It’s over at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, Kan. Fourteenth-ranked Texas has beaten Kansas 24-17 to earn a spot in next week’s Big 12 championship game.
It wasn’t a pretty win. Yes, the final score looked comfortable. But this game was a strange one. The Longhorns looked off on offense most of the day, Sam Ehlinger — who missed the second half last week with a shoulder injury — played but looked more like 2017 Sam Ehlinger than 2018 Sam Ehlinger, and after the Longhorns looked like they’d win this one with relative ease, it ended up being a game of onside kicks after the Jayhawks rallied for 17 points in the fourth quarter.
Still, Texas needed only a win to make it to Arlington, and that’s exactly where the Longhorns will be next week. Texas should be buoyed by the fact that the defense has bounced back from its October malaise with two good showings to close the regular season. Whoever the Longhorns face, the defense will need to show up. The Sooners put up 45 points on them and the Mountaineers had 42 in their first meetings.
“Our guys were resilient,” UT coach Tom Herman said. “They understood — all you gotta do is win by one, and we got it done. … We’re overachieving. We understand there are some really good teams in this league, some really good teams. That team we just played had been pretty much in every ballgame. We’ve got to get healed up, we’ve got an extra day to do it, we’ve got eight days to prepare but we’re going to need our best in Arlington, that’s for sure.”
What this win means
1. The Longhorns will play in the Big 12 title game for the first time since 2009. They’ll face the winner of tonight’s Oklahoma-West Virginia game, which kicks off at 7 on ESPN. The tile game is at 11 a.m. next Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
2. Texas ends the regular season at 9-3. That’s the Longhorns’ best showing since that 2009 season when Texas went 13-1, a perfect 12-0 season followed by a last-second win over Nebraska in the Big 12 title game and then the national championship game loss to Alabama.
3. Tom Herman downplayed it earlier this week, but today’s win absolutely exorcised the ghosts of Lawrence — this was Texas’ first trip there since the 24-21 overtime loss near the end of the 2016 season, the one that helped keep Texas from reaching a bowl game and helped cost Charlie Strong his job.
Why Texas (9-3, 7-2) won
The defense led the way. It turned out that Gary Johnson wasn’t needed in Lawrence, anyway. Texas’ leading tackler was suspended before the game but the Longhorns enjoyed their most dominant day on defense all season — big hits, sacks, tackles for loss, a fourth down stop, just about everything short of a turnover. Ehlinger was up and down all day, but did produce three touchdowns. This was the ninth game this season that has been decided by one score.
Why Kansas (3-8, 1-8) lost
The Jayhawks’ three biggest weapons all flopped — Bender threw for just 28 yards in the first half and finished 18 of 35 for 159 yards with a touchdown and an interception; Pooka Williams, who burned Oklahoma for 252 yards last week, had 103 yards on 16 carries but 57 of them came on one play; and Steven Sims, who had logged two good games previously against the Longhorns, was stymied all day by Kris Boyd, finishing with only five catches for 13 yards. The Jayhawks’ player of the game may have been their punter. Still, Kansas did make it interesting in the fourth quarter.
This was David Beaty’s final game at Kansas. The next time we see the Jayhawks, they’ll be coached by Les Miles.
First quarter (Texas 7, Kansas 0)
Texas: Collin Johnson 26-yard pass from Ehlinger (Cameron Dicker kick, 8:35)
Third quarter (Texas 21, Kansas 0)
Texas: Andrew Beck 5-yard pass from Ehlinger (Dicker kick, 8:40)
Texas: Ehlinger 3-yard run (Dicker kick, 1:02)
Fourth quarter (Final — Texas 24, Kansas 17)
Kansas: Williams 57-yard run (Gabriel Ruiz kick, 14:44)
Texas: Dicker 34-yard field goal (10:57)
Kansas: Daylon Charlot 31-yard pass from Peyton Bender (Rui kick, 3:27)
Kansas: Rui 45-yard field goal (1:37)
Texas’ 13 drives:
First quarter — TD, punt
Second quarter — Punt, interception, punt
Third quarter — Punt, TD, TD
Fourth quarter — Interception, FG, punt, punt, end of game
Kansas’ 12 drives:
First quarter — Punt, punt, punt
Second quarter — Punt, half
Third quarter — Punt, downs, TD
Fourth quarter — Interception, punt, FG
Close calls: This was nearly a four-turnover day for Ehlinger. Besides the pick that he threw that snapped the streak and the one in Longhorns territory in the fourth quarter, there was an earlier interception that was dropped by KU linebacker Joe Dineen. And in the third quarter, a Jayhawks defender stripped the ball away while Ehlinger was in the pocket, but Elijah Rodriguez recovered the fumble.
