As wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey held a tight grip on the ball during Kansas’ final onside kick attempt, Texas players knew they could rejoice. Defensive backs Kris Boyd, Josh Thompson and Chris Brown began dancing on the sideline in celebration of what they had long set out to accomplish: earning a shot to play for the Big 12 Championship.
The Longhorns have shown they’re not a bunch likely to escape any matchup unscathed — not against Oklahoma, not against West Virginia, not even against 3–8 Kansas, the lone team remaining between them and a berth in the conference title game.
Despite an abundance of nicks and bruises on the narrow, winding road through the regular season, the game culminated with Texas emerging with a 24-17 win over the Jayhawks on Friday, awarding the Longhorns an opportunity to play for the Big 12 Championship, something that’s been their primary goal for almost a year now.
“It’s incredible,” quarterback Sam Ehlinger told FS1 after the game. “We set a goal in January that we wanted to play for a conference championship. We’ve had some bumps in the road, but ultimately we’ve gotten to our goal and it’s really exciting.”
Texas’ offensive sputtered throughout the first two quarters after an early 98-yard drive capped off with a touchdown connection between Ehlinger and wide receiver Collin Johnson. The Longhorns failed to generate much production on the offensive end beyond the early score, entering the locker room at halftime with just a 7-0 lead.
The Longhorns had more success in the remaining minutes of action, jumping out to a 21-7 advantage. The tide would turn in the Jayhawks’ favor, however, as Ehlinger threw his second interception of the afternoon, putting Kansas in an excellent position to slice the deficit in half.
The quiet growth of momentum among a mostly empty David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium was silenced two plays later by linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch after he tipped a pass from Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender straight up into the air, landing the ball within only his grasp. McCulloch planted upfield and went off to the races, returning it 65 yards deep into Kansas territory.
“It was an enormous play in the game,” head coach Tom Herman said. “Our quarterback hadn’t thrown an interception — I think it was a Big 12 record — since Week One. To go out there and throw two, he’ll tell you he didn’t have his best stuff, but for our defense to have our back and Jeff to make an incredible play like that, get it down to where we could take some time off the clock … it was a huge play in the game.”
The Jayhawks remained in contention until the final minutes though, scoring a touchdown and a field goal on back-to-back possessions, bringing the lead back to within one score. But Humphrey’s recovery on Kansas’ last onside attempt sealed its fate and now sends Texas into postseason play with a three-game win streak.
After being written off by fans and experts alike following a season-opening defeat at the hands of Maryland, the Longhorns finally earned something to show for their success with a trip to Arlington slated after Friday’s win.
“This team has grown up quite a bit,” Herman said. “To go from winning six straight to then losing two games by four points back-to-back weeks but then rallying back, knowing that we could still accomplished a lot of really cool things, it’s been fun to be a part of.”
Herman continued, “I do need a pacemaker or some blood pressure medicine, but these guys are great, they love each other, they love their coaches and it’s been fun to watch them grow.”
Similar sentiments have been echoed by Herman’s players as well, with one of the coach’s biggest supporters being Ehlinger, who has been an offensive MVP for Texas in his second season. Despite growth and increased comfortability by many, the greatest improvement among the Longhorns over this season has been the trust in one another, according to Ehlinger.
“We’ve really bought into the coaching staff,” Ehlinger said. “We love each other and we believe in this system so we’re doing some really good things on both sides of the ball and now we’ve just got to clean it up.”
Despite making enough good plays to leave Lawrence as a Big 12 title contender, Texas will ultimately be judged upon the result of next Saturday’s matchup against Oklahoma at AT&T Stadium, where it will attempt to win a conference championship for the first time since 2009.
“We’re not going there just to play,” Herman said. “Our goal, now that we’ve reached that game, is certainly to go 1–0 in that game.”