AUSTIN, Texas — Led by 310 total yards and four passing touchdowns by junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, the No. 10 Texas Longhorns finally won a season opener under head coach Tom Herman with a 45-14 victory that wasn’t as close as the final score — the Bulldogs scored two garbage-time touchdowns.
After two losses in season openers under Herman, both to Maryland, it was a different way to start the season for Texas. It wasn’t just a victory, either, it was a rare blowout under Herman — only his second, along with the shutout of San Jose State in 2017. The difference is that the Spartans were one of the worst teams in college football, while the Bulldogs won a bowl game last season and returned a lot of production.
Junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger protected the football, managed the game well, and turned in an efficient performance through the air with the Bulldogs loading the box and forcing throws to the perimeter — Ehlinger went 28-of-38 passing for 276 yards and those four touchdowns, while adding eight carries for 34 yards, mostly on scrambles. He even slid once as he started his Heisman campaign, surprising his teammates and coaches.
“I think he’s the difference in their team,” Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz said after the game. “I think he’s a top-10 quarterback. I think he definitely is a top-10 quarterback. I was really impressed with the way that he ran the system that they asked him to run tonight.”
Two of the touchdown passes from Ehlinger went to sophomore wide receiver Brennan Eagles, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his elbow in mid-August. Senior wide receiver Collin Johnson called him “Superman” for his recovery ability.
The return to action allowed Eagles to showcase his size/speed combination to full effect for the first time in a Texas uniform — he’s close to or at 230 pounds and can reach 21 miles per hour on the field, according to Herman. Eagles caught three passes for 59 yards on three targets, with his 28-yard touchdown catch standing as the game’s longest play.
“I’m so proud of him,” Johnson said. “Just seeing him ball out the way that he did, and seeing his growth from last year to this year just in terms of understanding the game, the playbook. He’s just a class act and the type of person that he is, is even more special than the player he is. And he’s a really good player, too.”
In the running game, sophomore running back Keaontay Ingram showed improved patience as a runner, carrying the ball 11 times for 78 yards despite the fact that the Bulldogs committed significant resources to the box in an effort to stop the Longhorns on the ground. Ingram also added three catches for 43 yards, but Herman believes that he still has room for growth as a runner.
“I thought he was a little impatient sometimes — kind of bored himself up into the line of scrimmage,” he said. “We’ve still got to work on his patience and vision, but I thought he did a really nice job, when things weren’t there, of finding an open gap and making guys miss.”
Overall, Texas had to adjust its game plan early when Louisiana Tech defensive coordinator Bob Diaco decided to blitz much more frequently than he had previously when Herman faced off against him at Houston.
“Openers against a new defensive coordinator, you go back to this guy’s previous two stops at Nebraska and the University of Connecticut and it was seven-percent blitz, I think..” Herman said. “At the University of Houston, he blitzed us one time in two games and tonight was a blitz fest, so we had to alter our game plan. Sam checked us into some really good plays and it was good to see the entire offense, staff included, adjust pretty quickly to what we were seeing.”
The defense bounced back from third-down issues last season and the lose of eight starters to stop the Bulldogs nine times on 14 third-down attempts and added two more fourth-down holds for good measure. Todd Orlando’s ball-hawking group also created three turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble recovery) and had an interception return for a touchdown by sophomore B-backer Joseph Ossai called back due to penalty. It would have been his second interception of the game.
Just as importantly, the defense dominated at the point of attack, as Louisiana Tech only managed 2.8 yards per carry and only had one run of 10 yards or more, which came when the game was already decided.
“Their defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, but we were not able to run the ball and that made a game like this very, very difficult,” Holtz said.
Because Texas was able to win so frequently on first and second down, Orlando was able to deploy his “Cowboy” package, which includes eight defensive backs on the field and was able to create consistent pressure, even though the Longhorns only came away with one sack in the game.
It’s in those situations when Orlando is often at his best.
The Longhorns left no doubt in the game by getting off to a strong start — senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay returned a short kick 36 yards to give Texas good field position at the 43-yard line. Then, the first play, a swing pass to Duvernay, produced a facemask penalty on the visiting team. Ingram let his blocks develop on his first touch, then exploded through a crease on the left side to gain 19 yards.
