On the field at the Superdome in New Orleans, the No. 15 Texas Longhorns were better coached and more physical than the No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs, the same team that took the Alabama Crimson Tide down to the wire in the SEC Championship game.
After the game, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart had to admit that Texas was the better team in numerous categories.
“Texas out-played us, out-competed us,” Smart said. “They out-coached us. They out-physicaled [sic] us. They did a lot of things better than us, and I think you give Tom [Herman] a lot of credit.”
The physicality showed up up in the trenches on both sides, as the Longhorns ran for 178 yards and three touchdowns while holding the Bulldogs to 72 yards on 2.4 yards per carry. The latter number is especially remarkable given that Georgia entered the game with the nation’s No. 7 rushing attack and the nation’s most productive running back duo. D’Andre Swift, who entered the game averaging 6.4 yards per carry, only gained 12 yards on eight attempts and fumbled twice.
Texas was able to rattle Georgia’s sensational sophomore quarterback, too, as Jake Fromm took multiple big hits and threw an interception thanks to heavy pressure from senior linebacker Anthony Wheeler.
On offense, Texas once again benefitted from the tough running of Sam Ehlinger, who had 74 rushing yards and scored all three touchdowns for the Horns. Five avoided tackles helped him gain that yardage, according to Pro Football Focus, including 58 yards after contact — close to 80 percent of his total. So much for Fromm’s talk about how Ehlinger’s willingness to take an opponents wouldn’t play in the SEC.
Against Georgia’s big defensive front, the Texas offensive line was able to create enough seams for graduate transfer running back Tre Watson to pick up 91 yards on 18 carries as Watson ran extremely hard in his 14th and final game with the Longhorns.
Playing more physically for 60 minutes was only part of the equation, however — the Longhorns coaching staff had a better game plan on both sides of the ball. Where the Georgia coaches admitted before the game that they didn’t plan on making any major changes, Texas made some important tweaks on offense and defense.
“They did a really good job game planning for us,” Fromm said. “They had an entire month to do so. They were showing a lot of different looks. They were constantly mixing stuff up.
“I think at the beginning they game planned really well. They showed us what that game plan was in the first couple drives, but we just couldn’t make adjustments quick enough really to capitalize on that.”
The offensive game plan featured two main priorities — running base plays from different formations and motions and utilizing tempo.
Texas used the pistol formation and frequent motions by the running back, tight end, and wide receivers in an effort to ensure that Georgia didn’t get clear pre-snap reads to diagnose plays.
One formation for quarterback power featured the running back split out wide to limit the numbers in the box and proved extremely effective.
Since running too frequently into the big Bulldogs front wasn’t necessarily a recipe for success, the Longhorns also worked the perimeter with some running back flares and screens to get the ball in space.
Playing at tempo also created some difficulties for the Bulldogs by limiting substitutions by the defense to wear out the big defensive line. When Herman beat Smart as the Ohio State offensive coordinator in the 2015 Sugar Bowl, Smart made some adjustments to his defense as a result, but playing successfully against tempo is much more difficult without the type of extensive game reps Big 12 defenses face each season.
“We felt we could wear them out a little bit, and they like to play a lot of guys on defense in the front seven,” Herman said. “And we wanted to make sure we could keep them on the field, and I thought we executed that plan.”
As was common this season, time of possession was a key measurement of success, as Texas held the ball for ten more minutes than Georgia.
Some culture plays helped, too, including all five offensive linemen hustling down field to secure extra yardage for junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey on the game’s second play.
When Texas scored a touchdown on that drive and the defense came out strong, Georgia knew it was going to be a difficult day and was never able to truly respond.
One more time, then, for the culture, aided by excellent game plans on both sides, including defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s frequent run blitzes that hit home, sub packages that included two B-backers, and pressures designed to force the ball out quickly.
All told, it was a gritty performance that upended some lazy narratives about the Big 12 and the SEC while further cementing the emerging identity for this Longhorns team.
“At this point in our program’s trajectory, that’s what we’re going to need to do to win, is we have got to out-hustle people, we’ve got to out-hit people,” Herman said. “And we’ve got to play with a purpose and a passion greater than anybody in the country. And tonight I feel like we did that.”