You didn’t really think it was going to be easy, did you?
For a ninth time this season, the Texas Longhorns played a game decided by seven points or less, as a furious comeback by the Kansas Jayhawks fell short when Lil’Jordan Humphrey recovered an onside kick with 1:37 remaining to seal a 24-17 victory in Lawrence on Saturday at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium.
In front of a small crowd that featured nearly as many Longhorns fans as Jayhawks fans, Texas once again struggled to put an opponent away in the fourth quarter, a common scene this season for a team that will now head to the Big 12 Championship game for the first time since 2009.
Two Texas touchdowns in the third quarter stretched a 7-0 halftime led to a three-score deficit as the third Kansas possession of the second half spanned quarters. And, of course, it was once the fourth quarter began that the struggles began for Todd Orlando’s defense, as electric Jayhawks running back Pooka Williams Jr. got free for a 57-yard touchdown run on the second play in the final frame.
Three plays later, sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger tried to target graduate transfer running back Tre Watson on 3rd and 3, but Ehlinger ended up throwing his second interception of the day directly to cornerback Shakial Taylor. The interception return only went three yards, but set up Kansas with a short field and a chance to narrow the deficit to one score.
The Jayhawks dialed up a pass down the seam that might have gone for a touchdown on second down. Instead, junior linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch, who wasn’t playing his typical B-backer role due to the suspension of senior Gary Johnson, read the route, then made a phenomenal play to tip and then intercept the pass. After a 65-yard return, the Horns were already in field-goal range.
So when the subsequent drive stalled after gaining a first down on a run by Watson, Texas settled for a 34-yard field goal by Cameron Dicker.
The defense then forced a three and out, but the Longhorns offense, focused on running as much clock as possible, punted after only three plays.
Following a long touchdown drive by Kansas that featured a fumble forced by McCulloch, but recovered by the Jayhawks, the game deteriorated into a level of insanity that was shocking even for this Longhorns team and the barely competent officials that work for the Big 12 Conference.
Kansas tried an onside kick that featured Gabriel Rui approaching the ball from the left angled to kick it right. Instead, he twisted at the last second and kicked it left, where Collin Johnson knocked the ball out of a bounds. A smart play, it seemed, except that Johnson knocked the ball forward, a penalty that cost Texas 10 yards and forced a re-kick.
The next onside kick was dribbled by Rui straight ahead. When Andrew Beck tried to fall on the ball to recover it, the ball squirted out back towards the Kansas end zone. A Jayhawks player had the first chance to recover it and appeared to do so. At least, according to the officials, who declared it Kansas ball before the pile sorted itself out.
The only problem? A replay showed that the Kansas player who initially fell on the football didn’t control it. A Texas player emerged from the pile with the football. So, just review it and get the call correct, right?
Not in the Big 12, as the initial call on the field stood without review — a call made, once again, without actually knowing which team had the football — giving Kansas a chance to cut the 10-point deficit to one score.
The Jayhawks ran eight plays in effort to do exactly that, but only gained 30 yards and eventually settled for a 45-yard field goal.
The game’s third onside kick was much less dramatic than the previous two, as outgoing head coach David Beaty, who didn’t exactly shower himself in glory with a conservative offensive game plan, opted for a more conventional angled kick without any deception. The decision didn’t pay off for the home team, as Humphrey recovered it easily and Texas finished the game 97 seconds later after three kneel downs in victory formation.
Whew — if there’s anything Herman knows about after this season, it’s finishing games with a sigh of relief.
Texas created all the separation it eventually needed with a lackluster first half offensively that started well with an 11-play, 98-yard drive on the first possession. Despite dealing with an AC contusion suffered last weekend against Iowa State, Ehlinger hit five of his six attempts on that drive for 81 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown pass to Johnson.
However, Ehlinger’s accuracy quickly faltered. And though it wasn’t clear whether those problems were a result of the shoulder injury or something else, Ehlinger limped into halftime having completed three of his final nine passes.
The big blow in the second quarter came following a targeting penalty on Kansas that knocked Texas safety Brandon Jones out of the game on a punt return. The Horns started the drive in Jayhawks territory and quickly picked up a pass interference penalty drawn by Johnson.
With a chance to extend the lead to 14-0, though, Ehlinger missed Beck down the seam and then made the type of mistake that has become uncharacteristic for him, as he threw a ball directly to a Kansas defender for his first interception since the Maryland game. The poor decision ended a streak of more than 300 consecutive passes without an interception, a Texas record and Big 12 record.
So the Horns went into halftime with a 7-0 lead following an uninspiring performance that raised questions about whether Ehlinger could continue playing and whether Texas was set to blow a shot at the Big 12 title by losing for a second straight time in Lawrence.
At the least the defense played well in the first half, as it did until the final 15 minutes.
Herman stuck with Ehlinger and it paid off in the third quarter, as the sophomore capitalized on a 31-yard run by Watson with a five-yard touchdown pass to Beck. Then the defense got the ball back to the offense with a short field thanks to a turnover on downs caused almost single-handedly by cornerback Kris Boyd. The big play was a 19-yard pass down the seam to Beck before Ehlinger showed off his trademark physicality once again with a three-yard touchdown run on 3rd and goal.
The 21-0 lead with 1:02 remaining in the third quarter didn’t herald an easy finish to the game for the Horns, but that was hardly surprising.
Was the victory convincing? Not exactly, but it was a win and advance situation.
So it doesn’t really matter that Texas lost the turnover battle 2-1, but managed a victory despite a negative turnover margin for the first time in Herman’s tenure. It doesn’t really matter that Texas only out-gained Kansas by a single yard. It doesn’t really matter that Kansas was better on third down than Texas.
Not right now, at least — digesting the factors that resulted in the narrow margin is a task for the coming hours and days.
Right now, the only thing that matters is that Texas is heading to Arlington with a chance to win the conference title against Oklahoma or West Virginia. And it’s been a really, really long time since the Longhorns have had that opportunity.