No. 14 Horns ready to make immediate impression against UTEP

11 Sep By
The Longhorns will be led into Saturday's opener by quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who has started all 27 Texas games over the last two seasons (photo by University of Texas Photography).

AUSTIN, Texas — There has been a cool snap in the air this week in Central Texas, suggesting an earlier-than-usual end to the brutal dog days of summer and that is time to play college football. No. 14 Texas and UTEP will oblige that yearning Saturday evening at Royal-Memorial Stadium in what will be the season debut for the rip-roaring and ready-to-go Longhorns.

It would be nearly impossible to understand or explain how emotional this game is for Texas, a team that is talented and well-coached and, well, hangry (a combination of "angry" and "hungry") to show what it can do on the field. Try to slow or stymie these burnt orange and white-clad athletes at your own peril ... and prepare for the consequences.

The Longhorns, and many around the nation, believe they are ready to take the next step forward, to find a way to get past perennial league champion Oklahoma and have enough to hold off surging Iowa State and Oklahoma State and win the Big 12. 

The lack of that title rails on the Longhorns. “It eats at us all,” Texas’ All-America left tackle Samuel Cosmi said. “It’s literally everyone in the program. We are hungry and motivated to win a championship.”

If all goes as expected, the Longhorns will dismantle their little brothers from far West Texas in impressive fashion, then take a break for a week before jumping into the Big 12 Conference campaign with a game against Texas Tech in Lubbock Sept. 26.

All the pieces are in place for an impressive, albeit truncated, season.

The Longhorns return quarterback Sam Ehlinger, an erstwhile Heisman Trophy candidate, who has started all 27 games for Texas over the past two seasons. Ehlinger amassed 3,663 of UT’s 3,761 passing yards in 2019 and was responsible for 39 of the Longhorns’ 58 touchdowns last season.

The Texas offense also brings back its top three rushers from a season ago return in running backs Keaontay Ingram (853 yards) and Roschon Johnson (649), as well as Ehlinger (663).

Head coach Tom Herman said the Longhorns will be without sophomore receiver Jake Smith in their season opener against UTEP because of a hamstring injury (photo by University of Texas Photography).

Junior Brennan Eagles and sophomore slot receiver Jake Smith are UT’s top two returning receivers. Eagles caught 32 passes for 522 yards (team-high 16.3 yards per catch) and six touchdowns, while Smith hauled in 25 passes for 274 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman. Smith’s six touchdown catches in 2019 were the second-most by a freshman in school history, trailing only Roy Williams’ eight in 2000.

In total, Texas returns 99.6 percent of its passing yards (3,747), 98.3 percent of its rushing yards (2,256) and 46.4 percent of its receiving yards (1,745) from last year’s team.

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On defense, the Longhorns bring back nine of their top 11 tacklers, including team leader Joseph Ossai, who logged 90 tackles in 2019. 

There is no doubt that the pandemic and its effects have been a challenge for the Longhorns in the run-up to Saturday’s game. But Texas coach Tom Herman said this week that the restrictions of the 2020 fall season won’t take anything away from the Longhorns’ success.

“We certainly understand the gravity of this season and the challenges that are laid out in front of us,” Herman said, “(and) we do know that if you come away from this crazy season with a championship under your belt, you’ve done something truly remarkable.”

First things first: Texas must come to play against UTEP. The Miners enter the game with one advantage: they already have a contest under their belts after a 24-14 win over Stephen F. Austin last Saturday.

Texas is a 43-point favorite but will face a UTEP team that gained some belief in itself and thinks it can improve this Saturday in Austin. The Miners have lost 18 straight games against teams that are currently in the Big 12.

"That's going to be the big thing for our guys, to play within ourselves and don't get intimidated by the atmosphere and understand we're playing against a really good football team, a football team that could get themselves in the playoff picture," UTEP coach Dana Dimel said Monday.

“It will be really important that we don't make silly mistakes that would take us out of our game plan and play as consistent and precise as we can play in that type of atmosphere.”

The Longhorns will have to play their first game without one of its top offensive weapons after Texas coach Tom Herman announced Thursday that Smith will miss the opener after suffering a Grade 1 hamstring injury. Smith is expected back for the Texas Tech game.

Texas and UTEP have only faced off against each other five times since the series began in 1930. The Longhorns have won all five of those games by an average of 33 points. In fact, the Miners have only scored a combined 33 points in the five contests. 

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Steve Habel is a senior contributing writer for Horns Illustrated. He has covered Texas sports since 1989 and was this magazine’s senior editor for 24 years. You can follow him on twitter @stevehabel .