No. 8 Texas survives Texas Tech in overtime thriller, 63-56

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Saturday was one of those rollicking, back-and-forth humdingers tailor made for “The Jones.” And it was one of those rollercoasters totally on brand for the unpredictable Big 12.

No. 8 Texas found itself in a wild shootout against Texas Tech. There were incredible touchdown catches, terrific onside kicks, momentum-swinging interceptions, a muffed punt for a touchdown, a blocked punt for a score and chaos galore.

Set all that aside. The Longhorns’ Big 12 opener — a 63-56 overtime win — may end up being the moment this program realized it has championship mettle.

“As we were walking off,” Texas coach Tom Herman said, “Caden Sterns said that if 2020 was a football game, that was it.”

This game featured 119 points and 917 total yards. Lo and behold, it was sloppy at times, downright unwatchable at others. UT’s missed tackles and abhorrent special teams play will be critical topics in the coming days. But for the first time in Herman’s four seasons at Texas, the program is 2-0 — and nothing can ruin the Horns’ mood at the moment.

Texas is also 1-0 in Big 12 play, something other league title contenders can’t say, while Tech (1-1, 0-1 Big 12) was left scratching its head.

“I think just understanding that the only way that we have a chance is by believing,” Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “If you don’t believe, then we don’t have a chance. And so why wouldn’t you?”

With Tech leading 49-41, SaRodorick Thompson should’ve been bottled up for about a 2-yard loss. Instead, he broke free and raced 75 yards for a game-clinching touchdown with 3:13 left in regulation. It felt like the LSU disaster all over again. A close game suddenly over. Texas faced a 15-point deficit, and everyone thought it was over. Well, almost everyone.

Herman said his quarterback walked up to him on the sideline and said, “We’re going to tie this thing up and go to overtime.”

Ehlinger needed four plays to move 59 yards in 34 seconds. He found Brennan Eagles for a 12-yard touchdown. Still, it was bleak. Onside kicks are low-percentage plays, but they’re all the rage now around football. UT’s Cameron Dicker booted a perfect ball that bounced into open space, where Malcolm Epps gobbled it up. UT had new life and a new possession, trailing 56-48.

“Everybody continued to stay ready,” said receiver Joshua Moore, who had three touchdown catches on the day. “That play that Malcolm made, that was a big jump for us. That was something that we definitely needed.”

Ehlinger found Keaontay Ingram for gains of 12 and four yards, then he ran for five himself and 10 more. UT’s offensive linemen were flagged twice, moving the ball back to the Tech 18. But Ehlinger fired a dart to Moore, who caught a bullet in the air and got UT within two.

Then on the two-point conversion, Herman said the Horns ran a play that West Virginia ran against them several years ago at Royal-Memorial Stadium. Ehlinger hit Eagles for a quick pass on the left side that tied the game 56-56.

Tech dribbled out the clock in regulation, and the two teams staged their first overtime game in series history. Texas got the ball first, and Ehlinger went at Moore again, this time scoring from 12 yards out. The quarterback with unshakable belief finished 27 of 40 for 262 yards but threw five touchdowns, ran for one himself and had one interception.

Now, it was up to the Texas defense and first-year coordinator Chris Ash.

They’ve got some explaining to do. Texas Tech’s Alan Bowman threw for 325 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions. Ash spent the offseason working on a rugby-style form of tackling, but Herman didn’t seem impressed. “I felt like it was last year,” he said of the missed grabs.

Still, all Texas needed was one stop. On first down, Ta’Quon Graham brought down Thompson for a four-yard loss. On second down, DeMarvion Overshown was all over Travis Koontz for an incomplete pass.

On third down, Thompson appeared to catch and then drop a ball in the left flat. Joseph Ossai was there to pounce on the apparent turnover. The Horns thought it was over and went wild celebrating. But after review, officials determined that Thompson dropped the ball for an incomplete pass. That brought up fourth-and-14 from the Texas 29.

“We didn’t blame each other,” Texas defensive tackle Keondre Coburn said. “We knew that we knew that we made mistakes; it’s the reason why they scored. But move on to the next play.”

Then finally, long when the shadows had overtaken the eastern stands, Bowman threw something of a jump ball to the west sideline and Sterns was there for the game-ending interception.

The noise Texas Tech fans can generate inside Jones AT&T Stadium normally rattles the cattle in all directions from Abernathy to Tahoka, Idalou to Levelland. Even with 16,615 in the stands courtesy of social distancing, their voice was heard plenty.

But Texas fans were the ones on full blast heading home on U.S. Highway 84. The Longhorns are now 6-0 in Lubbock since 2010.

“For us to find the intestinal fortitude to come out, and not give up, not hang their head down 15 with 3 minutes and some change left, find a way to win that thing,” Herman said, “there’s a lot of confidence that can come from that, but also a lot of humility.”

It certainly could have gone the other way. Just ask Oklahoma what happens when you come up short against an overmatched foe. Saturday proved the next eight games could be a long, grueling road. But this could be a path to a championship, too.

“Hopefully this humbles some guys out there that thought this was going be easy that every game was going be like UTEP,” Herman said. “And I think that point was made very clear here today.”

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