“Woah, livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear
Woah, livin’ on a prayer”
Walking up San Jacinto Blvd on Saturday to the Cascade Blonde tailgate where I was scheduled to interview former Texas Longhorns great Kasey Studdard, Bon Jovi blasted from the speakers out across the throngs of early arriving fans.
The moment seemed somehow poignant — for the subsection of writers and fans following the burnt orange and white who hadn’t devolved into abject cynicism about the program or antipathy towards head coach Tom Herman, there hasn’t much to live on besides a prayer and the belief that the Longhorns would make it.
After nearly a decade of stumbling through the wilderness and two uninspiring performances to start the season, the matchup against the USC Trojans lost some luster, but there was a palpable buzz around Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium before the game. As if Frankenstein was about to use that energy to give a reconstituted Bevo the spark of being.
In front of a record-setting crowd of 103,507, Herman did exactly that with his long moribund program, as Texas used three touchdowns in the third quarter to turn a close game into a 37-14 blowout that featured negative rushing yards by USC.
The victory, only the second against a ranked opponent in six tries for Herman at Texas, provided the Longhorns with the first signature win of the new coach’s tenure after 16 games.
In his post-game press conference, Herman was willing to call it the most complete win of his time as a head coach on the Forty Acres, too.
“Yeah, I would say so,” Herman said. “I think the West Virginia game off the top of my head felt fairly complete. The bowl win felt fairly complete, but this one, against this opponent, at this time, I think, certainly, probably pushes itself into the lead for that in our 16-game tenure here.”
Previous press conferences after the Maryland and Tulsa games featured Herman attempting to explain why his team started poorly or hit a lull at some point; the USC game started slowly, but there wasn’t any of the mental fragility Herman described previously despite an early deficit.
“To go down 14-3, there was no hanging of heads, there was no discouragement, no negativity on the sideline,” Herman said. “We started playing better, made a few adjustments offensively and defensively and we scored the last six scores. We scored the last 34 points of the game, obviously shut ‘em out in the second half.”
Offensively, the Horns weren’t particularly efficient, especially throwing the ball. And the running game clearly missed the playmaking ability of Keaontay Ingram. Yet, the offensive line did a credible job in run blocking and pass protection against a good defensive front. Sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger was able to produce big plays through the air, including two touchdown passes, and pick up key yardage on runs while avoiding turnovers.
“We knew offensively that it was going to be ugly at times but that we needed to keep taking shots,” Herman said. “They’re a very aggressive defense. And you’re not going to hit every shot. We knew our completion percentage was probably not going to be great but when we hit they were going to be for big plays.”
In fact, USC often had one-on-coverage against Texas junior wide receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey, with Ehlinger taking advantage early by finding Johnson for two big plays on the first Texas drive. Humphrey is clearly Ehlinger’s favorite target now on third downs, spinning out of a tackle in the second quarter and racing 47 yards for a touchdown to cut USC’s lead to 14-10.
Johnson and senior wide receiver Jerrod Heard were unable to come up with two jump ball and Ehlinger missed a touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay on a post route when he overthrew the ball and put it over Duvernay’s shoulder instead of leading him.
“I thought Sam played really well,” Herman said. “There was a couple things here and there that I’m sure he wished he had back, but nobody has played the perfect game in the history of football, so he played the way we needed him to play.”
The running game, the defense, and the special teams stepped up, too.
“We did just enough in the run game that I thought we were going to need because of the structure of the defense to use the quarterback in the run game and for our defense to shut ‘em out in the second half and score points on the blocked field goal was — again, it was a great team win,” Herman said.
With no ability to run the football thanks to the zone pressures of Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and a staunch performance by the defensive line, USC forced freshman quarterback JT Daniels to throw the ball 48 times, a number inflated by the second-half deficit.
Senior linebacker Gary Johnson was especially active for the Longhorns — four of his six tackles were behind the line of scrimmage as he showed his elite-level quickness. Overall, Texas recorded 9.5 tackles for loss against the Trojans after combining for only 10 in the first two games.
There were big plays, too, as senior cornerback Kris Boyd recorded a spectacular leaping interception in the second quarter that led to a field goal. The effort stood in stark contrast to his dropped interception that could have swung momentum in the Maryland game.
And that was a key theme on the day — when the Longhorns needed to make plays, the Longhorns made plays.
Daniels and his wide receivers, especially rising freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown, were able to make some contested plays of their own against the Longhorns secondary. St. Brown Mostly, though, Texas defensive backs were in position to limit yardage after the catch to give Orlando plenty of opportunities to inflict negative plays with his pressure packages.
Special teams even came through, too, a rare development in recent seasons.
The biggest news was freshman kicker Cameron Dicker calmly banging through a 46-yard attempt on his first try at Texas, then hitting another from that distance and a short field goal. How impressive was Dicker? Herman even referred to him by name after the game.
“Cameron Dicker, he showed why he earned the job and this is a kid that, you know, I — he’s made some big kicks in his life,” Herman said. “When you play for Lake Travis you’re going to be in some pressure-packed, big games. We knew he had that in him.”
For the first time since Justin Tucker, it’s possible that Texas has found a reliable kicker.
In the punting game, freshman punter Ryan Bujcevski had struggled over the first two weeks and managed a higher level of consistency as his counterparts, Chris Tilbey and Reid Budrovich, shanked consecutive punts as the Longhorns were serving. The first effort, by Tilbey, only traveled 13 yards before going out of bounds.
At the end of the next USC possession, freshman safety Caden Sterns showed the impact he could potentially have on special teams by finding a crease in the Trojans field goal formation and blocking the long attempt. Senior linebacker Anthony Wheeler scooped it and raced 46 yards for a touchdown. The play stretched the Texas lead to 30-14 and sent the stadium into a frenzy.
Of course, the memories of that ecstasy could fade quickly if the Longhorns can’t secure another win next weekend when Big 12 play opens against the Horned Frogs in Austin. There have certainly been false starts before — games where it seemed like Texas was turning the corner, only to slide back into mediocrity.
Senior defensive end Breckyn Hager certainly remembers the euphoria that followed the win over Notre Dame in 2016. And he was a freshman when Charlie Strong donned the Golden Hat in the Cotton Bowl after an upset of Oklahoma that was heralded as a potential breakthrough.
In 2016, the Fighting Irish win was followed by a loss against the Golden Bears two weeks later. One loss turned into three losses and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford was demoted.
In 2015, Texas shut out against Iowa State on the road two games later and failed to become bowl eligible due to a home loss to a Texas Tech team that went 7-6 and featured one of the worst defenses in recent memory.
Given that recent history, it was hardly surprising to see Herman couch his post-game comments in terms of the program’s larger trajectory, a trajectory that the next several weeks will shape. After TCU comes to town, Texas heads back on the road, traveling Manhattan to face Kansas State and then to the Cotton Bowl for the annual grudge match against Oklahoma.
It is the season’s most difficult stretch.
“There is a bit of a release of a bit of a hump that we got over that we can win a big game, not just come close but win a big game,” Herman said. “Again, it’s one, and we’ve got a one-game season next week against a really, really good opponent that was ranked going into tonight. I don’t know how they did, but we know how good that program is. We’ll evaluate, I guess, you know, where this win stands by how we respond to it and how we continue our play throughout the season.”
So the coming stretch will require more prayers to live on. One complete performance against a noted national program isn’t enough to prove that Texas is back, after all.
If only we all had Bon Jovi’s confidence in making it there...