Ingram also had a key eight-yard catch on 3rd and 7 from Louisiana Tech 18-yard line, aided by a strong block in space from pulling left tackle Sam Cosmi. Texas finished the seven-play, 57-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown pass to Duvernay, who caught four passes for 13 yards to open the season. Along with a pass that counted as a run and the kick return, his six touches on the first drive as as many as he had in the first three games last season.
Duvernay finished with nine catches for 55 yards.
The defense didn’t look as sharp as the offense early — Louisiana Tech gained 51 yards on the opening drive as quarterback J’Mar Smith completed 4-of-5 passes for 43 yards from a clean pocket. Texas did manage to inflict a negative play to slow the Bulldogs momentum and force a 43-yard field goal attempt that fell short.
A promising drive for the Longhorns on the second offensive possession ended with a fumble by Johnson recovered by the Bulldogs at the 25-yard line. Johnson had caught a fourth-down pass from Ehlinger, but failed to secure the football as he fought for extra yards after contact.
“The one turnover offensively was disappointing,” Herman said. “We converted a fourth down, and if you’d had told me to pick one guy on the team who was going to fumble, Collin Johnson would have been the last on my list.”
Johnson thought it was his first fumble of his career, but noted that once he got over to the sideline, the entire receiver corps came around him to pick him up, a sign of how this team supports each other even in times of failure and adversity.
The best news of the drive, though? Ehlinger found Duvernay once again, this time for an important third-down conversion that the coaching staff surely hopes will herald the same type of connection between Ehlinger and Duvernay that the Texas quarterback had with Lil’Jordan Humphrey on third down last season.
The ensuing drive resulted in an embarrassing moment for redshirt sophomore cornerback Kobe Boyce to convert a 3rd and 11 — Boyce was in position to break up the pass and thought he had. Instead, as he celebrated the supposed incompletion, the Louisiana Tech receiver was busy picking up 26 yards.
Sophomore cornerback Jalen Green fared better on the first big test of his career, successfully playing a jump ball against Louisiana Tech’s best player, wide receiver Adrian Hardy, to save what might have been a touchdown.
Hardy finished the game with only three catches on 10 targets, as Green held his own thanks to strong coverage and some help from the safeties — Herman said that the free safety cheated over to Hardy’s side of the field at times in addition to some bracket coverage.
Last season, Hardy averaged nearly six catches and over 88 yards per game.
Texas eventually got off the field after sophomore safety DeMarvion Overshown got credit for the first sack of his career on 3rd and 12 as the Horns brought major pressure with a package that included eight defensive backs and only one down lineman.
The offense continued to buzz up and down the field — not explosively, but steadily. A second touchdown drive that covered 11 plays and 74 yards over 3:42 included the first touches of freshman wide receiver Jake Smith’s career, including a dropped pass that didn’t quite hit him in stride on a seam route run-pass option, an intriguing way of putting the defense in conflict while attacking it vertically.
Ehlinger finished the drive with a dart to Johnson while rolling out of the pocket that found a small window — it took incredible concentration and hands for Johnson to come up with the football and the six-yard touchdown catch.
After the first three drives, Ehlinger had started his junior season with a bang, completing 14-of-17 passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns, while adding four carries for 24 yards on the ground.
Then the defense make its first big play of the season, forcing a fumble by Louisiana Tech running back Justin Henderson that was recovered by senior safety Brandon Jones in Bulldogs territory.
Texas took advantage quickly — following a nice run by Ingram behind the left side of the offensive line, Ehlinger found Eagles running behind the Louisiana Tech defense on a post route and delivered a strike to the speedster for his first career touchdown catch.
The defense was able to maintain the shutout, but only because of another missed field goal by Louisiana Tech — also short from 43 yards — and a missed throw by Smith, who wasn’t able to find his receiver streaking into the end zone uncovered on a bust by the Texas secondary. Once again, the Bulldogs were able to move the football with 51 yards on the drive and nothing to show for it.
