Hopes for conference title contention rest on senior night showdown

Breckyn Hager, Charles Omenihu (Will Gallagher/IT)

Breckyn Hager, Charles Omenihu (Will Gallagher/IT)

In his tenure at Texas, head coach Tom Herman has consistently stated the goal for his program is to be in contention for the Big 12 Championship in the months of November and December. It was a mantra he repeated after the season-opening loss to Maryland and at several other points throughout the year. In order to remain in contention for the conference crown, Texas must defeat visiting Iowa State this Saturday.

“We’re playing one of the best teams in the country, another top-25 team in Iowa State, one that’s won five straight,” Herman said Monday. “I believe they’re tied with us for the second place in the conference. There is a lot at stake in terms of conference rankings.”

Herman is correct, with the result of this weekend likely determining who remains in second place in conference. Oklahoma welcomes Kansas, while West Virginia has a slightly more difficult challenge traveling to Oklahoma State.

Iowa State holds a tiebreaker over West Virginia, but not over Oklahoma. Texas holds a tiebreaker over Oklahoma, but not over West Virginia. With the conference season winding down, the Longhorns’ senior night showdown with the Cyclones might be the most important matchup in the history of this series.

“This is on paper the best defense in the conference,” Herman said. “So our offense will certainly be challenged and we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Herman mentioned if Texas “had its druthers” on offense, they’d run the football with tempo rather than become a “throw-it-every-snap team.” Over the past several weeks, the efficiency of sophomore Sam Ehlinger’s play, in addition to top-tier wide receiver play on the outside, has led to inflated passing numbers for Texas.

Ehlinger has performed at a level far superior to where he was last season, passing for at least 280 yards in the last four games he’s played in start-to-finish. He broke Geno Smith’s Big 12 record for most consecutive passing attempts without an interception at 280. He led the team on its final game-winning drive to defeat Texas Tech in Lubbock.

When asked what has allowed Ehlinger to excel this season, Herman mentioned several of the mechanical facets of his quarterback’s throwing motion that has contributed to his consistency. He also mentioned Ehlinger’s rapport with those who contribute to his success.

“It’s trust,” Herman said. “He trusts (offensive coordinator) Tim Beck, he trusts the offensive staff. He trusts his wide receivers, he trusts his offensive line, and at the end of the day he trusts himself a lot more than I think he did in the past.”

Ehlinger will have to perform at his best against a team that schematically frustrated the Longhorns last year. Against junior Shane Buechele, Iowa State deployed its iteration of the 3-2-6 defense that often resulted in eight defenders dropping back against the pass. The teams combined for 24 points in Ames last season, and Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando used the Cyclones’ defense as an inspiration for his own.

“So it is difficult,” Herman said on facing that defense. “We’re going to have to play action some guys, we’re going to have to get the quarterback on the run. We’re going to have to put some guys into conflicts in their zones. The one thing they’re doing much better this year than last year is, even in their drop eight coverage, it’s much more multiple.”

Not only does Texas have a chance to remain in contention for the conference championship with a win over Iowa State, it also has an opportunity to end a four-game senior night losing streak dating back to 2014. Twenty-six players will be recognized before the game, including a handful of juniors in Chase Moore, Edward Pequeno, Michael David Poujol and Cameron Townsend, the only one of that group on scholarship.

Though seniors, John Burt and Jamari Chisholm will not participate in senior day ceremonies, as Herman said he plans to redshirt them this season and have them return as fifth-year players.

The other players being honored include captains Breckyn Hager, Elijah Rodriguez, Anthony Wheeler, Andrew Beck and Chris Nelson.

“What an awesome opportunity, especially for our 26 seniors to be honored on Senior Night as a top-25 team in the country,” Herman said. “Having already solidified at least the best record, regular season record in the last five years here at Texas, with our plans on a couple more wins to add to that, they deserve our best shot, and I know that they will give us their best shot.”

It also marks the 500th game at Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium. Though that tidbit was news to Herman on Monday, he expressed excitement for being part of the stadium’s historic moment.

“It’s a stadium that for a long time was just Texas Memorial Stadium, and I think the decision was made and very appropriately to add Coach Royal’s name to that,” Herman said. He’s an icon himself, a legend in our program, and certainly a man that will never be forgotten here. I’m honored to be a part of any milestone at this great stadium.”