Third and 21. Key drive in the second half. The electric atmosphere of the Cotton Bowl. Two rivals going head to head.
One particular play in the Red River Rivalry helped define the annual October game between the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners — with a 24-17 lead, the Horns called for a screen pass to junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey facing a 3rd and 21 near midfield.
As Sooners defenders converged on Humphrey, the play appeared doomed to failure far from the first-down marker as three Sooners defenders made contact at the 36-yard line. Instead, Humphrey kept fighting and several offensive linemen joined him, ultimately pushing him to a 19-yard gain roughly 10 yards past the point of contact. Sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger converted the subsequent short fourth-down attempt.
Texas eventually scored on the drive for a 31-17 lead before hanging on late thanks to the heroics of freshman kicker Cameron Dicker.
For Longhorns head coach Tom Herman, the play was all about “showing everybody what our culture is about.”
“It’s a culture. That’s literally what we do,” junior wide receiver Collin Johnson said. “Smash-mouth football, that’s all we know. Just hitting and going out there and playing football the way it’s supposed to be played. That play was the epitome of that.”
In the Cotton Bowl, the difference was about the culture, especially the demonstrations of physicality on the perimeter, where Johnson and his teammates made blocks and beat man coverage on a consistent basis. As per usual, Johnson and Humphrey will have significant size advantages on the Georgia defensive backs, a talented and well-coached group that will not include star Deandre Baker.
In the trenches, the Cotton Bowl story was the same — the offensive line allowed sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger to rush for three touchdowns in the red zone and freshman running back Keontay Ingram to average 6.6 yards per carry.
Ehlinger often sets the standard for his teammates with his efforts in short yardage, scoring 13 touchdowns in the red zone, over 43 percent of all Texas touchdowns there. Of the 33 Longhorns rushing conversions on third down, Ehlinger has 15, along with two on fourth down.
”He is a great quarterback,” Georgia defensive Jonathan Ledbetter said Saturday. “He is mobile. He likes to run and lower his shoulder. He is not afraid of contact.”
Sliding hasn’t been a big part of the sophomore’s repertoire this season, despite plenty of thought about it between games — being aggressive is still a major part of Ehlinger’s identity.
“You know, I have told myself when I am not in the pads, I should slide more,” Ehlinger said on Saturday. “But when the lights come on, and the adrenaline is moving and the crowd is yelling, it is really hard for me to take that instinct away.”
Unfortunately, that aggressiveness has exposed Ehlinger to injuries. The AC sprain suffered against Baylor was mostly bad luck, but Ehlinger also re-injured that shoulder against Iowa State on a scramble when he dove for a first down late in the first half. After missing the rest of the game, Ehlinger returned against Kansas to throw his first interceptions since the season opener.
With more than four weeks to rehabilitate since the Big 12 Championship game, Ehlinger’s shoulder is fully healthy once again. How long that continues is in question, as the Georgia defenders are looking forward to the challenge of meeting him head on. Ehlinger’s friend, Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm, thinks it wouldn’t be a particularly good idea to do what Ehlinger does in the SEC.
Take that as a pointed warning for Tuesday’s game. But there’s also a healthy respect there as a result — the Bulldogs know that Ehlinger isn’t likely to slide. Beyond whether the Texas quarterback decides to protect himself more often than usual, a large part of the game will hinge on whether Ehlinger can convert with numbers in short yardage and make off-schedule plays on scrambles.
“I think the threat that probably shows up to us on film is when there isn’t something there, he has the ability to run with his feet and take off and create plays, which he’s done a great job with all year,” said Georgia linebackers coach Dan Lanning.
In the trenches, the Texas offensive line is key, too. Throughout much of the season, the group has struggled to create movement — after missing so many blocks in 2017, Herb Hand’s group has been able to get hats on hats consistently, a marked improvement. On many occasions, though, the displacement hasn’t happened, with the Big Championship game serving as a stark example of how losing the line of scrimmage can make the offense one-dimensional.
Instead of playing a base nickel alignment, interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeil opted for a 4-3 look against the Longhorns in Arlington with Caleb Kelly at the Sam linebacker position and Ronnie Perkins playing some Jack on the edge.
Switching the personnel allowed the Sooners to limit the running game and defeat perimeter blocks in the horizontal passing game. The Bulldogs may well take some lessons those results.
Regardless of the personnel choices that Georgia head coach Kirby Smart makes on defense, his deep defensive line will pose considerable challenges for the Texas running game, as it’s a big group that won’t give up much weight across the board. Where the Horns play smaller defensive ends in Todd Orlando’s odd front, Smart’s starting defensive ends go 280 pounds and 300 pounds, respectively.
Limiting big plays is the calling card, but the Bulldogs have had problems limiting efficiency in opposing running games, ranking No. 57 in rushing S&P+ and No. 81 in rushing marginal efficiency. For a team with impressive advanced metrics across those board, those relative weaknesses stand out.
To the extent that Texas has a strength in the running game beyond Ehlinger’s short-yardage success, it’s in a reasonable level of efficiency — No. 25 nationally in that category. Trust Ehlinger to get the offense into the right calls at the line of scrimmage, then do enough to consistently stay ahead of the chains.
“We pride ourselves on being one of the most physical teams in the country,” senior tight end Andrew Beck said on Saturday. “This will be a game for us to step out and prove that. There is a lot of talk on conference comparisons, and the Sugar Bowl is going to be a great chance for Texas football to showcase and show the nation what we are capable of doing.”
Humphrey echoed that sentiment.
“We’re just going to try to spread our culture a little bit. After the game, we’ll see.”
One more time, for the culture.