AUSTIN — After defeating the No. 24 West Virginia Mountaineers on Saturday, Texas earned bowl eligibility with its sixth win.
It is a huge milestone for head coach Tom Herman and the rest of the Longhorn staff and team, as another December spent at home would have severely impeded what the first year coach wants to build during his time in Austin.
But the win secures more practices for a team still in within the first calendar year of having a new coach, and gets a major monkey off the back of upperclassmen who had been waiting for this moment since they became Longhorns.
“It was fantastic,” Herman said on the postgame mood. “These guys, the smiles on their faces, we know we’ve got one left but this was a big one. This was a big hurdle to get another road conference win, to beat a Top 25 team, and make sure that our seniors are bowl eligible.”
Players like senior Poona Ford have been waiting for this moment since the final whistle blew against Arkansas in 2014, ending a “borderline erotic,” 31-7 beatdown of the Longhorns by Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks.
“It’s a good feeling,” Ford said after the game. “Like coach said, we’re going to play in the Super Bowl. That was a big one and we won it. We wanted the seniors to go to another bowl game.”
Asked to clarify his comments, Ford said at this point “every week is the Super Bowl.”
With that mentality entering the game, it’s not difficult to see why Longhorn players were so jubilant post game. National experts may have doubted the Longhorns’ ability to get win No. 6, but the Longhorns persevered in Morgantown, and as junior John Burt’s actions eloquently put it, there’s an opportunity in the postseason ahead.
For players like juniors Malik Jefferson and DeShon Elliott, who endured the two previous 5-7 seasons, a bowl is just a step for the program, but a huge step none the less.
“This win was the stepping stone,” Jefferson said following the game.“I think we just couldn’t finish games and we weren’t playing together as good as we should have been. For us to go out and play a game like that, a complete game, was very awesome. We haven’t been in victory situations like that since I can’t tell you win. It was awesome.”
Elliott shared Jefferson’s excitement.
“Just knowing that we got the seniors a bowl game, we’ve got to get one more win to get them to a better bowl game,” Elliott said.“We love them boys.”
For players like freshmen Sam Ehlinger and junior Gary Johnson, who came to Texas despite struggles in recent years, rewarding the seniors was the rewarding part.
“It was a great feeling,” Johnson said.“The seniors, that’s what they came here to do and get a bowl game. It’s been a while since we had a bowl game. We did it for them and we do it for each other.”
Ehlinger, whose performance after replacing Shane Buechele in the first quarter was pivotal to Texas’ success, said the team’s tenacity led to its success.
“Coach kept saying ‘just keep swinging and keep swinging. It’s going to pay off. Keep swinging,’” Ehlinger said.“I think we did an excellent job of that as a team and just kept moving forward. Obviously we would have liked some of the games to go differently, but we kept our head down and we kept working.
Ehlinger wanted the seniors bowl-bound as well.
“To be able to go to a bowl and have that opportunity after the hardships and the close games that we’ve went through this year says a lot about the coaching staff as well as the players on the team.”
The next few weeks still matter even though Herman’s Longhorns have reached the six-win plateau in his first season. They still face a Texas Tech team who ranks 10th nationally in passing offense and is led by Nic Shimonek, who ranks 8th nationally in passing yards.
TTU and the additional practices will be important for building the program Herman wants to have at Texas.
“I told them I was proud of them,” Herman said. “I told them this journey is not over. Again, we have an opportunity on a short week. We have to get ready for a good Texas Tech team that gives us the opportunity to win No. 7 in the regular season, which hasn’t happened here in a long time.”
A 7th win would be icing on the cake, but although there were claims the product Herman inherited just needed frosting, the first-year Longhorn CEO has been slaving over a hot oven since he arrived.
“It’s not something we did in the last few weeks,” Herman said. “It’s something we did in January and February and March.
“We are very, very demanding on our players. We expect excellence from them in everything that they do, but we love them. We dive into their lives and we pay attention to them. We make sure that they understand that between the lines we’re going to hold them to a standard that is as high as there is in the country, but when they walk off the field, that we’re going to be there for them to make sure that we’re building them into better husbands and fathers and employees so that when the waters do get a little bit rough as they were there in the middle part of the season, especially with the almosts, if we hadn’t done what we did in January and Februaryand March, you probably would have had a lot of guys saying is this worth it? Is what we’re expected to do worth it?”
Whatever Herman did in those winter months led to where the Longhorns are today. For him and the players, the tough practices and processes then must feel extremely rewarding now.
“Today is one game, and we’ve got to finish the regular season the right way on Friday. I think there’s a lot of guys that continue to be believers in the way that we do things.”