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Late surge pushes Texas past TCU for monumental win

Last weekend wasn’t a fluke, as Tom Herman’s Longhorns team proved that it’s making important progress in finishing games.

TCU v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

An opportunistic defense that forced four turnovers and an offense that made big plays in the last 20 minutes, including a long, game-clinching drive, propelled the Texas Longhorns past the No. 17-ranked TCU Horned Frogs, 31-16, in front of another raucous crowd at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday.

Freshman safety Caden Sterns had two interceptions, including a huge play in the fourth quarter that featured a return downed inside the TCU 3-yard line to consolidate momentum, while junior safety Brandon Jones recorded his first career interception and played a sensational all-around game to continue his rise as a second-year starter.

Sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger continued to grow up, too. For the third straight game, Ehlinger threw two touchdowns and added a rushing touchdown. When the Austin Westlake product accomplished that feat against Tulsa and then USC, he became the first quarterback to do so since Colt McCoy in 2008.

Ehlinger finished the game 22-of-32 passing for 255 yards and two touchdowns through the air, including a 31-yard pass to diving junior wide receiver Collin Johnson for a touchdown in the fourth quarter that helped the Longhorns regain the lead.

Only 17 seconds later, Ehlinger pulled the ball on a zone read and scored easily following the second interception by Sterns.

In that stretch, Texas turned a 16-10 deficit into a 24-16 lead before TCU tried to get back into the game with a 14-play drive that covered 59 yards and took more than six minutes off of the clock. Unfortunately for the Horned Frogs, place-kicker Jonathan Song missed his 41-yard field goal to give the Longhorns offense a key opportunity to put the game effectively out of reach.

Just as Texas did late against Tulsa, the offense used a grinding drive that physically beat TCU, a team that physically beat the Longhorns for years. Johnson, who finished with seven catches for 124 yards, powered through a defender to break a tackle and convert on 3rd and 7 early in the drive. Then graduate transfer running back Tre Watson broke a tackle to pick up extra yardage, then junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay broke a tackle to pick up extra yardage.

After four consecutive running plays netted 16 total yards, Ehlinger needed to convert another third down. The pocket held up initially, then Ehlinger tucked the ball and considered a scramble, but was cut off, so he backtracked in the pocket and found Humphrey crossing towards his left. A big block downfield from Johnson helped spring Humphrey all the way to the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown that put the game on ice.

Head coach Tom Herman preached about finishing all offseason and the Longhorns did it for a third consecutive week. More importantly, Texas did it against a quality opponent that had won five out of the last six games and four straight in a series that had been extraordinarily lopsided since 2013.

The defense gave up 372 yards of offense to TCU, but came up big when it mattered by forcing those four turnovers and four field-goal attempts. The run defense played a huge role, as the Horned Frogs struggled early on the ground and running back Darius Anderson was a complete non-factor.

Getting off the field was key, too, as TCU was 6-15 on third downs and was also stopped once on fourth down.

After a timeout before the first play got TCU off to a poor start, the Horned Frogs did what the offense does so well — get the ball to its playmakers on the perimeter and let them pick up yards after the catch. Four straight passes picked up some chunk yardage, but the Longhorns defense stepped up in its own territory to force a field goal thanks to more sure tackling.

Despite some recent struggles in the kicking game, the Horned Frogs went with Jonathan Song for his first attempt this season and he hit from 46 yards.

Texas hadn’t led against TCU since 2013 and got an early opportunity as the offense got the ball for the first time. The start was good, too, as the offensive line moved the line of scrimmage to provide five yards for graduate transfer Tre Watson, then Ehlinger hit Johnson for a 46-yard catch against single coverage on a perfectly-thrown ball.

The drive quickly stalled, however, as pressure forced Ehlinger to throw the ball away and a check into a speed option resulted in a two-yard loss. After a short completion to Watson on a check down as TCU dropped nine into coverage on third and long, freshman kicker Cameron Dicker missed his 42-yard attempt wide left; his first miss in four attempts after his sensational debut last weekend against USC.