The first punt for the Longhorns of the 2019 season came after a big missed opportunity, as Johnson was running behind a Bulldogs defensive back who undercut his vertical route on third down, but Ehlinger overthrew him, forcing him to dive and keeping him from coming up with the catch. Had the throw hit Johnson in stride, it looked like it would have gone for a 68-yard touchdown.
The Horns had a chance to create more separation from the Bulldogs after Green deflected a pass that landed in the hands of sophomore B-backer Joseph Ossai, but the offense stalled and settled for a 43-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Cameron Dicker. During that drive, freshman Roschon Johnson got his first reps at running back, showing well in pass protection on his first play and breaking a tackle on a four-yard run on the second.
Johnson was able to play despite suffering from a stomach bug that left him throwing up and quarantined in the team hotel on Friday night. Herman was thankful that it was a night game, as it allowed Johnson enough time to recover thanks to some help from the medical staff.
Another opportunity for the Horns landed wide right, as a big grab from Johnson down the sideline flipped the field for Texas, but a sack on third down cost the Horns six yards, forcing Dicker to attempt a kick from 47 yards that missed.
It was an impressive first half overall for the Longhorns — the run defense only allowed 30 yards on 14 carries (2.1 yards per carry) against an experienced and productive group of Bulldogs running backs. And Green held his own against Hardy, who didn’t catch a pass in the first half.
The Texas defense held on another extended Louisiana Tech drive to open the second half, with a key stop on fourth down by junior safety Chris Brown looming as the biggest play — Brown was in excellent position in coverage and stuck his tackle to ensure the receiver couldn’t advance the football for the needed yardage.
Brown finished with five solo tackles on the night, a tackle for loss, and a deflected pass in a strong performance.
Then the offense responded with its own long drive, marching 74 yards on 10 plays, capped by Ehlinger finding an open Eagles once again from 25 yards out. Key plays included a fourth-down conversion by Duvernay on a carry from a two-back set and a 22-yard catch by the senior wide receiver. Ehlinger wasn’t especially sharp, however, as he missed Duvernay down the seam on a play that could have gone for a touchdown — his pinpoint accuracy wasn’t perfect on the evening, about the only real complaint one could level regarding his performance.
In a familiar storyline, Louisiana Tech moved the football, but came up short when it mattered, as Smith overthrew his intended wide receiver on 4th and 5 to give the ball back to Texas at the 39 yard-line of the Longhorns. The Texas cornerback had good coverage on the play.
The following drive created further separation — Ingram finished it with a one-yard touchdown run and added catches of 21 yards and 14 yards, with the latter coming in the red zone behind another big block from Cosmi. Ingram also two runs of more than 10 yards, including one on a direct snap play that the Horns debuted for the game.
With the Louisiana Tech offense going over 300 total yards on the day, the Bulldogs finally broke through with a five-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Malik Stanley, who beat senior safety Brandon Jones in man coverage on the play.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Casey Thompson made his debut with the game out of reach, handing the ball off drive to Johnson and throwing an incomplete pass after Louisiana Tech defenders forced him out of the pocket. As a result, Texas went three and out for only the second time all game, but Thompson did get his first pass as a college quarterback under his belt.
Thompson eventually scored the first touchdown of his career following Overshown’s first interception of his career and completed 3-of-5 passes for 25 yards and adding a nine-yard run.
During the extended stretch of garbage time, the Horns were able to get some playing time for second-team and third-team players, including a handful of freshmen.
The outcome didn’t come as a shock to Herman, who was impressed over the last several weeks with how his team approached the lead up to the game.
“The progress was shown throughout preparation,” Herman said. “You know, the progress was shown in the mental makeup of this team leading up to the game. I wasn’t surprised by the way that we started.
“I kind of knew that progress was already there, just the way these guys handle their business.”
After the game, the team took a brief amount of time to savor the victory before moving on to focus on LSU coming to town next weekend, along with College Gameday for the first time since 2009.
“These night games you don’t have a whole lot of time to celebrate,” Herman said. “We’re going to celebrate for an hour and — now just one hour, 60 minutes — and then we’re moving on to Sunday’s preparation for next week’s ballgame.”