NRG Stadium

Photo Credit: Katie Bauer | Daily Texan Staff

HOUSTON – Head coach Tom Herman and President Gregory Fenves climbed the steps of the Texas Bowl stage propped up dead center in the middle of NRG Stadium. The most popular punter in the country stood directly between them.

It wasn’t either of the quarterbacks in Shane Buechele or Sam Ehlinger. It wasn’t junior linebacker Anthony Wheeler who returned a fumble for a touchdown and it wasn’t even freshman running back Daniel Young who led the team in rushing and receiving. It was the Ray Guy Award recipient junior punter Michael Dickson, the first non-offensive player to be named MVP in Texas Bowl history.

Herman hoisted the Texas Bowl trophy following the Longhorns’ 33-16 victory over Missouri, marking the burnt orange’s first bowl win since 2012. But that wasn’t what received the loudest reception.

It didn’t happen until the Most Valuable Player of the Texas Bowl was announced.

That’s when junior punter Michael Dickson stepped to the front of the stage, causing a dramatic eruption not only from his teammates who cheered directly in front of the setup, but the thousands of fans who stayed for the award ceremony.

“It means so much,” Dickson said on the stage after being awarded MVP. “I would never have thought that it would end like this. But it’s the most incredible experience. All the greatest things that could've happened, happened. I'm just so happy that I got to experience it with all these guys that are yelling at me right now.”

But the award came with little drama. Dickson’s performance throughout the entirety of the season allows him to say he’s the best punter in college football — he has a Ray Guy Award to prove it. Wednesday night in Houston was no different after yet another eye-catching performance. But he still couldn’t believe it when they announced his name as the 2017 Texas Bowl MVP.

“I didn't believe it when they told me at first, or at second,” Dickson said. “When they were leading me up the stage I was like ‘Wait why am I going on stage?’ They said ‘You’re the MVP,’ and I didn't believe it. They said it again and I still didn’t believe it. It’s still kind of sinking in now.”

The Texas defense was able to hold a potent Missouri offense averaging over 50 points in the last 6 games, to 16. And it all boiled down to field position, with Missouri having an average starting field position on its own 15-yard line.

The Australian punter booted 11 punts total in Texas’ victory. All but one received a noticeable ovation from the crowd of 67,820. Dickson punted three times in the first quarter: he pinned Missouri back to the 3-yard line, 9-yard line and 12-yard line in each of those.

This was just the beginning of Texas’ dominance on defense and special teams, and his defense was sure to show appreciation.

“He’s a real brother of mine. He’s one of my best friends on the team,” junior linebacker Breckyn Hager said. “When I see him go out there and punt, I mean I should be getting him a steak dinner every night, being a defensive guy and all. He just flips the field so I never really have to worry.”

But he wasn’t done. Dickson finished by pinning 10-of-11 punts inside the 14-yard line and 8-of-10 inside the 10. After the game, Herman was asked if he’s ever had any punter affect a game the way Dickson affected this one. Herman didn’t even let the reporter finish the question before giving his answer.

“I’ve never even seen one affect a game the way he did tonight,” Herman said. “I'm glad he's on our team.”

But Herman still refused to do one thing –– call Dickson by his name. This dates back several months ago to the Big 12 media days when Herman continued to call Michael Dickson “the punter.”

Herman later explained that he won’t call a player who is only on the field for a handful of plays by their actual name. Despite Dickson’s game-changing punts all season, especially during the Texas Bowl, Herman still refuses to say his name until he does one thing.

“When he gets his degree from the University of Texas (I’ll call him by his name)” Herman said after the game. “You guys aren't gonna bait me into it. We laugh and cut up but all those guys know that’s the deal.”

There appears to be no hard feelings from Dickson’s end of the bargain. He later said he isn’t offended by his name, or lack thereof. However, it isn’t clear when the junior will receive his degree.

On Dec. 21 the punter announced that he plans to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft and will forgo his senior season as a Longhorn.

“Everything felt like the right time,” Dickson said. “I talked with family, I talked with friends, I talked with Breckyn (Hager). I talked with a lot of guys on the team and it just felt right. When you feel a certain way about something, I felt like I needed to act on it. I felt that way about coming here to Texas, it felt right when I was in Australia and it felt right about declaring early. It’s very bittersweet because I love the team so much and I love being able to represent the Longhorns each week. It just felt right so I just had to jump on it and catch the wave.”

