AUSTIN, Texas — Considering the amount of hype leading up to Saturday’s matchup between the No. 9 Texas Longhorns and No. 6 LSU Tigers, it was always going to be difficult for the game at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to leave up to it all. And yet, it did.
Unfortunately for the Horns and the sellout crowd made up largely of burnt orange partisans, Texas fell, 45-38, after scoring 31 points in a second half that featured 56 total points and 627 total yards.
After all of the discussion about which school is really DBU, it was the offenses that dominated the proceedings, as LSU standout Joe Burrow answered questions about his performances in big games by going 31-of-39 passing for 471 yards and four touchdowns. He was sacked four times and hit numerous other times, but never flinched from stepping up in the pocket or taking hits.
“I thought Joe Burrow was the difference in the ball game,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said after the game. “Just really accurate, really aggressive. I thought he fit some balls into some really tight windows, was really accurate down the field, and, yeah, he’s going to have a heck of a year if he stays healthy.”
Texas junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger wasn’t as sharp as Burrow, especially compared to how the LSU passer finished the first half, but once Ehlinger hit his groove in the second half, the Longhorns offense was virtually unstoppable. He finished 31-of-47 for 401 yards and four passing touchdowns and added 60 yards and another touchdown on the ground.
Unfortunately, however, one of Ehlinger’s passes that fell incomplete and a subsequent inability to score near the goal line eventually defined the game. On the second offensive drive for Texas, the Horns had two opportunities from the 2-yard line, but Ehlinger wasn’t able to find junior tight end Cade Brewer on third down and sophomore running back Keaontay Ingram, who was wide open in the flat on a good play call, dropped a pass in the end zone that was thrown a little bit high.
It was the first dropped pass for Ingram in his career.
The Texas defense picked up the offense, though, forcing LSU into a third-and-long situation and then capitalizing, as sophomore linebacker Joseph Ossai came down with his second interception of the season on a tipped pass to set up the offense close to the Tigers goal line once again.
Once again, however, the LSU defense was up to the challenge — Ehlinger picked up two yards off right tackle, then appeared to score up the middle on second down. Initially ruled a touchdown on the field, the call was overturned. The strategy shifted, as Ingram got a carry that resulted in no gain. And then Herman dialed up the quarterback sweep right, a play that worked well for Texas last season, especially in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma, but never had a chance against LSU, as Ehlinger lost two yards.
According to Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron, the Longhorns tipped off the play with the formation, so LSU knew what was coming.
And that was eventually the difference in the game.
“Listen, we came in this game to play to win,” Herman said, defending his fourth-down decisions. “That’s why we went for it early on the goal line... Our whole mantra in this game was to empty the chamber, play to win, and we weren’t going to back away from that.”
Texas was only able to add a touchdown for the rest of the first half.
After failing to convert on the first three third-down attempts, the Longhorns converted twice on third down to score the game’s first touchdown on the team’s fourth drive.
The first was a tough grab by junior tight end Cade Brewer, who took a big hit immediately after catching the ball, but it was the second that made the biggest impact. Facing a 3rd and 10 from the Texas 45-yard line, Ehlinger found Eagles after Fulton mistimed his jump.
Remarkably, Eagles was able to maintain his balance and raced the rest of the way for the score. The 55-yard touchdown was the first play of 50 yards or more by Texas since a 50-yard pass from Ehlinger to Reggie Hemphill-Mapps against West Virginia in 2017, a stretch of 17 games without such a play. Eagles ended the game with five catches for 116 yards and that touchdown.
Early on, the Horns were able to pressure Burrow defensively, creating some sacks and making it difficult for him to consistently deliver the ball down the field.
By late in the first quarter, though, Burrow started to roll, eventually leading LSU into halftime with a 20-7 lead, putting Texas in a precarious position with the Tigers getting the ball first out of halftime.
“I think they settled in a little bit on some of our pressure, and we tried to then counter with different pressures. They did a good job picking them up,” Herman said.
“We had some guys free at times that, you know, he got it out a split second before the guy could get there. That’s a major credit to him, to have the poise to stand in there under duress and deliver the throws that he delivered.”
A combination of the fast tempo from LSU and the use of bunch sets hurt Texas in the first half, as Burrow went 11-of-13 passing for 159 yards and two touchdowns on the last three drives of the first half. At times, the Longhorns defense looked gassed, as it wasn’t able to substitute.
Over the first 30 minutes, the Tigers out-gained the Longhorns 298-178, with a significant disparity on the ground, as Texas only gained 34 yards. Ingram only had 15 yards on four carries, while senior wide receiver Collin Johnson was only targeted once, a near-catch, near-interception that was ultimately ruled incomplete on review. After the game, Ehlinger said that LSU often had help over the top of Johnson in the first half to take him away.
The second half started out with a positive development, however, as the Horns only needed three plays to get off the field, thanks in no small part to a dropped pass on 3rd and 1.
