AUSTIN, Tex. (AP) – There’s still some life in Texas.
It may not be much and may be too little to mask the pain of a terrible season, but the Longhorns finally found a way to win again.
Garrett Gilbert threw two long touchdown passes and Emmanuel Acho had a 57-yard interception return for a score as Texas snapped a four-game losing skid with a 51-17 win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday.
The win means Texas (5-6), which played for the national championship last season, can become bowl eligible with a win over rival and No. 18 Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night.
If they lose that game, the Longhorns will have their first losing season since 1997.
“It was a lot of fun,” Gilbert said of Texas’ first victory in a month. “The excitement in (the locker room) was awesome and something I think all of us could get used to.”
That the victory came against a team with a losing record from the Sun Belt Conference made no difference.
“None of this had to do with who we were playing,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “This gives us hope. We’ve had no hope for a while.”
Texas hadn’t won since Oct. 16 at Nebraska and had lost four in a row at home. The Longhorns easily played their best game of the season against the Owls (4-6), who managed to stay within striking distance until Acho’s touchdown put Texas up 37-17 at the start of the fourth quarter.
The Longhorns more than doubled their season average of 22 points and rolled up 522 total yards. Texas hadn’t scored a first-half touchdown in the four consecutive losses, but hit Florida Atlantic with three to take a 24-7 lead into halftime.
Cody Johnson ran for 124 yards and a touchdown. Gilbert passed for 263 yards.
“They’ve been so beaten down. If you’re at a school that doesn’t expect to win, losing is probably easy,” Brown said. “At some point, they have to step up and say, ‘I don’t care what anybody says or anybody does, we have to win a game.”‘
Gilbert’s 63-yard touchdown pass to James Kirkendoll in the second quarter was Texas’ longest scoring play of the season. His 47-yarder to Malcolm Williams on the final play of the first half was the highlight of Texas’ disappointing season.
Texas snapped the ball with 4 seconds left in the half, and Gilbert launched a high pass that the 6-foot-3 Williams managed to grab amid four Owls defenders.
“That was the point in the game when everyone felt like things were going our way,” Williams said.
Brown said it’s the first time a play like that has worked for him.
“There’s a reason they call it Hail Mary,” Brown said.
A lot of Texas fans didn’t see it. The losing skid led to tens of thousands of empty seats.
It looked early like some of the same frustrating problems would hit Texas again when Johnson was stopped short of the goal line on fourth down on the first drive. But Blake Gideon’s interception two plays later gave Texas the ball on the 9, and Johnson scored on fourth-and-1 for a 7-0 lead.
The Owls struck back when quarterback Jeff Van Camp found Rob Housler behind safety Kenny Vaccaro and Housler hauled in an easy 56-yard score.
Texas’ Justin Tucker kicked two field goals, and Housler scored his second touchdown for the Owls in the third quarter. Florida Atlantic was driving to cut Texas’ 30-17 lead before Acho’s interception to start the fourth broke the game open.
Van Camp was under pressure when he floated a soft pass toward the sideline. Acho grabbed it and had a clear path to a touchdown.
“It’s not like we couldn’t play with them. They are a good team, but we let some plays get away from us,” Van Camp said.
Acho’s TD was Texas’ first defensive score since the first game of the season.
“All season we’ve been struggling to get turnovers,” said Acho’s brother, Sam Acho, a defensive end who had three sacks. “An unbelievable play.”
Gilbert and Ryan Roberson added two late rushing touchdowns for the final margin.
Texas players hope they can ride the little momentum they have into their big rivalry game.
“A game like this is definitely what you need,” Sam Acho said. “We came together. We stayed together. We haven’t blamed each other. We haven’t pointed fingers.”