As the fourth quarter winded down on Saturday in Morgantown, West Virginia, several Longhorns could be seen dancing and celebrating on the sideline. Head coach Tom Herman even flashed a grin.
When the clock hit 0:00, cementing Texas’ 28-14 victory over No. 24 West Virginia, the Longhorns officially earned what hasn’t been done since 2014: bowl eligibility.
“It was fantastic,” Herman said. “These guys, the smiles on their faces, we know we’ve got one left, but this was a big one to get another road conference win, to beat a top 25 team and make sure that our seniors are bowl eligible.”
The Longhorns and Mountaineers struggled for the majority of the first quarter in what was a treacherous downpour on the turf. Then, Texas caught a break –– at the expense of West Virginia quarterback Will Grier.
Grier took the snap from inside the one-yard line, faked the handoff and made a break for left end of the endzone. Grier dove for the pylon, but as he returned to his feet, he threw his right hand into the air, displaying a gruesome injury that deformed his middle finger.
The officials ruled the play a touchdown which gave the Mountaineers a 6-0 lead for the time being. Grier was sent to the locker room. One minute later, the officials overturned the touchdown call and Grier would not return for the remainder of the game.
The Mountaineers were forced to play redshirt sophomore Chris Chugunov and the Longhorn defense took advantage, holding a team averaging 39 points per game to zero at halftime.
“I thought our defense, to hold them to zero points offensively until mid-way through the fourth quarter,” Herman said. “I think (that) was definitely something that kept us in the game.”
The Longhorn offense failed to put any points up in the first quarter as well until freshman Sam Ehlinger relieved starting quarterback Shane Buechele of his duties after the first two drives.
Ehlinger made his presence known immediately on the first play of the second quarter. The Longhorns faced a third-and-4 when the freshman quarterback floated a pass just over a West Virginia defender and right into the hands of redshirt freshman wide receiver Reggie Hemphill-Mapps for a 50-yard reception.
“That was difficult because it was pouring and the ball was pretty wet,” Ehlinger said. “Reggie said he couldn't find it for a little bit because it was raining so hard. But it was good. It was a little boost knowing ‘hey it’s pouring and we can still throw the ball for 50 yards. We can do whatever we want in this game.’”
Ehlinger remained behind center for the rest of the game and finished the game completing 12-of-19 attempts for 136 yards and two touchdowns. But he did have one disastrous mistake in the third quarter. With the Longhorns five yards away from the end zone, Texas threatened to take a commanding 21-0 lead.
Then, right before Ehlinger was pulled to the ground for a sack, he desperately tried to throw the ball out of bounds. But it didn’t make it there. Instead, the ball landed right in West Virginia cornerback Kenny Robinson’s lap, who returned the interception 96 yards to cut the lead to 14-7.
“The pick-six, that’s a kid probably trying too hard,” Herman said. “I think he thought he could throw it away. As the saying goes ‘You’ve gotta know when the journey is over.’ We were in field goal range… I suspect that will be a mistake that you won’t see him make again.”
Despite the interception, the Longhorn defense continued its dominance by holding a West Virginia offense averaging over 500 yards to 295 yards en route to a 28-14 victory, allowing Tom Herman and the Longhorns to leave Milan Puskar Stadium with both a victory and a bowl bid for the first time since 2014.
“They're kids that have been beat up quite a bit the last couple of years and to be able to say we’ve reached one of our goals this season,” Herman said. “These guys are ecstatic, but they also know we've got one left.”
The same players who suffered from back-to-back 5-7 seasons danced in celebration as the final seconds of the game dwindled down. Although the Longhorns do have one more game remaining in the regular season, one thing is for sure: 5-7 is no more.