But Dickson did what most players who declare for the Draft don’t do –– played in the bowl game. The punter said it was important to him to put on the burnt orange and white one final time Wednesday.

“It meant so much to me,” Dickson said. “ I didn't even really know what the Texas Longhorns were about three years ago. The amount of love I have for this school and this team and each player individually has grown exponentially over the past couple of years. I understand the tradition. I understand how much this means. To be able to wear the burnt orange and white one last time in front of all these fans that appreciate us all and are really loving it just means so much  and I'm so happy that we could do it and get a win.”

Michael Dickson left NRG Stadium as a Longhorn for the final time, bearing one last piece of hardware to reflect on during his Texas career. But this isn’t the last you’ll hear from Dickson.

His stock only continues to rise and will soon play on Sundays, but Texas received good news as well. His cousin, Ryan Bujcevski, who is also from Australia, recently signed with Texas.

For now, Longhorn fans will just have to thank Dickson for his three years in Austin and wish him good luck in the NFL. It seems that’s what his teammates have already started to do, too.

“I love this guy and I'm gonna miss him,” Hager said. “But I understand he’s gotta go get that money.”

Photo Credit: Katie Bauer | Daily Texan Staff

HOUSTON — It was the triumphant, defiant play that Texas craved so badly.

Late in the fourth quarter and deep in Missouri territory, leading by 10 with seemingly the Texas Bowl already in hand, the Longhorns opted for a reverse play. Sophomore running back Kyle Porter took a handoff from freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger, only for senior wide receiver Armanti Foreman to take it back the other way.

As Foreman turned the corner and bolted upfield, Ehlinger charged in front of him and delivered a key lead block. As he’s exhibited so often this season, Ehlinger was unafraid to dish out some contact of his own, mutating from quarterback to bulldozer.

Foreman sprinted for the goal line and absorbed one final hit, plunging into the corner of the end zone. It was an exclamation point like no other — one that helped cap off the Longhorns’ 33-16 victory over Missouri on Wednesday night at NRG Stadium.

And it was one that delivered Texas its first winning season in four years.

“You can’t overstate it,” head coach Tom Herman said. “It’s really important for these guys to call themselves a winner... Again, it wasn’t gonna be life or death. We would’ve been just fine next year, but this was a big step forward.”

Texas players celebrated jubilantly on the field after the game. Herman embraced his wife and kids. Junior punter Michael Dickson, who declared for the NFL Draft last week, staged a punting clinic in his final game for the Longhorns and was named the game’s MVP.

It was noticeable by everyone’s emotions how important, and defining, a bowl win was for this long-struggling program.

On the outside looking in, it may have been just a victory in the Texas Bowl. This wasn’t a national championship win or anything remotely close to it.

But this is a program that won a bowl game for the first time since since 2012. It’s a program that finished with a winning record (7–6) for the first time since former head coach Mack Brown’s last season in 2013.

It’s a program searching for any sign of tangible momentum, and any sign of a real turnaround under Herman.

“I think tonight, Coach Herman won the locker room. 100 percent. Hearts out,” junior defensive end Breckyn Hager said. “He now has our hearts as a team.”

If there were any questions as to which team would set the tone early, it was all settled on the first drive.

The Longhorns’ offense opened with the ball and took advantage of three costly Missouri penalties — a pass interference, holding and face mask — to move deep into Tiger territory.

Sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele found a wide open Daniel Young for a 22-yard touchdown pass. The freshman running back scored with ease and Texas was in front early, 7-0.

Despite not starting, Ehlinger proceeded to enter the game on Texas’ third possession. He put the Longhorns completely in the driver seat on his second drive.

Ehlinger scrambled to his left and found junior wide receiver John Burt in the corner of the end zone for a seven-yard touchdown pass to put the Longhorns up 14-0 in the first quarter.

Missouri’s offense, which ranked top-10 nationally in scoring and total offense entering the game, was shut down for most of the first half. The Tigers didn’t cross midfield until early in the second quarter. But on that drive, Missouri quarterback Drew Lock and the offense finally found some life. Running back Ish Witter scored from four yards out, and the Texas lead was cut to 14-7.