A steady, grinding drive ensued, slowed significantly by numerous LSU players who needed medical attention.
Asked about it after the game, Herman said that he thought the injuries impacted the game, but said he didn’t have any idea whether the injuries were legitimate.
Regardless of how long the drive took in real time, important plays included a third-down catch by Ingram after recovering his own fumble to start the drive, some strong play from freshman Roschon Johnson at running back, and Johnson’s first catch on a 3rd and 9. Senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay also broke multiple tackles before Ehlinger took it the final two yards on the 19th play. The drive eventually covered 86 yards over 7:17.
LSU produced a big play on the ensuing drive thanks to Burrow standing in the pocket and taking a hit while delivering a beautiful throw down the field to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who beat sophomore cornerback Jalen Green to make the catch.
The Texas defense got another important stop, though, thanks to a tackle for loss by junior safety Chris Brown and a crushing hit on Edwards-Helaire when Burrow left his running back exposed. Brown did not miss. For a third straight time, however, York connected on his field-goal attempt, this time from 40 yards.
With at least two Tigers starters out on defense, the Longhorns maintained the momentum from the previous drives, thanks again to tough running after the catch from senior wide receiver Duvernay and a 20-yard touchdown catch by freshman wide receiver Jake Smith in traffic on 3rd and 10. Ehlinger also had a 17-yard run on the drive.
LSU responded quickly, thanks to another big catch from Chase and Kobe Boyce getting beat again, this time failing to even try to play the football in the air on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Burrow. The Tigers only needed 2:36 to go 75 yards.
For the third straight drive, however, Texas continued to make plays, highlighted by 71 receiving yards for Duvernay on that single drive alone. After the strange decision to throw a fade on third down in four-down territory, Duvernay caught a short pass to convert before breaking a tackle and racing 44 yards for the touchdown.
Then the Tigers continued to slice through the Longhorns defense, largely through the air, aided by a roughing the passer penalty on senior defensive end Malcolm Roach. A 12-yard run by Edwards-Helaire completed another drive that covered 75 yards in only 2:11.
Texas created a big hole to climb out of after two holding calls on the same play negated a 25-yard run from Ehlinger that always looked like it was going to come back. A 13-yard scramble and another strike to Duvernay created the rare conversion after facing 1st and 20. Following a pass interference penalty on LSU, Ehllinger took a bad sack that killed the drive and eventually forced a 47-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Cameron Dicker.
The dagger came on 3rd and 17 as the issues on that down continued from last season. Texas brought six defenders and forced Burrow to step up in the pocket and jump into a throw targeting Jefferson. The wobbly pass found the receiver at the first-down marker and sophomore safety Caden Sterns missed the tackle he had to make — the 61-yard touchdown catch pushed the LSU lead to 14 points following the subsequent two-point conversion.
“We wanted to pressure him to obviously get a sack or incompletion — had they had to punt, to give our offense a pretty good or reasonable chance to go down and score,” Herman said.
For Orgeron, the play was an enormous relief.
“Thank God,” he said. “Thank God. I knew when they get the ball back, we couldn’t stop them. Just to be honest, we couldn’t stop them. I think they’d have got the ball back I think it would have been a different story. It was a phenomenal call, a phenomenal catch, a phenomenal play.”
Texas was able to drive down the field and score a touchdown in barely over two minutes to set up an onside kick with less than 30 seconds remaining. The strong attempt from Dicker bounced past the LSU hands team, leaving Johnson a chance to recover it down the sideline. He got his hands on it with the diving attempt, but wasn’t able to secure the football from going out of bounds.
And that was the ball game.
Now the coaches have to figure out what went wrong defensively and find ways to fix it.
“We’ve got to put them in a position to be successful,” Herman said. “Not that they weren’t tonight, but moving forward that’s got to be a huge emphasis for us as coaches — to figure out what our weaknesses are, continue to develop those weaknesses, but also, then, provide them some kind of assistance through calls that can help the secondary at times.
“Obviously, you can’t drop eight every snap or the quarterback is going to have all day to throw. You’ve got to pick your spots. We’ve gotta get better there, but we’ve also got to put them in a position to be successful.”
One potential solution might be to play more man coverage. At the least, Texas needs to improve with its ability to keep opposing wide receivers from running into big holes when the Longhorns play zone behind blitzes.
“When you blitz, there’s going to be holes in the coverage,” Orgeron said. “We had to protect for some time. We didn’t protect, but when we did protect, there were big holes there.”
Now the Horns will have to bounce back, a process that senior safety Brandon Jones believes will be easier because there were plenty of players who stepped up to the take the blame for the loss.
And it’s also the case that even though this was a huge game — arguably the biggest in Austin since Ohio State came to town in 2006 — important goals like winning the Big 12 Conference are still on the table. So it’s time to go 1-0 on Sunday as Texas starts preparing for Rice next weekend in Houston.