By Steve Habel, Senior Contributing Writer
LUBBOCK, Texas — On the 10-year anniversary of the biggest play in Texas Tech football history, No. 19 Texas made a little history of its own Saturday while dodging a deluge of tortillas on the South Plains.
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger hit wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey for a 29-yard touchdown pass with 21 seconds to play to lift the 19th-ranked Longhorns to a wild 41-34 win over Texas Tech at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock, Texas.
Did the play and the thrilling victory erase the memory of a last-second winning catch by the Red Raiders’ Michael Crabtree in 2008 that cost Texas a chance at a spot in the Big 12 championship game and perhaps a national championship?
Well, that might be a stretch, but Saturday’s win was hugely important for the Longhorns’ push to regain a spot among college football’s elite.
“We know how to make them interesting, don’t we?” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “It’s huge for our confidence. I think winning this game gives our guys a little boost. We have taken some pretty good blows over the past two weeks. To battle back, after that especially, certainly will pay dividends for our confidence moving forward.”
Ehlinger threw for 312 yards and four touchdowns in the victory while expanding his team record and setting a Big 12 Conference mark for passes without an interception with 280, supplanting the mark established by former West Virginia signalcaller Geno Smith.
“I had no doubt in my mind that we were going to go down the field and finish the game, whether it was a field goal or a touchdown,” Ehlinger said. “We have big games coming up, and we just have to keep going and getting better. We need to learn how to eliminate our mistakes that let our opponents get back in the game when we have a chance to finish.”
Texas (7-3 overall, 5-3 in Big 12 play) snapped a two-game losing streak and stayed in the hunt for a spot in the Big 12 championship game. The Longhorns won despite playing without two of their top players as wide receiver Collin Johnson (knee) and safety Brandon Jones (ankle) and suffering a bevy of injuries during the game.
The Longhorns’ defense, which had gone two games without producing a turnover, forced three in the victory, with all three of those coming in the red zone to thwart Texas Tech scoring drives. Texas did allow 595 yards of total offense, the third game in a row in which the Longhorns have surrendered 500 or more yards, but made the plays when it had to.
“I am really proud of our guys, and I’m especially proud of our defense,” Herman said. "I know when you look at the stat sheet, you say, ‘Coach, what are you talking about?’ Our defense turned the ball over and gave us a chance to win. Despite all our injuries, we found a way to win.”
Red Raiders quarterback Jett Duffey passed for 444 yards and four touchdowns, the final coming on a 9-yard scoring throw to Antione Wesley with 1:45 to play to tie the game at 34-34.
Texas Tech (5-5 overall, 3-4 in Big 12 games) lost its third straight game but is still in position to be bowl-eligible if it can find a win in its final two contests.
“It's just a shame, (because) some of these games we haven't been able to close,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “This is the third Big 12 game that we had three-plus turnovers and lost because of it, and that can't happen. You play these better teams and you (have) got to protect the football, and we didn't get any takeaways. We didn't play very good defensively.”
The Red Raiders, despite being without starting quarterback Alan Bowman, went right through the Texas defense on their opening drive, moving 66 yards in 10 plays to a Duffey to T.J. Watson 5-yard touchdown pass. It was the eighth time in 10 games that the Longhorns have surrendered points on an opponent’s opening drive.
Duffey showed his inexperience on Tech’s next drive, trying to do too much after dropping a snap in the shadow of the Longhorns’ goal line and throwing a wobbly pass that was intercepted by Texas’ Davante Davis at the UT 4.
Texas moved to the Tech 24 before back-to-back sacks forced the Longhorns to ask freshman kicker Cameron Dicker to try a 52-yard field goal, which he hit to cut the Red Raiders’ lead to 7-3 with 13:40 to play in the second quarter.
The Longhorns got a huge break on their next drive when Texas Tech’s Desmond Smith was called for a facemask penalty on the far side away from the play on a third-down pass from Ehlinger to Humphrey (who had eight catches for a career-high 159 yards) that gave Texas an automatic first down at the Red Raiders’ 13-yard line.
After two snaps netted four yards, Ehlinger went back to Humphrey for a 9-yard touchdown pass in tight coverage to give the Longhorns a 10-7 lead with 3:46 to play in the second quarter. The score culminated an 18-play, 60-yard drive for Texas.
On the ensuing possession, Kingsbury rolled the dice on fourth-and-1 from his own 34 with a Duffey sneak that was snuffed out by the Longhorns’ Chris Nelson and Charles Omenihu for no gain, giving Texas the ball deep in Red Raiders territory.
Texas immediately took advantage of the opportunity, driving to set up a Keaontay Ingram 2-yard touchdown run in four plays to expand its lead to 17-7.
Clayton Hatfield brought the Red Raiders back to within 17-10 via a 41-yard field goal with 7 seconds to play in the half.
Tech outgained the Longhorns, 211-171, in the first half, including a 67-39 edge on the ground, while running 37 plays to 41 for Texas.
The Longhorns boosted their lead to 24-10 on the opening drive of the third quarter, as Ehlinger connected with Devin Duvernay on a fourth-down pass from the Tech 1-yard line at the end of a 12-play, 75-yard march.
Dicker added a 46-yard field goal with 1:57 to play in the third quarter to push the Texas lead to 24-10, but Duffey found Wesley for a 57-yard touchdown pass a minute-and-a-half into the fourth quarter to show some life and cut the lead to 27-17.
But Texas responded immediately, moving 92 yards in just five plays (and aided by a Texas Tech personal foul penalty) to a 39-yard touchdown strike from Ehlinger to Duvernay that moved the lead back to 17 points, at 34-17.
Hatfield added a 36-yard field goal to make it a two-score game, and Duffey hit Vasher for the duo’s second scoring hookup after an onside kick that was bobbled by Texas’ P.J. Locke III.
Duffey ripped off a 9-yard pass to Wesley to tie the game at 34, as the Red Raiders scored 17 points in a 4:25 minute span to pull even. But the Red Raiders left too much time for Ehlinger and the Longhorns.
The Longhorns return home for Senior Night at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium next Saturday night when they play host to No. 22 Iowa State.