When the defense forced a three and out, the offense responded with a grinding 12-play drive that covered 65 yards in nearly five minutes. The big plays were a 17-yard pass to Duvernay, an 18-yard pass to Johnson, and a converted fourth down on a catch by Johnson.

The most impressive part of the drive, however? Texas being able to score a touchdown after picking up a first down at the TCU 5-yard line, an area where the Horns have struggled under head coach Tom Herman. The difference on Saturday was that the offensive line was able to create enough movement to allow Watson to score on a three-yard touchdown run.

A short field resulted in a field goal in the second quarter as a disturbing trend began emerging — failing to convert in short-yardage situations. After leaving the field briefly, freshman running back Keaontay Ingram was stopped for a loss on 3rd and 1. When Sterns intercepted a pass thrown by KaVontae Turpin on a trick play, Texas once again had 3rd and 1 near midfield.

This time, sophomore running back Daniel Young was stopped on a handoff, then head coach Tom Herman made his biggest blunder of the first half. The decision to go for it in Texas territory instead of trusting a defense that was largely playing well wasn’t nearly as bad as the play call — a pitch to Young to the short side of the field. Not only was it a play that the Horns have run infrequently, if at all, it played right into the speed of the TCU defense.

Overall, the Longhorns failed to convert a single third down on six attempts in the first half.

Todd Orlando’s defense was able to hold initially, but TCU offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie started using Robinson in the running game and it made all the difference for the Horned Frogs.

Runs of 11, 17, and seven yards moved the offense down to the goal line, where Robinson took advantage of one-on-one coverage by senior cornerback Kris Boyd on speedy receiver Jalen Reagor. The sophomore created just enough separation on the field to bring in the pass and TCU regained the lead heading into halftime, 13-10.

The play capped a huge half for Reagor, who finished the first 30 minutes with six catches for 81 yards and that touchdown. Reagor repeatedly burned Boyd, who had to recover to break up a poorly-thrown pass in the end zone in the first quarter and needed excellent coverage to break up another long throw that targeted Reagor.

The touchdown put Texas in a difficult position — trying to come back from a halftime deficit to defeat a ranked opponent for the first time since the 2012 Alamo Bowl, a stretch of 13 games.

The Longhorns got off to a slow start in the third quarter on offense, as Sam Ehlinger took several sacks. The defense stepped up when a poor Robinson pass on a would-be touchdown went into the hands of junior safety Brandon Jones for his first career interception. On the next drive, sophomore defensive end Marqez Bimage stripped the ball from Robinson’s hands on a called run and the Longhorns recovered.

Unable to take advantage initially, Johnson couldn’t get a pass interference penalty when he was pulled to the ground in the end zone following a drive keyed by Ingram. And then Dicker continued his struggles, shanking a field goal that never had a chance coming off his foot.

Then the game changed. Ehlinger was able to convert two big third downs on a huge seven-play, 45-yard drive after Texas failed to convert on its first eight third-down attempts. Ehlinger hit Watson on a check down on 3rd and 8, then junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey on 3rd and 7. The biggest play came following a holding penalty, when Ehlinger stood tall in the pocket and took a hit while delivering that 31-yard pass onto the diving hands of Johnson in between two TCU defenders to retake the lead on the extra point.

The turnover parade continued, as Robinson didn’t see Sterns lurking over the middle and the freshman earned his second interception of the game, returning the ball inside the 3-yard line before he stepped out of bounds diving for the end zone.

Ehlinger took advantage, pulling the ball on a zone read and finding the end zone for a 24-16 lead thanks to a second touchdown in 17 seconds.

After that, the grinding drive finished the game and it was only a matter of seeing out the last several minutes.

With the win, the loss to Maryland and the struggles against Tulsa seem far in the past as Texas heads into Kansas State game week with as much momentum as it’s had in years. Now that the team is better at finishing and apparently less mentally fragile, it’s time to develop some consistency.