The best quarterback on the field. The best wide receiver duo on the field. A clutch kicker.
If that combination for the Texas Longhorns on the Cotton Bowl field against the Oklahoma Sooners sounds a little bit like the late 2000s, that’s for good reason. The result was a 48-45 victory that marks another high point in the Tom Herman era.
In the Red River Showdown on Saturday on Dallas, the Horns nearly blew a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter, but sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger led Texas on a nine-play, 52-yard drive with the game tied at 45 and the game hanging the balance.
By that point, the margins between an unbelievable collapse and a program-defining victory were extremely small. A loss would have been crushing given the third-quarter separation created by the Longhorns. A win would provide another data point for a program attempting to crawl back into contention and the national spotlight in the midst its longest winning streak since 2013.
Ehlinger came through, as wide receiver Collin Johnson drew a big pass-interference penalty, the sophomore quarterback hit wide receiver Devin Duvernay for 18 yards, and then picked up a big first down and 13 total yards on three runs.
The Horns weren’t able to convert a 3rd and 2 from the Oklahoma 24-yard line, however, placing the game on the foot of freshman kicker Cameron Dicker. A fantastic debut for Dicker against USC gave way to some struggles from distance against TCU. Given the recent history for the Horns at the position, there was surely some tension in the fan base as he lined up for his 40-yard attempt to put Texas ahead.
The kick was true, though, splitting the uprights and securing the win following a last-ditch possession by Oklahoma with only seconds remaining.
“I knew I was going to make it,” Dicker said after the game.
Lake Travis represent.
The moment wasn’t too big for the freshman or for head coach Tom Herman’s team, which dominated for stretches, but also gave up several big plays to allow Oklahoma to stay in the game.
Ehlinger was the star, hitting on 24-of-35 passes for 314 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions to stretch his streak to 163 passes, breaking the school record formerly held by Major Applewhite. On the ground, Ehlinger was the same battering ram that he was last season in the Cotton Bowl, running 19 times for 72 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught a pass for eight yards from wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
The separation for the Longhorns happened thanks to two touchdowns in the second quarter, though it was a dominant third quarter that extended the lead. Coming out of halftime with a 24-17 margin, Ehlinger led Texas on an 11-play, 75-yard drive that featured a 31-yard run by Keaontay Ingram.
More importantly, it also featured a conversion after facing 3rd and 21 following a sack. A screen pass to Humphrey and an excellent effort by the offensive line gained 19 yards before Ehlinger ran for seven yards. The two combined for a conversion on 3rd and 10 two plays later, setting up a five-yard touchdown run by Ehlinger.
Last season, there was no way that the Horns could have converted in that situation.
Then Oklahoma finally hit a big play when an assignment bust by Texas gave up a 77-yard touchdown pass from Kyler Murray to Marquise Brown to keep the Sooners in the game, a trend that continued into the fourth quarter.
Following a Texas punt, Murray made one of his biggest mistakes of the game, losing the football as he tried to scramble. Wearing No. 60 for the second time, defensive end Breckyn Hager recovered the fumble and the Longhorns took advantage by scoring five plays later with another Ehlinger run.
Two punts by Oklahoma sandwiched another Texas touchdown drive, as the offense appeared to physically impose itself on the Sooners defense.
Wide receiver Collin Johnson continued an excellent game with a 10-yard reception on 3rd and 6 to set up a touchdown catch by Humphrey from 15 yards out. Johnson finished with eight catches for 81 yards and a touchdown, while Humphrey threw a touchdown pass and notched nine catches for 133 yards and the third-quarter touchdown catch. Unexpectedly, the two players were the best wide receiver tandem on the field.
However, even though it appeared that the Sooners might gave with the Longhorns holding a 45-24 lead that that point, Oklahoma dominated most of the fourth quarter.
A six-play, 54-yard drive by the Sooners wasn’t too much cause for consternation, but it did appear that Herman’s team lost its edge during that stretch. The defense wasn’t tackling as well, and the offense started to struggle thanks to three holding calls on the next two possessions.
Murray turned the 45-31 deficit into a 45-38 contest with a 67-yard touchdown run after the second Texas punt to ignite the Oklahoma partisans, some of whom had been heading to the exits just minutes before.
A third straight punt by Texas led to Oklahoma running back Trey Sermon gaining 57 yards on three yards, including 35 on a screen to open the drive.
All of a sudden, it appeared that the Longhorns might blow the game despite the seemingly insurmountable lead.
Instead, Ehlinger and the offense closed it out with help from the freshman kicker Dicker.
The game didn’t get off to an ideal start for the Longhorns.
When Texas won the opening toss and deferred, a beautifully-scripted opening drive by Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley produced exactly the result that the Horns wanted to avoid — a quick score to force the Texas offense to play from behind.
The Sooners needed only six plays to cover 65 yards in surgical fashion. Murray pulled a read play that Hager was ready to blow up if he hadn’t and picked up nine yards. Then Brown took the edge on Texas safety Caden Sterns for 16 yards. After Sermon bounced a run outside behind good blocking from his wide receivers for 12 yards, Oklahoma had its only unsuccessful play of the drive, though it took the ground dislodging the ball from the hands of tight end Grant Calcaterra at the goal line, aided by a big hit from cornerback Kris Boyd.
