AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Charlie Strong went to the Texas locker room after the biggest win of his first season as Longhorns coach when he was suddenly surrounded, grabbed and tossed into the air.
By his players.
Strong is all business, but he’s got nothing against a little crowd surfing to celebrate, especially when the postseason is looking more and more like a possibility.
Texas surged closer to a bowl game with a 33-16 win over No. 24 West Virginia on Saturday, powered by three touchdowns and 101 yards rushing from Johnathan Gray and a defense that kept the Mountaineers out of the end zone for until the fourth quarter.
“I just walked in there and they grabbed me. West Virginia is going to be mad,” Strong said.
“I don’t even know how we got him up,” Texas running back Malcolm Brown said. “A couple people just picked him up and all of a sudden he was in the air just flying.”
Gray scored on runs of 39, 2 and 15 yards as Texas (5-5, 4-3 Big 12) ended a streak of nine straight home losses to ranked opponents. The Longhorns need to win one of their final two games to be eligible for a bowl. Texas last missed a bowl in 2010 when the Longhorns had a losing season the year after playing for the national championship.
Defensively, Texas held West Virginia (6-4, 4-3, No. 23 CFP) receiver Kevin White in check by keeping him out of the end zone. Mountaineers quarterback Clint Trickett passed for 248 yards, but was sacked three times the Texas Cedric Reed, had two turnovers and was tackled in the end zone for a late safety.
The Longhorns hadn’t won two in a row this season and the pressure to reach a bowl was starting to mount for Strong as the season dipped into November with his team well short of becoming eligible. Consecutive conference wins will brighten that outlook with games against Oklahoma State and No. 6 TCU left to play.
“We’re not done. This is the first stepping stone toward getting that sixth win,” Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks said.
For West Virginia, two straight losses could be the start of yet another late-season swoon in the Big 12. The Mountaineers looked tired, both emotionally and physically after last week’s last-second loss to TCU and the 1,400-mile trip to Austin.
Dreamius Smith ran for 100 yards for West Virginia. White had a school record 16 catches for 132 yards, but couldn’t produce a momentum-shifting play.
“Whether it was a little bit of a hangover, or so to speak, from last week, I don’t know. But we weren’t ready to play,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I take responsibility for that.””
Gray scored twice in the second quarter to propel Texas to 24-3 halftime lead. West Virginia made a late charge for a comeback when Smith scored early in the fourth quarter, but Reed snuffed the momentum by sacking Trickett for the safety.
Those two points would loom large when the Mountaineers scored again but were still down by 16 and failed on a 2-point conversion. Gray put the game out of reach with his final touchdown with 3:06 to play.
Gray’s big second quarter had him looking like the high school All-America who set national scoring records.
He had struggled to regain his burst and shifty running style after tearing an Achilles tendon against West Virginia last year. But Gray had his best run of the season on Texas’ second touchdown when he cut to his left to avoid a tackle, then used a dazzling move in the open field to escape another before diving for the pylon.
Gray set up Texas’ next touchdown with a 40-yard run before scoring. After Trickett threw an interception, Nick Rose kicked a 39-yard field goal to make it 24-3 at halftime.
“I’m just getting a feel for the game,” Gray said. “I was out for so long. I felt great tonight.”
West Virginia had a chance to make a game of it by driving inside the Texas 10 early in the third quarter, but two big tackles by Hicks on third and fourth down stopped the drive.
“Eventually that’s who we’re going to become: We’re just going to physically pound the football and play defense,” Strong said.
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