But right when Missouri appeared ready to find its footing in the game, Witter coughed up the ball after junior defensive back P.J. Locke III knocked it loose midway through the second quarter. Junior linebacker Anthony Wheeler scooped it up and returned it 38 yards the other direction for a touchdown, delivering a mean stiff-arm to a Missouri tackler along the way.

“They say never run out of bounds, so either get tackled or score, and I just went to go to the end zone,” Wheeler said. “It was just instincts to do (the stiff-arm). I really don’t have too many moves. I just went with the stiff-arm.”

Texas was in front 21-7 and seemingly had all of the momentum.

The momentum for the Longhorns continued on Missouri’s ensuing possession when the Tigers fumbled again. Hager — who wore No. 60 on Wednesday night in honor of the late, legendary Texas linebacker Tommy Nobis — recovered the fumble.

“It’s more than a number to me, to be honest,” said Hager, who was selected by Herman during Texas’ last bowl practice to wear the number. “It was emotional, and I’m so happy that it happened in my lifetime. It’s a great accomplishment.”

Texas was in complete command heading into the locker room at halftime up 21-7.

But on the first play of the second half, Missouri wide receiver Johnathan Johnson got behind senior nickelback Antwuan Davis. Lock hit Johnson in stride for a 79-yard touchdown pass. After a mishandled snap by the placeholder, Missouri trailed 21-13.

The Tigers tacked on a field goal midway through the third quarter to cut the deficit to 21-16, but that was all they could muster the rest of the way.

The Longhorns scored 12 unanswered points to put the game away, including a safety, a 41-yard field goal from junior kicker Joshua Rowland and Foreman’s late touchdown.

Moving forward, Texas now has a full offseason to digest the whirlwind that was the 2017 season. It began with a complete thud in early September with the loss to Maryland.

It showed signs of progress against USC and Oklahoma. It spotlighted a highly-inconsistent offense against Oklahoma State and TCU — an offense that still has plenty of question marks heading into 2018.

And it took a dark turn against Texas Tech — a game that nearly defined the season.

But the taste of an all-important bowl victory will be the last memory in the minds of the Longhorns.

“Anytime you can get confidence, give confidence to a fragile group of guys, that’s big. That’s big,” Herman said. “I think it gives us a lot of hope, but the confidence part of it is the biggest thing.”

Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa | Daily Texan Staff

They say one loss doesn’t define a season, but it can sure alter one.

Right when the Longhorns thought things were figured out in a road win over West Virginia, they blew a lead late in the fourth quarter less than a week later and lost to Texas Tech, finishing the regular season 6–6.

But that’s all deep in the past now as far as head coach Tom Herman is concerned. The Longhorns have a date with Missouri in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27 in Houston to prepare for.

“We’re a resilient group,” Herman said on a bowl conference call Sunday evening. “I think the sting is gone already. We’re looking forward to this.”

The good news for Texas right now: the Longhorns are going bowling for the first time in three years, returning to the same bowl as their last appearance in 2014. Playing in the postseason also gets Texas a few extra weeks of practice — something it hasn’t experienced the past two years.

“That is critical,” Herman said. “This is a team that has not had that kind of development and for the last two winters has basically gone home for four weeks, five weeks. That development is critical in terms of staying with your competition that are going to bowl games.”

But then there’s the bad news for Texas.

It began last Monday with the announcements of junior running back Chris Warren III deciding to transfer from the program and junior left tackle Connor Williams declaring for the NFL Draft, opting to also skip the bowl game.

It continued on Thursday with junior safety and Thorpe Award finalist DeShon Elliott announcing his decision to declare for the draft and skip the bowl game. Junior cornerback Holton Hill, who was suspended for the rest of the season following the TCU game for a violation of team rules, announced on Monday that he was declaring for the draft, too.

Many people suspect that junior linebacker Malik Jefferson will be next in line to jump ship for the draft. Junior cornerback Kris Boyd could also leave early.

But as of right now, Herman said he doesn’t know what Jefferson and any others will decide. A lot will depend on the draft grades players receive from NFL scouts. Herman said players could know their draft grades this week.

“I think the rest of them are waiting to get their grades back and make some informed decisions based on some of the NFL stuff,” Herman said.

