MORGANTOWN, WV — Texas entered Saturday’s game at No. 24 West Virginia winless in 2017 against ranked opponents.
Stopping WVU quarterback Will Grier was a tough task, but Texas had its own difference maker on the offensive side of the ball in junior Connor Williams, back for the first time since USC. Texas rushed for more than 230 yards behind an invigorated offensive line and held the potent Mountaineer offense in check after WVU quarterback Will Grier’s injury to earn bowl eligibility in a 28-14 win.
“Excited to see our plan be executed really for what feels like the first time this season, maybe (since) the Kansas State game,” head coach Tom Herman said. “I feel like we played a fairly complete game in that one too.'”
“For our defense, and I know their quarterback went out in the first quarter, and that’s a shame because he’s a heck of a player, they had some wide outs make some unbelievable catches but I thought our defense, to hold them to zero points offensively until midway through the fourth quarter was definitely something that kept us in the game.”
The first quarter in Morgantown was relatively mundane, with one Mountaineer drive midway through the lone exception. West Virginia drove the ball thanks to a questionable personal foul penalty against junior Davante Davis, followed by a long pass to the Longhorn 22. WVU matriculated the ball to the one, and attempted to put six on the board with a dash by Grier to the left pylon.
As Grier was extending the ball, sophomore Brandon Jones met him and knocked the ball out of Grier’s hands. Not only did the hit injure Grier’s hand to where he could not return, but the ball also went out of the end zone for a touchback and a huge stop for Todd Orlando’s defense.
Grier would be replaced by Chris Chugunov after a short 6-for-8 outing for 50 yards.
Immediately following the stop, Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck elected to replace Shane Buechele with freshman Sam Ehlinger at quarterback. Buechele finished just 4-for-7 for 28 yards in his limited play.
Ehlinger’s first drive was a three and out, but the freshman started to play at a high level in the second quarter. Amidst a spell of torrential rain, Ehlinger sent a deep pass to freshman Reggie Hemphill-Mapps to start the second 15 minutes. Hemphill-Mapps made the reception, and moved to the WVU 20 for a 50-yard gain.
“Reggie said he couldn’t find it for a little bit because it was raining so hard,” Ehlinger said. “It was a little boost to our offense to know that it was pouring and we can still throw the ball for 50 yards. We can do whatever we want this game.”
A few plays later on third and goal, Ehlinger found transfer tight end Kendall Moore for a touchdown, Moore’s first reception as a Longhorn.
“It was extremely humbling and fulfilling because I know that I transferred and we’ve had a long road of ups and downs this season,” Moore said. “It was a next man up mentality.”
The Longhorns stopped the Mountaineers on the next drive, and got the ball back on its own 13. Facing third and nine, the Mountaineers sent a one-man rush that got past Kyle Porter. Ehlinger evaded the rusher and made his way 17 yards for the first down to continue the drive.
Beck dialed up some trickery on the next play, handing the ball off to junior Jerrod Heard. Heard threw the ball back to Ehlinger who worked his way to the WVU 31 for a 23-yard reception. A few plays later, Ehlinger found running-back-turned-tight-end Chris Warren for a 20-yard touchdown to take a 14-0 lead.
Texas’ two first half scoring drives went for 21 plays, 178 yards and took 10:33 off of the clock, two drives that revealed just how important the presence of Connor Williams is for the 2017 Longhorn offense.
“I would be silly not to say that didn’t matter,” Herman said. “It certainly did. I thought the plan was a good plan. I thought our backs knew where to go and how to go there. You’ve got a guy who was a first team All-American last year as a sophomore coming back on the left side of that line. That’s a big boost, a big shot in the arm.”
Both teams exchanged punts to begin the second half. On Texas’ second series, the Longhorns only had to manage one third down, which was converted by a 17-yard rush by Ehlinger.
The next play, Ehlinger rolled left and was hurried and wrapped up by WVU’s Dylan Tonkery.
Ehlinger tried too hard to make a play, and, as he was falling to the ground, tossed a duck that West Virginia’s Kenny Robison took back 94 yards for WVU’s first score of the game, making it 14-7.
“I was trying to throw it away and avoid the sack down on the goal line,” Ehlinger said. “Just a stupid mistake, I’ve got to eat that. Can’t make a play on every single one.”
The pick six energized the announced crowd of 53,133, and Texas could not come back in the next series with a score. WVU failed to get anything going even with the crowd on their side, and punted the ball to set up Texas’ next drive.
After Hemphill-Mapps brought the ball to the WVU side of the 50, freshman Daniel Young ran 36 yards to put the ball on the Mountaineer 10, the longest run of his 12 carries totaling 85 yards. The next play, sophomore Kyle Porter ran around the left side for the 10 yard score to give the Longhorns a two score advantage once more.
One of the pivotal plays of the game came at the beginning of the fourth quarter. On fourth and nine, Chugunov looked to find Gary Jennings in the end zone, but an incredible play by DeShon Elliott to knock the ball away before it reached its target kept Texas’ two score lead.
“Honestly, it was a busted coverage and I wasn’t supposed to be over there,” Elliott said. “I was like ‘whoa, what’s going on?’ I just went over there, tried to make a play on the ball, and I did.”
West Virginia appeared to sputter out on their second drive of the fourth quarter, but they were given another chance when junior linebacker Breckyn Hager was ejected for targeting.
Hager appeared to have been grabbed by his facemask, but the only penalty on the play was charged to the Westlake junior.
Without one of their better defensive players of late, WVU was able to complete a drive that resulted in a touchdown, cutting the deficit to seven with nine minutes to go.
Junior punter Michael Dickson had another great day despite the poor kicking conditions, but his shortest punt proved to be the most valuable. Dickson sent an end-over-end punt 35 yards that junior Kris Boyd caught at the Mountaineer four with just 7:26 left.
The Mountaineers didn’t seem too perturbed early on by their poor field position, moving to the Texas 20.
But on third and 10, sophomore Malcolm Roach grabbed on to Chugunov, and junior Gary Johnson delivered the hit that knocked the ball out of his hands. Junior Chris Nelson was on hand to recover the fumble, giving Texas the shortest of fields.
Two plays later, Young was in the end zone for his lone and Texas’ fourth touchdown. Young’s effort was part of a 42-carry, 233-yard, two touchdown effort from Texas rushers on 5.5 yards per carry.
The Mountaineers had one more drive but couldn’t score, and Texas ran the clock out to secure its all-important, bowl eligibility securing victory.
“To be able to say that we’ve reached one of our goals this season from an external perspective — I think we’ve reached a lot of our goals internally in the way that we handle our business and the way that we play and the way that we compete each and every week,” Herman said. “These guys are ecstatic, but they also know they’ve got one left.”