On a cold, rainy day in Morgantown, the Texas Longhorns used an early defensive stand that changed the complexion of the game to showcase the first of several big responses in a 28-14 win.
Now sitting at six victories on the season, Texas is bowl eligible after finishing 5-7 in each of the last two years under Charlie Strong.
The game changed during a critical stretch of the first quarter. West Virginia had found a big play down the sideline to wide receiver David Sills after benefitting from a questionable personal foul penalty on Texas cornerback Davante Davis.
After a run by Justin Crawford that was initially ruled a touchdown, but was later overturned on review, another important play was called a score on the field. However, replays showed that West Virginia quarterback Will Grier lost control of the football just before crossing the goal line, then lost it out of bounds. Grier dislocated his finger on the play and didn’t return to the game, while the fumble resulted in a touchback for Texas.
The swing kept the home crowd out of the game and changed the calculus for the Texas defense as West Virginia lost one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks.
On offense, an early switch helped take advantage of the opportunity provided by Grier’s absence — with Sam Ehlinger replacing Shane Buechele after the game’s first two drives, the offense started to find the type of rhythm that was initially stalled by inaccurate passes, penalties, and a big dropped pass by wide receiver John Burt.
On his second drive, Ehlinger faced a 3rd and 4 from the Texas 30-yard line in a pouring rain. After moving to his right in the pocket, Ehlinger unleashed a perfect throw to Reggie Hemphill-Mapps that dropped over the shoulder of the redshirt freshman wide receiver for a 50-yard gain.
The vision and strength of Ehlinger helped him gain a key first down in the red zone on a QB power on 4th and 2. On the subsequent third and goal, a play-action pass to third-string tight end Kendall Moore went for an important four-yard touchdown catch. It was the first catch of Moore’s Texas career and his first target in burnt orange and white a year after he only caught one pass for Syracuse.
The next drive for Texas once again hinged on the arm and legs of Ehlinger. He converted a 3rd and 4 to largely forgotten wide receiver Devin Duvernay and then scrambled for 17 yards to pick up a 3rd and 9 when West Virginia only rushed on defender.
Finally getting into a rhythm as a play caller with All-American left tackle Connor Williams back in the lineup, Tim Beck called a throwback pass from former quarterback Jerrod Heard to Ehlinger for a 23-yard gain.
After Chris Warren III fell down in the backfield for a false start, Ehlinger hit Warren down the seam on a pop pass for a 20-yard touchdown that showcased Warren’s upside at his new position.
With the second-quarter surge, Texas went into halftime with a 14-0 lead and the confidence that the defense could stop back-up quarterback Chris Chugunov, who completed only 5-of-9 passes for 34 yards in the first half after replacing Grier.
Early in the third quarter, the ‘Horns had a chance to stretch the lead to 21-0 on a methodical drive that featured another long Ehlinger run on third down for 17 yards, this time a quarterback draw that needed to gain eight.
And then Ehlinger made the type of mistake that has come to define his freshman season — after nearly throwing an interception that Heard broke up in the end zone, Ehlinger tried to throw the ball away on a sack. Unable to get it to the sideline harmlessly, Ehlinger left it in the arms of a West Virginia defender who returned it 94 yards for a touchdown.
The results of that particular play weren't as extreme as Grier’s injury that resulted in a 14-point swing by the second Texas drive, but it kept West Virginia in the game.
An Ehlinger fumble pulling the ball on a zone read didn’t inspire a lot of confidence with the game on the line, but two runs behind Williams by Daniel Young and Kyle Porter resulted in a touchdown to stretch the lead to 21-7.
At that point, the Texas offense got conservative, going three and out twice after runs on first and second down on both drives. The danger was that those weak efforts were sandwiched around a referee-aided touchdown march by West Virginia that included Bracken Hager’s ejection on a questionable targeting call directly after his facemark was held by the offensive lineman. Hager will miss the first half of the game against Texas Tech next Friday.
With the lead once again cut to seven points, the defense responded with the type of game-changing play that has largely characterized this season by that unit. Able to tee off on 3rd and 10 with the Mountaineers on their own 20-yard line, defensive end Malcolm Roach bull rushed the left tackle into the quarterback and linebacker Gary Johnson finished it off with a strip sack that Chris Nelson recovered.
Two runs by Young were enough from six yards out to push the margin to 28-14 with 5:07 remaining.
There weren’t any surprises after that as the ‘Horns broke through with a key win to reach six wins with the Red Raiders looming next week. Based on preseason expectations, the chance at seven wins wouldn’t have been particularly inspiring. In the context of how this particular season has gone against a difficult schedule, it’s something, at least.
The fact that Grier went out early changes the outlook on what this game means for Texas in the big picture, but the return of Connor Williams and the availability of Sam Ehlinger combined with the emergence of Danny Young are all big positives.
This is something to build on, and it starts next Friday.