The loss of Elliott and Hill, and the potential exits of more defensive players, is unfortunate timing for Herman. The Longhorns will square off in the Texas Bowl with a Missouri offense that is ranked in the top-10 in the country in both scoring and total offense.

After a 1–5 start to the year, Missouri (7–5, 4–4 SEC) rides into bowl season on the heels of a six-game winning streak.

“They’re playing some of the best football in the country right now,” Herman said. “They’re playing really, really well offensively.”

It’s difficult to label a bowl game like the Texas Bowl, insignificant in the College Football Playoff picture, a must-win game. But the Longhorns, who sit at 6–6, can avoid a fourth consecutive losing season with a win.

A loss to Missouri and Herman would finish his first season at Texas with the same record that former head coach Charlie Strong finished with in his first year in 2014.

Asked on Sunday how critical it is for Texas to finish this season with a winning record, Herman said it’s important but not a huge difference-maker.

“I don’t think one number difference on either side is really gonna make or break anything in our program,” Herman said. “We’re gonna stay the course, and we’re gonna continue to develop our players. We’re gonna try like heck to win the thing and prepare as such.”

Injury updates

Herman said on Sunday that he expects junior nickelback P.J. Locke III and sophomore linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch will be back for the bowl game. Locke hasn’t played since the Baylor game on Oct. 28, in which he suffered an ankle injury. McCulloch injured his ankle against TCU on Nov. 4 and hasn’t played since.

Herman also said he’s “hoping” that junior left guard Patrick Vahe will be able to return from injury as well. Vahe sprained his MCL during the West Virginia game on Nov. 18.

Junior offensive lineman Elijah Rodriguez, who suffered an ankle injury in preseason camp and hasn’t played this season, was cleared for the Texas Tech game and could work his way back into the starting rotation for the bowl game, Herman said.

Other notes

Texas will be down to just graduate transfer Kendall Moore at the tight end position for the bowl game. Freshman Cade Brewer had surgery for his torn ACL, and Warren, who was Texas’ makeshift tight end the past couple games, is transferring. Herman also doesn’t want to burn redshirts on freshman Reese Leitao and senior Andrew Beck, who fractured his foot in preseason camp and has missed the entire season.

As far as the quarterback situation goes, Herman said on Sunday that he hasn’t addressed who the starter will be for the bowl game. Freshman Sam Ehlinger and sophomore Shane Buechele have “rotated reps with the ones and twos evenly” in Texas’ two practices so far, Herman said.

Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa | Daily Texan Staff

Texas won’t have to travel far for its first bowl appearance in three years.

The Longhorns will face Missouri in the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl on Dec. 27 at NRG Stadium in Houston. Kickoff will be at 8 p.m. The matchup was announced on Sunday afternoon.

“I know the bowl staff there runs a first class operation, and the city of Houston will be excited to have the Longhorns in town,” head coach Tom Herman said in a statement. “For our team, it will be an added bonus that so many of their friends and family will have a chance to see them play, and I’m sure our fans will help fill NRG Stadium. We’re hard at work in Austin now getting ready for the game, and look forward to getting to Houston for bowl week in a couple of weeks.”

Texas and Missouri will meet again for the first time since 2011, when the Longhorns lost 17-5 in Columbia, Missouri. The Longhorns hold a 17–6 all-time record over Missouri, a former Big 12 Conference opponent. The Tigers left the Big 12 for the SEC along with Texas A&M after the 2011 season.

Texas is going bowling for the first time since 2014, former head coach Charlie Strong’s first season.

The Longhorns’ bowl appearance that year just so happened to be in the Texas Bowl against Arkansas. Texas lost 31-7 in a game that is now infamous in Austin for the Longhorns’ offensive no-show. Texas gained just 59 total yards against the Razorbacks that night and was dominated in possession time. The Longhorns controlled the ball for just 18:50 of game time.

After finishing the regular season 6–6 in Herman’s first year as head coach, the Longhorns will head to Houston in a bit of a deja vu scenario. A loss would give the Longhorns a 6–7 finish in 2017, the same result as Strong’s first season in Austin.

But a win would give Texas its first winning season since 2013 when it finished 8–5, the final year of former head coach Mack Brown’s tenure.