HOUSTON – As the clock struck zero at NRG stadium on Wednesday night, the Longhorns’ seniors experienced a pair of firsts: a bowl victory and a win in their season finale.
In Texas’ previous three seasons, the burnt orange ended the year on a sour note. A 2014 Texas Bowl loss was followed by back-to-back years without a postseason contest, paired with dispiriting defeats to end the season. But as Wednesday night bled into Thursday morning, the bitter memories faded, and the Longhorn seniors clutched onto the Texas Bowl trophy at midfield.
"I couldn’t be prouder of this senior class,” head coach Tom Herman said. “They were the glue that held this up-and-down season together. I think they knew what was ahead for this program, and they wanted to make sure that they left their mark on this next chapter of Texas football and they did.”
Six senior took the field for the Longhorns on Wednesday night, with four coming on defense (linebacker Naashon Hughes, defensive backs Jason Hall and Antwuan Davis and nose tackle Poona Ford) along with two receivers, Lorenzo Joe and Armanti Foreman. Each made a contribution in the 33-16 victory, capped by Foreman’s 18-yard dash to the end zone to seal the win late in the fourth quarter.
Foreman’s final play of his Longhorn career put an exclamation mark on a largely disappointing senior season. The Texas City product entered 2017 a year removed from leading the Longhorns with 34 catches, but found himself tethered to the bench for much of Herman’s first season. Foreman tallied just seven catches over a six-week stretch, failing to find the endzone in any game.
But both Foreman’s final contest in Austin – a five-reception, one-touchdown performance against Texas Tech – and his final effort for the burnt orange on Wednesday salvaged his final season in Austin. And the fourth-quarter touchdown was the icing on the cake.
“We wanted to make sure if we were to call a reverse that it would have been (Foreman) because he’s a senior and he has played well for us here down the stretch,” Herman said. “He deserved it by how he’s prepared and how he’s practiced. My hats off to him. He’s had a really, really good last month of the year. We hope he has continued success. Hopefully playing this game for quite some time.”
On the other side of the ball, the Longhorn defense was its usual stout self, halting a Missouri attack that led the SEC in both yards and points per game in 2017. But while the defense’s performance in Houston mirrored the standard set by defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, it was a far cry from the woes that plagued the Longhorn defense under former head coach Charlie Strong.
In the final two years of Strong’s tenure, Texas ranked No. 91 and No. 87 in the nation in total defense, surrendering over 30 points per game in 2015 and 2016. Seemingly every facet of the Longhorn defense struggled to keep up with the potent offenses in the Big 12, allowing a slew of big plays while failing to generate stops in key moments. Under Strong, Texas’ defense gave up over 40 points 10 times.
But the tide turned under Orlando in 2017.
Save for an opening-day loss to Maryland – in which the Longhorns allowed 51 points to the Terrapins – Texas held opponents to an average of 18.8 points per game, a mark that ranked No. 15 in the NCAA. And following a 16-point, four-turnover effort in the Texas Bowl, the Longhorn seniors believe they’ve laid the foundation for a fearsome defense in years to come.
“The sky is the limit for this defense,” Hughes said. “There’s a lot of guys returning, a lot of guys coming in, a great recruiting class coming in. This can be another top 10 defense, easily.”
The senior class departing from Texas will take with them one of the roughest stretches in program history. A 23–27 record, three losing seasons and three years without a bowl victory.
But that didn’t matter at the final buzzer on Wednesday night. The Longhorn seniors left NRG Stadium with a bowl victory, a win in the season finale and the first winning season in their time on the 40 Acres.