HOUSTON — On Tuesday, Texas Longhorns junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger talked about playing to the Texas standard regardless of the opponent.
“Really proud of our team,” head coach Tom Herman said after the game. “Certainly the way that they started, they did what we asked them to do all week, which was to put last week behind them. We said all week that you don’t prove to yourself that you’re an elite team by winning every top-10 matchup you face. Sometimes they go your way, sometimes they don’t. This week was going to be a big test.
“We had a great week of practice.”
Let by 23-of-27 passing for 279 yards and three touchdowns by Ehlinger, along with 27 rushing yards on five carries, Texas scored on the first possession after winning the toss and taking the football, then scored on the next three drives to push the consecutive scoring streak to nine dating back to the LSU game.
“He’s a talented kid,” Rice linebacker Blaze Alldredge said. “I went into this game knowing he has elite arm talent. If you give him time he’s going to make plays downfield. But the other thing that we saw firsthand on those drives is moving the sticks with his feet. We didn’t even really see the times where he lowers his shoulder and runs like a running back that we saw on tape.”
The performance was all the more impressive because even though Rice can’t compete with Texas athletically, the defense plays “as many fronts and coverages as there are in football,” according to Herman.
Freshman wide receiver led the Horns in receiving with six catches on six targets for 75 yards and two touchdowns to become the seventh freshman wide receiver to catch two touchdowns passes in a game. Senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay had another strong game with six catches of his own for 60 yards. Eleven players caught passes for Texas, including a 37-yard catch for freshman wide receiver Kennedy Lewis.
The Owls finally scored twice in garbage time against backups for the Longhorns to give Texas a 48-13 victory on Saturday in front of a relatively sparse crowd at NRG Stadium.
Sophomore cornerback D’Shawn Jamison ended the scoring with a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with time ticking down, the first kickoff return for a touchdown by the Longhorns since DJ Monroe in 2012. Herman praised the focus and strain of his players and told Jamison that he needed to go thank his 10 teammates on that kickoff return unit for their effort.
When the first half ended, Texas had 20 first downs compared to only 19 yards and two first downs for Rice, which didn’t cross midfield until a 45-yard pass to Austin Trammell with 3:40 remaining in the third quarter. By that point, the game was already well out of hand. The Owls eventually racked up 149 of the team’s 266 total yards in the fourth quarter.
The only major negative for the Horns was the right foot injury suffered by senior center Zach Shackelford, who was carted off the field in the first half and eventually ruled out for the game. He was in a boot and on crutches during the second half.
The coin toss to decide the opening possession was indicative of head coach Tom Herman’s aggressiveness on Saturday — Texas won the toss and normally elects to defer, but instead opted to take the football first. In fact, Herman said he can’t ever remember taking the football first, even at Houston.
The move paid off, though it was hardly without issues, as sophomore running back Keaontay Ingram carried the ball four times for one yard and suffered from some frustration as a result — the offensive line wasn’t able to create any seams for him and often played without the help of an in-line tight end or H-back with junior Cade Brewer flexed out when he was in the game until the drive’s final play. When the Longhorns wanted a blocker, sophomore Reese Leitao entered the game.
Ultimately, two big third-down conversions defined the drive. Ehlinger had to get the ball out quickly and into a small window for Duvernay on 3rd and 8 to reach midfield. Then Ehlinger threw open his tall, long redshirt freshman receiver Malcolm Epps, who had two catches for 27 yards on the opening drive.
Freshman running back Roschon Johnson finished the 12-play, 82-yard drive with a 25-yard touchdown on a wheel route when the play-action fake sucked in Alldredge.
After a four-play drive by Rice that featured four down linemen and three linebackers on the field for Texas, the Longhorns were in a better rhythm offensively. Johnson carried the ball twice for 11 yards and despite a long run-pass option play to Epps called back for an ineligible receiver downfield, Ehlinger found Epps again for 18 yards before Ehlinger dropped a point-perfect pass over the shoulder of Smith down the seam for a 55-yard touchdown.
It was the second play of more than 50 yards for Texas in the last two games after notably failing to produce a single such play last season.
The Texas offense continued to hum with another scoring drive, this time gaining 73 yards over 10 plays, with Ingram finishing from 26 yards out on 4th and 3 on a play that he likely needed for his confidence with Johnson’s hot start and last week’s adversity. Ingram found the edge on the play, then set up the final defender with an inside feint and a stiff arm to find the NRG Stadium end zone.
When the Longhorns got the ball back, the Owls defense finally got a stop. Junior running back Daniel Young made his first appearance of the season and gained 13 yards on his first career, finishing the run with his trademark physicality.
Texas couldn’t get anything going on the next drive after redshirt freshman Keondre Coburn recorded his first career sack — and the first sack for a Longhorns defensive lineman this season — but a shanked punt by Rice allowed sophomore kicker Cameron Dicker a shot from 57 yards out despite Texas only gaining two yards on the drive. After the Owls called timeout, Dicker drove the ball through the uprights with some leg to spare, setting his career high.
Herman said that the indoor conditions played a role in the decision to allow Dicker the opportunity, along with the fact that he hit a 58-yarder in the bubble on Thursday.
It tied for the longest field goal by the Horns since Jeff Ward against the Aggies in 1985 and will rank tied for seventh all time thanks to numerous efforts by Russell Erxleben. The Longhorns legend hit from 67 yards against Rice in 1977 and also had field goals of 64 yards, 60 yards, 59 yards, two 58-yarders, and two 57-yarders of his own. He was good.
Texas went into halftime with a 31-0 lead and 350 total yards to only 56 for Rice, which went four consecutive drives without a first down and only picked up the second first down of the game thanks to a questionable personal foul call on senior defensive end Malcolm Roach. Notably, the Longhorns converted on six third downs and one fourth down. Overall, Texas scored four touchdowns, kicked the field goal, and only punted once in the first half.
The first-down results were perhaps even more impressive — the Horns averaged 8.3 yards per play on first down. Since running plays on first down only produced three yards on average, it was the passing of Ehlinger that made the offense click on that down, going 8-for-9 for 144 yards and three touchdowns.
In total, Texas produced 20 first downs, while Rice only ran 20 plays in the opening 30 minutes.
After Rice used 3:40 to run six plays to open the second half before Texas got the ball back and marched 91 yards on 11 plays after punt-safe returner Brandon Jones inexplicably tried a return. It was a workmanlike effort offensively that finished with a 14-yard touchdown run by Ingram, who was benched earlier on the drive after missing his assignment in pass protection.
With a 38-0 lead, Texas replaced Ehlinger with redshirt freshman quarterback Casey Thompson and a host of other backups, including sophomore Jordan Pouncey, who recorded his second career catch.
Getting the work for the backups throughout the second half was a growing experience, just like the loss last week to LSU was a growing experience for the team. After three weeks, Herman likes what he sees from his third team at Texas.
“The togetherness, the brotherhood,” Herman said of his favorite parts of his team. “I think they really do play for each other. They feed off each other. They are, for the most part, bought in on our way of doing things, which is playing really hard and fast and physical.”