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.”