Texas was without Malik Jefferson, Holton Hill, DeShon Elliott, Connor Williams, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and Toneil Carter among others for the Texas Bowl. But they had “the punter.”
In an incredibly rare occurrence, junior punter Michael Dickson earned most valuable player honors in the Texas Bowl. Dickson kicked 11 punts during the game, with 10 of them being downed inside the 20. The defense was bolstered by his elite field-flipping ability, holding the Missouri Tigers to just two touchdowns in a 33-16 bowl victory, Texas’ first since 2012.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this senior class,” Herman said following the game. “They were the glue that held this up-and-down season together because I think they knew what was ahead for this program, and they wanted to make sure they left their mark on this next chapter of Texas football. They did.”
The seniors helped guide Texas to its first bowl win since the 2012 Alamo Bowl and its first winning season since Mack Brown’s last year in 2013. However, the team was literally put in a position to succeed thanks to Dickson’s phenomenal game.
“I’ve never seen one affect the game that he did tonight,” Herman said. “I’m glad he’s on our team.”
Dickson’s 10 punts inside the 20 and seven at or inside the 10 presented Missouri with the challenging average starting field position of its own 15. The Tigers did not cross into Texas territory until the second quarter while already facing a 14 point deficit.
Missouri deferred to the second half to open the game and also declined to abide by the rules early. Three Tiger penalties helped Texas quickly move to the 22 on the Longhorns’ first drive. Sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele found freshman running back Daniel Young wide open on a play-action wheel-route to open the scoring. Buechele would finish just 6-of-14 for 55 yards and one score after sustaining a groin injury late in the first half.
Freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger entered the game on the third series and promptly went three and out. On his fourth series, he found Young for a big gain through the air. Several plays later, Ehlinger rolled out to his left and found junior wide receiver John Burt at the near pylon for the Longhorns’ second score. Ehlinger finished the evening 11-of-15 for 112 yards and one touchdown.
Missouri’s first scoring drive came in the second quarter off of Dickson’s shortest punt of the evening, a 37 yarder that just reached midfield. Missouri running back Ish Witter, who eclipsed the 1,000 yard season rushing mark in the game, ran it in from four yards out to cut the Texas lead to just seven with 12 minutes remaining in the second.
Texas failed to score on its next drive, and Dickson placed another perfect punt that sailed 45 yards to be fair caught at the Missouri 10. The Tigers tried to begin a ground attack, but on a third down rush Witter had the ball forced free by junior safety P.J. Locke III, who was playing in Elliott’s position. Junior linebacker Anthony Wheeler picked the ball up, made a few moves, added a stiff arm to a Missouri tight end, and followed his blocks to the end zone to give the Longhorns a 21-7 lead.
“It was just instinct to do it,” Wheeler said. “I don’t really got too many moves. I just went with the stiff arm.”
The Texas defense continued to excel, as on the next drive junior corner Davante Davis forced a fumble that was recovered by junior linebacker Breckyn Hager. Hager wore No. 60 on his uniform during the game in honor of the late Tommy Nobis.
“Really, what it means to me is something beyond words,” Hagar said about wearing the number associated with defensive excellence at Texas. “It’s more than a number to me to be honest. There’s other greats that also wore it like Brian Jones. You’ve got to mention those guys, too. It was emotional, and I’m so happy that it happened in my lifetime. It’s a great accomplishment.”
Hager’s fumble recovery was part of a strong defensive effort that held an offense that averaged almost 40 points per game to just 16. Junior linebacker Gary Johnson led the Texas defense with 10 tackles, with Locke III just behind him with seven. Junior defensive lineman Charles Omenihu notched the Longhorns only sack, with Hager and Wheeler each adding a TFL apiece. Davis also added an interception late in the game to go along with a forced fumble.
“To know that we came in here and we beat an SEC team that had won six straight ballgames and held one of the best offenses in the country — the best offense in the country the second half of the season — to sixteen points and four turnovers, they should be proud,” Herman said. “They should have confidence going into this offseason that with another year of development and a year of continuity and a year of consistency, then add in some of these newcomers that are extremely talented and extremely competitive, it gives us a lot of hope.”
Despite the strong first half defensive performance, Missouri came out of halftime with a strong offensive showing. Missouri’s Drew Lock found Johnathan Johnson for 79 yards on the first play from scrimmage with a perfectly thrown ball. The Longhorns offense continued to struggle, and later in the third quarter the Tigers capped off a 16 play, 87 yard drive with a 28 yard field goal from Tucker McCann.
Texas again went three-and-out, but the defense added two more points with a crowd assist from a majority of the 67,820 in attendance. From their own ten with just more than a minute to play in the third, the Missouri center snapped the ball past an unprepared Lock that sneaked out the back of the end zone for two Longhorn points.
“When Missouri had the football, it was loud and it was very difficult for them,” Herman said. “I think they had three false starts and then obviously the snap when the quarterback wasn’t ready that resulted in a safety. Hats off to our fans. You scored points for us. That’s pretty cool.”
Texas outscored the Tigers 10-0 in the fourth quarter thanks to a 41-yard field goal from junior Joshua Rowland, and an 18 yard rushing touchdown by senior Armanti Foreman late to ice the game at its final 33-16 mark.
Herman’s team won the defensive phase of the game thanks to four forced turnovers and nine points scored by the defense. His defense could only do that due to the Texas Bowl MVP, who now has his sights set on the NFL, Michael Dickson.
“I didn’t believe it when they told me at first or at second,” Dickson said. “When they led me up to the stage, I was like ‘wait, why am I going on stage?’ They said ‘you’re the MVP,’ and I didn’t believe it. They said it again and I didn’t believe it. It’s still kind of sinking in now.”
Now, Texas can add another winning season to its history books. Though the season mark isn’t terribly impressive for Texas football standards, Herman knows it was important in the building of his program.
“It’s really important for these guys to call themselves a winner, to walk around their hometowns here for the next couple of weeks on Christmas break knowing that they had a winning season and that they won the Texas Bowl championship,” Herman said. “Again, it wasn’t going to be life or death. We would have been just fine next year, but this was a big step forward.”