Ehlinger finished the day 16 of 28 for 154 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
That onside kick: There was drama with three-and-a-half minutes left. After the Jayhawks closed Texas’ lead to 24-14, they tried an onside kick to the left side. Collin Johnson appeared to make a smart move when he punched the ball out of bounds, but he was flagged for punching it forward. So Kansas got a second chance. This time, KU went for the onside kick right up the middle. A Texas player tried to jump on it before it had traveled 10 yards, but he couldn’t secure it. The ball bounced forward, and a Jayhawk landed on it as Lil’Jordan Humphrey dived for it. But replays showed Cade Brewer ended up with it at the bottom of the pile.
Officials called it a Kansas recovery. Curiously, it wasn’t reviewed.
That second (or third, technically) onside kick: The Jayhawks made it 24-17 with 1:37 left and went for another onside kick. This time, Rui kicked it right. Humphrey secured it easily.
Humphrey’s best play: It was a quiet day for Humphrey. He made only his second catch on a third-and-17 play late in the third quarter. But it was a big one. It was a quick toss of only 2 or 3 yards, but Humphrey produced a great yards-after-catch gain of 20 yards that ended with one of those pile-of-players-pushing-him-forward efforts like we saw him do against Oklahoma. This one went for 20 yards and the first down; the Longhorns eventually scored on Ehlinger’s 11th touchdown run of the season for the 21-0 lead.
He finished with 2 catches for 25 yards. Ehlinger took a couple of shots downfield for him, but they couldn’t connect.
It’s the little things: They won’t make the boxscore, but there were some nice individual moments for the Texas defense. Caden Sterns delivered a big hit in the third quarter to break up a pass. P.J. Locke III jumped into the offensive backfield to stop a shovel pass play to Sims for a 6-yard loss, and on the very next play he helped alter a play that resulted in a 5-yard loss. Malcolm Roach tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage.
He had his quarterback’s back: Jeffrey McCulloch, playing more because of Gary Johnson’s suspension, had the play of the game when he tipped Bender’s pass and then secured it for an interception early in the fourth quarter and then returned it 65 yards down to Kansas’ 25. It halted the Jayhawks’ momentum; Kansas had scored to make it 21-7 and then picked off Ehlinger in UT territory with a chance to make it a one-score game.
The long run: Williams’ 57-yarder was the longest touchdown run of the season against the Longhorns. But it wasn’t the longest run. Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray had a 67-yard run against Texas, but didn’t score on the play.
Flag-free Friday: Texas didn’t commit its first penalty until the 11:40 mark of the third quarter, a 5-yard false start.
Texas’ first three drives of the game started at its own 2, 4 and 8. … the Longhorns’ first tackle was by Brandon Jones, who played after missing the last couple of games with a bad ankle. … P.J. Locke III dropped an interception. Bounced right off his hands, though he did have to go low to get it. B.J. Foster dropped one late in the game as well. … Devin Duvernay went over the 1,000-yard mark for his career on the first drive, when he caught three passes. … Backup defensive end Ta’Quon Graham was injured early in the second quarter. Looked like a leg issue.
Up next for Texas
The Longhorns will play either No. 6 Oklahoma or No. 13 West Virginia in next Saturday’s Big 12 championship game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Kickoff is at 11 a.m. Texas beat Oklahoma 48-45 on Dicker’s last-second 40-yard field goal on Oct. 6; the Longhorns fell 42-41 to West Virginia at home on Nov. 3.
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