LAWRENCE — With a spot in the Big 12 Championship on the line, all the Texas Longhorns had to do was get past Kansas. 3-8 Kansas. 1-7 in conference play Kansas. Lame duck coach Kansas.
While the Longhorns prevailed 24-17, it was in a similar vein to so many of the games Longhorn head coach Tom Herman’s team has played in this year. It was interesting until the very end because they could not put the game 100 percent away. When they did, it sealed Texas’ place in Arlington December 1 with a chance to win the Big 12 Championship.
“I told the team it’s kind of like golf,” Herman said after the game. “They don’t draw pictures on the scorecard. They don’t draw pictures of wins and losses.”
The final score was in Texas favor, but it was another case of the Longhorns winning ugly. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger, coming off a second shoulder injury this season, saw his consecutive pass attempts without an interception streak end at the hands of Kansas’ Najee Stevens-McKenzie in the second quarter. Ehlinger passed for two scores and ran for another, but had trouble getting past the Jayhawk defense as easily as others in the Big 12 had.
“I felt that Kansas played really well defensively,” Ehlinger said. “They had a good scheme for us. They did a good job of doubling Collin (Johnson) and LJ (Humphrey), and did a good job of getting extra hats in the run game.”
The halftime score read 7-0 in Texas’ favor, a testament to the strong defensive performance without senior Gary Johnson, who was serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules. The opening score was an Ehlinger-to-Johnson pass for 26 yards to cap a 98-yard drive.
That defensive effort lost Texas’ starting safety Brandon Jones in the second half. On a second quarter punt return, Jones was on the receiving end of a helmet-to-helmet hit, resulting in a targeting ejection for KU’s Emmanuel Moore.
As a result, two true freshmen in BJ Foster and Caden Sterns had to man the safety spots for the rest of the game and try to keep tabs on Kansas’ star player, Pooka Williams.
Texas held a 21-0 lead at the end of the third quarter after an Ehlinger pass to tight end Andrew Beck and an Ehlinger rushing TD on a draw. But once again, Texas couldn’t close out the opponent and made things interesting.
Kansas scored its first points of the game on a 57-yard run by Pooka Williams, and Ehlinger turned the ball over again on the ensuing drive. Texas would almost immediately get the ball back thanks to Gary Johnson’s replacement, Jeffrey McCulloch.
McCulloch tipped a ball intended for an open receiver heading up the seam and destined for the end zone. McCulloch came down with it and returned it 65 yards, setting up a Cameron Dicker field goal.
“It was just a play I made,” McCulloch said. “I couldn’t have done it without my defensive line getting pressure on the quarterback and forcing him to throw the ball. I was in the right place at the right time.”
A few drives later, Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender found Daylon Charlot for a touchdown to make it a 10-point game with over three minutes to play. The Jayhawks, in outgoing head coach David Beaty’s final game, attempted an onside kick.
Texas thought they stunted KU’s comeback attempt when Collin Johnson slapped the ball out of bounds. Since he slapped it forward, it was called illegal touching. KU got another chance at it, and dribbled it up to tight end Andrew Beck. Beck misplayed it, and Kansas was ruled to have recovered the football.
Texas’ defense held KU to a field goal, and the Jayhawks tried one more time to onside and get back into the game. The ball bounced into Humphrey’s hands, and Texas knelt out the clock to solidify its place next Saturday in AT&T Stadium.
Ehlinger’s stat line was average at 16-of-28 for 154 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Texas made up for it with performances from the running backs. Tre Watson rushed 14 times for 80 yards while Keaontay Ingram rushed 13 times for 51 yards.
As Herman said, the final score is all that matters. That final score has Texas playing in Arlington in the conference championship game for the first time since 2009.
“We knew we’re an unfinished product,” Herman said. “We know we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re overachieving right now. We’ve done just enough to earn the right to play in our conference’s title game.”
He noted they weren’t simply glad to be there, saying their goal is to go 1-0 in that game.
The opportunity is one of the last stops on many seniors Texas football careers. Two years ago, as sophomores, they left Kansas as losers. Now, they leave as championship contenders.
“We looked back and we were 5-7 two years in a row sitting at home,” cornerback Kris Boyd said. “We watched the Big 12 (Championship). Now we’re actually playing in it. That just shows you hard work pays off, and if you buy in and want something and you want to go get it, you can do it.”
The big picture, being a conference championship contender, is now the only picture for Texas at this point in the season. Herman described the Maryland season-opening loss as feeling like it was “eons” ago.
His team will have to defeat one of West Virginia or Oklahoma, two teams the Longhorns have played to nail-biting finishes. Two teams they will need to be on their best to beat, much different than the performance they put out today. If Longhorns play their best, the head coach believes they could be conference champions.
“I think our guys know that if we play our best, we can play with anybody in the country,” Herman said.