On the next play, however, Riley called a packaged play that found Sermon over the middle and then another packaged play that featured a run look from Murray, who drew the defense and then flipped the ball out to Brown for a four-yard touchdown catch.
The Longhorns responded despite two penalties on the drive — a delay of game before snapping the ball and an illegal formation on the Oklahoma 5-yard line. A quarterback zone RPO got Texas off to a good start following the penalty, as Ehlinger gained six yards. Two chunk plays followed, a well-blocked 29-yard slip screen for Humphrey and a 36-yard strike to Johnson down the sideline against one-on-one coverage.
The key play in the red zone came on a pass interference penalty in the end zone drawn by Johnson on 2nd and goal from the 10-yard line. On the next play, Herman broke out another “special” play — a direct snap to Humphrey that featured a jump pass from the big wide receiver to Johnson for a two-yard score.
Texas finally got Oklahoma behind the chains on the next drive. Hager forced a holding call and Boyd made an impressive open-field tackle of Brown in the backfield for a loss. With Brandon Jones playing deep safety, Murray looked like he was going to run the ball, then stopped and threw across his body. Jones pulled down the second interception of his career to set up a 44-yard field goal by Cameron Dicker.
Beyond getting the Sooners behind the chains and taking advantage, as happened on the second drive, the big hope for the Longhorns entering the game was to avoid long touchdowns and hold in the red zone if necessary.
And that’s exactly what happened on the third drive. Oklahoma was able to move the ball well enough on an 11-play drive to avoid any third-down attempts until it reached the red zone. Facing a 3rd and 1, Marcelias Sutton received the handoff, but was quickly hit by safety BJ Foster, who badly juked Oklahoma left tackle Bobby Evans. Gary Johnson finished the play.
With the break between quarters to make a decision, Riley opted for a field-goal attempt instead of attempting to convert the 4th and 2. Austin Siebert tied the game at 10-10 from 32 yards.
Texas took advantage of the opportunity to extend the lead on a drive that was highlighted by recovering from first-down holding penalty at the Oklahoma 39-yard line that would have gone for a gain of about 10 yards by Ehlinger.
After Ehlinger scrambled for no gain and then missed a pass to Humphrey, the Horns were faced with 3rd and 20, the type of situation that often led to sacks or punts last season. Instead, Ehlinger found tight end Andrew Beck for 18 yards. In tempo, Texas looked like it had a potentially big gain on a quarterback run, but Oklahoma managed to get the timeout.
Having expended the ideal play for the situation, the Horns called a swing pass to Tre Watson, which gained three yards.
On the next play, Texas finally called a wheel route to Watson — something the Longhorns hadn’t done all season — using Johnson as a decoy with an in-breaking route to hold the safety. Ehlinger connected for a 28-yard touchdown and Texas took a 17-10 lead.
Then defensive end Charles Omenihu reprised his big-time drive against Kansas State last week. On first down, he sacked Murray before the speedy Oklahoma quarterback could leave the pocket and then corralled Murray once again on second down. When Murray scrambled on third and long, he couldn’t do anything other than pick up a few yards before he was escorted out of bounds by three Longhorns.
Once again, the Texas offense took advantage. The field position was ideal after 54-yard punt, but it didn’t matter. Keaontay Ingram took over at running back to pick up 25 yards on three carries following a 14-yard run by Ehlinger that featured the Texas quarterback lowering his shoulder to punish the Oklahoma defense.
Johnson showed up again with a 19-yard catch and run that featured a broken tackle and an unwillingness to go out of bounds — the big wide receiver instead chose to challenge a Sooners defender, informing the Oklahoma defense and the assembled crowd in the Cotton Bowl that he meant business on Saturday. Physical business.
The upward trajectory of those “special” plays in the Texas offense resulted in an eight-yard pass from Humphrey to Ehlinger before Beck and right tackle Sam Cosmi caved in the right side of the Oklahoma defense for a nine-yard touchdown run by Ehlinger.
Texas TE Andrew Beck (No. 47) has the No. 3 run-blocking grade among Power-5 TEs.— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) October 6, 2018
Watch him seal the edge on this Sam Ehlinger TD run pic.twitter.com/TXQ3KfNORx
Having scored 24 of the last 27 points in the game and physically imposed themselves on the Sooners defense, Texas put Oklahoma in a position to badly need a score. Murray and the Sooners responded with an 11-play, 82-yard drive highlighted by a fourth-down conversion to enter the Longhorns red zone. There was no small amount of disorganization on the drive, as Oklahoma burned two timeouts in the span of several seconds and had a delay of game on 3rd and 2 from the Texas 11-yard line.
Still, Murray’s legs helped keep the drive alive and a nice run fake on 1st and goal from the 5-yard line produced a wide-open CeeDee Lamb for a critical touchdown.
Ultimately, however, Oklahoma responded in key moments, but weren’t able to stop the Texas offense, which gained 501 yards. The Sooners actually gained 532 yards on the day, but the two turnovers led to 10 points by the Longhorns to provide the margin in the game.
There are still questions about whether Texas can continue to play consistently and finish, as well as how Herman manages games with the lead. But the Horns went 1-0 on Saturday against an extremely explosive opponent and did enough to win.
Against a top 10 team and bitter rival, that’s cause for celebration as Texas extended its winning streak to five games and proved once again that it can finish.
The Golden Hat belongs to Texas. This t-shirt can belong to you. The victory will live forever.