. Both had exactly 75 offensive plays. The first half featured eight lead changes alone in a made-for-TV shootout.
A sold-out crowd of 100,703 went wild when UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger threw a home-run ball to Devin Duvernay, the electric speedster who glided under a 48-yard touchdown catch for the lead. Just one problem. The Horns left 2 minutes, 34 seconds on the clock.
Just like last week against Oklahoma State, the UT defense needed to make just one stop. But West Virginia quarterback Will Grier floated a deep ball where only Gary Jennings Jr. could catch it in the back of the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left.
Instead of kicking it and forcing overtime, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said, “The decision was already made.”
On a play where he has four options, Grier ran it in himself on the 2-point conversion and the 13th-ranked Mountaineers escaped with a 42-41 win.
“I just tried to bull the center, but he was reading me,” defensive tackle Chris Nelson said. “I’m trying to figure out which way he was going, and he just bounced it out outside. There’s supposed to be an edge guy out there, but obviously there wasn’t.”
Afterward, West Virginia players celebrated by dancing on UT’s midfield logo, something Gary Johnson, D’Andre Christmas and Kyle Porter didn’t take too kindly. But that’s how it goes on a day featuring 1,098 total yards where the loser may have been knocked out of Big 12 title contention.
“Our guys fought hard, really, really hard. But it’s obvious we’ve got to do a better job,” UT coach Tom Herman said.
The 17th-ranked Longhorns (6-3, 4-2 Big 12) fell back in the Big 12 race with three regular-season games left — at Texas Tech, Iowa State at home and at Kansas. Herman, a coach who doesn’t talk much about the big picture, conceded the Horns now need help to reach the league championship game. The Mountaineers (7-1, 5-1) are in the driver’s seat.
“We certainly don’t control our own destiny,” he said. “We need a couple of things to happen.”
All kinds of things were happening all day long. The craziness started Saturday morning when Texas safety Brandon Jones aggravated an ankle injury at the strangest of places. “At the team hotel,” the school announced before kickoff.
Cornerback Davante Davis suffered a shoulder injury on the game’s second play. Defensive end Breckyn Hager was lost on the second possession.
So the Horns were without three defensive starters for a majority of the day against the league’s third-best scoring offense.
Ehlinger and the offense had to carry this one. Things started off pretty well, too. Ehlinger avoided a max blitz and fired a deep ball to Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who caught it at the WVU 1. Ehlinger ran it in himself to give Texas a 7-3 lead and ignite the zaniness.
Texas freshman Caden Sterns couldn’t do anything but watch as David Sills V ran past him for a 40-yard touchdown catch. Sills earned an unsportsmanlike penalty for giving the double-fisted “Horns Down” in the end zone. Then on the extra point, WVU’s best offensive lineman, Yodny Cajuste, was ejected for shoving UT’s Charles Omenihu.
With all those penalty yards, West Virginia kicked off from the 10-yard line. Texas had great field position and needed only three plays to score. Humphrey caught a sizzler down the seam for a 21-yard score, giving Texas a 14-10 lead.
Officials made themselves the stars for the rest of the first half. West Virginia was called for 12 penalties for 95 yards in the first 30 minutes alone.
UT’s Malcolm Roach was called for a horse-collar penalty after taking Grier down hard. Grier had suffered a broken right middle finger against Texas last season. This time, he simply needed to check out for a few moments to collect himself. He came back and threw an NFL-level touchdown pass to Sills from 18 yards out. There wasn’t anything cornerback Josh Thompson could do. The seesaw battle continued.
Texas took the lead again thanks to Herman’s dice-roll on fourth-and-3 from WVU’s 43-yard line. His color-coded binder must have said to find Collin Johnson, who reeled in a 26-yard catch to keep things moving. The drive ended with Tre Watson’s 5-yard touchdown run.
Oddly enough, it was Herman’s decision not to go for it on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter that proved pivotal, too.
Ehlinger picked up 14 yards on third-and-15 and reached the West Virginia 21. Texas led 31-27 at the time. It would’ve been hard to argue either way — kick a field goal or go for it. Considering Herman hates short field goals, the decision for him looked easy.
“I always want to go for it, tell you the truth,” Ehlinger said. “I trust in the coaches completely.”
Said Herman: “You know, we felt like with the wind in the fourth quarter, them against the wind, we felt pretty confident.”
Cameron Dicker came on and drilled a 38-yarder, giving the Horns a seven-point lead. WVU tied it up on the ensuing possession as Martell Pettaway ran in from 13 yards out.
Pettaway had 121 yards rushing on just nine carries. Kennedy McKoy also ran for 94 yards as the Mountaineers finished with 232 rushing yards in all.
Texas’ running game simply isn’t built to match those kind of numbers. Watson ran tough in the third quarter and tallied up 80 yards on 14 carries.
In the end, this was a quarterback duel. Ehlinger finished with 354 passing yards and three touchdowns. Humphrey was the main beneficiary with nine receptions for 143 yards. Grier finished with 346 passing yards and three touchdowns.
The UT defense had no sacks and was credited with only two quarterback hurries. That’s simply not enough production against a player who might be a first-round draft pick next spring.
Asked about the secondary, Herman said, “I’m not going to grade a unit without having watched the film. I know this — they battled their butts off, battled their butts off. Whatever issues we had, they weren’t a lack of effort.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email email@example.com.