DALLAS — Tom Herman corrected the moderator of Texas’s postgame news conference. Of all the days to leave absent the three letters at the start of Lil’Jordan Humphrey’s name, this wasn’t one of them. “Lil. L-I-L,” a smiling Herman said, a half-joking glare toward the man at the podium who announced his receiver as “Jordan Humphrey.”
Other acceptable epithets are LJ and Lil-J, but, good heavens, don’t call him Jordan, because he’s more than just a Jordan, especially on this day. Oh, this day? No. 19 Texas beat No. 7 Oklahoma 48–45 Saturday at the Cotton Bowl on true freshman kicker Cameron Dicker’s 40-yard field goal, surviving the evaporation of a 21-point fourth-quarter lead and providing a host of reasons why Texas may just well be back. But none of them is as indicative to the Hey these boys are back! campaign as Lil’Jordan Humphrey’s 19-yard catch on a third-and-21. Forget about his passing touchdown that knotted the score at seven in the first quarter. Worry not about his 15-yard touchdown reception that gave UT a 21-point lead in the third, and don’t focus on that impressive final line of his: nine catches, 133 yards.
No, no, says Herman. It was that third-and-21. “That to me was the play of the game,” the second-year Texas coach said. Humphrey caught a tunnel screen near the line of scrimmage, fought through a couple of defenders, slammed into a Crimson wall and then moved the pile—helped by a few of his own linemen—more than five yards to set up a fourth-and-2. The Longhorns converted, scored a touchdown, went up by 14 points in the third quarter and signaled, at that very point, according to their own assessment, that, by golly, they have arrived. Speaking into his headset, Herman told his assistants listening on the other end, “That’s a culture play right there,” and his players echoed it afterward.
“We can’t do it without each other. That’s the culture of this team,” says Collin Johnson, Texas’s other skyscraper of a receiver who flummoxed the overmatched Sooners cornerbacks (Johnson, at 6'6", and Humphrey, at 6'4", combined for 15 catches and 214 yards). “That got our sideline going, offense going. That’s the epitome of our culture here at UT and what Coach Herman is building.”
That’s the closest anyone wearing burnt orange got to acknowledging afterward that, hey-o!, Texas is back. But even the Longhorns’ coach, despite his weekly 1-and-oh mentality, admitted the significance of what just transpired. After all, Texas won a third game against a top-25 team in four weeks, broke a seven-game, eight-year streak against teams ranked in the top seven, and scored its most points in 113 meetings with its bitter rival. “It would be foolish for me not to understand the bigger picture,” Herman told a room of reporters. “I’m not going to deny that or downplay that for these players. They have taken some very important steps in this program’s development and its progress.”
Those steps played out in front of a split crowd of 93,300 on a cloudy warm day amid the wafts of funnel cake and fried foods from the surrounding State Fair of Texas. Herman’s quarterback, Sam Ehlinger, not only passed for 314 yards and ran for 72, but he marched the Longhorns 52 yards on nine plays in the waning seconds to set up Dicker’s go-ahead make with nine seconds left. What’s more is it all came after the Longhorns blew a 45–24 lead with nine minutes left—enough adversity to rattle the Texas teams of the past. Not this one. Even after Oklahoma and Kyler Murray scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions, the Texas sideline stayed positive, Herman said. “Everybody knew we had plenty of time on the clock.”
The Horns had practiced for this. Texas ended its last three Tuesday practices with a two-minute drill capped by the first-team offense driving down to set up a field goal that, each of the three times, Dicker nailed. In a real game, they did it a fourth time. Dicker, an Austin native, didn’t even watch the kick sail through the uprights. “Felt good right when it left my foot,” he says. “Went to Ryan, my holder, and celebrated with him.” Ehlinger, the 235-pound sophomore, delivered a message to a jovial locker room like a veteran of a championship team. “When you practice something,” he told them, “it shows up in the games.”
So does all that offseason work that Herman and his staff instilled—those early-morning workouts, the long, elaborate conditioning tests. “These coaches are the best in the country. We won in the fourth quarter today because of how we trained,” said Texas linebacker Breckyn Hager, a cowboy hat atop his long blonde hair. “Texas has always had the elite talent. It’s just about schematically and mental between your ears. To slowly see us start embracing different things … things that I don’t even know if they’re legal, but we did it and kept doing it and kept buying in and buying in.”
And now they’re here. But are they back? Herman side stepped the question and shook off another about this squad competing for a playoff spot. Hager smiled before delivering an answer with a nod to next week’s game. “Only thing that’s back is, we’re going back to work to beat Baylor. Hook’em!” he said, flashing that oh-so familiar hand sign. Even Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley couldn’t dodge the Texas-back question. “I don’t think one game does anything. I won’t say it doesn’t do anything, but that’s their program. Not our program,” Riley said. “We’ve been nationally relevant for a long time. We plan on keeping it that way.”
There’s nothing like some good ole Texas rivalry sizzle. One UT player, Johnson, told a camera man in the most polite way that all the media did before Saturday was promote Oklahoma’s offense. “We have a really good offense too,” he said. He, Ehlinger and Humphrey proved it with 501 yards of offense, none more special than those 19 that Humphrey picked up on that pile-pushing third down. A former running back in high school, he’s known as one of the nation’s best at yards-after-the catch. “Shows how tough we can be,” he said. “Coach always preaches at practice to get vertical so I got vertical, dropped my pads” and his teammates gave him one, big shove.
Herman, seated at a table with Humphrey in the postgame news conference, glanced down at his receiver, smiled and said, “Thank you, LJ, for showing everybody what our culture is about.”