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Texas nearly pulls off massive road upset vs. No. 4 USC

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Self-inflicted wounds by an unfinished product negated a huge opportunity.

NCAA Football: Texas at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Interested in a moral victory?

How about a Texas Longhorns team that showed further recovery from the dismal season-opening loss to the Maryland Terrapins and continued to improve with a hard-fought, double-overtime loss against the No. 4-ranked USC Trojans at the Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, 27-24.

The ending was truly one that will go down among the best in college football this season and paid respectable homage to the classic 2006 Rose Bowl between the two storied programs.

Following a red-zone interception by Longhorns starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger late in the fourth quarter, the defense, which performed at an extremely high level all night, got the ball back for the offense.

Unfortunately, Ehlinger and his unit were tasked with driving 91 yards with less than five minutes remaining in the game, all while trailing 14-10 — only a touchdown would suffice.

Nearly eight quarters into his college career, Ehlinger responded, hitting sophomore wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey for 17 yards and first touchdown after a loss of yardage on first down and a false start penalty.

The scrappy freshman picked up the final five yards on third and fourth down before another false start penalty set back the ‘Horns. And then Ehlinger stepped up big again, delivering a strike to sophomore wide receiver Collin Johnson that went for 47 yards to flip the field.

Three straight incompletions put the ‘Horns in a precarious position — 4th and 10 with the game on the line. Yet, Ehlinger delivered again, this time to a leaping senior wide receiver Armnati Foreman for another huge catch over the middle.

Another incomplete pass precluded another big-time moment in Ehlinger’s young career, as the local Austin product bought time and found Foreman again with a picture-perfect throw for a 17-yard touchdown and the lead.

And yet, with the ‘Horns only needing to keep the Trojans out of field-goal range with only 45 seconds remaining, a 32-yard kickoff return and three more chunk gains by star USC quarterback Sam Darnold allowed USC to kick the game-tying field goal.

Head coach Clay Helton and his staff struck quickly in overtime, throwing a 25-yard touchdown pass on the first play.

Ehlinger had to battle more, as a holding call on the second play of the ensuing drive cost Texas 10 yards. And yet, there was Johnson again, with a huge 21 yard-gain. A completion to Lorenzo Joe set up the ‘Horns near the goal line for a needed touchdown, then Ehlinger hit freshman tight end Cade Brewer on an easy, short touchdown throw to send the game into double overtime.

Tragedy struck thereafter, as three solid plays overcame an opening sack, but Ehlinger fumbled near the goal line and USC was able to hold on to connect on a 43-yard field goal to win.

Junior linebacker Malik Jefferson was in position to make a play against Darnold to push the Trojans into deeper field-goal range, but just wasn’t able to finish it. The subsequent conversion by the walk-on USC kicker was only the second of his career, following the kick that sent the game into overtime.

Hurt by repeated penalties and turnovers, primarily on offense, the Texas defense more than made up for those miscues by the offense, holding the prolific USC offensive attack to only 17 points in regulation, a remarkable accomplishment.

Junior safety DeShon Elliott came up huge with two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. The secondary was almost always in position, Darnold was often under pressure, USC failed to convert on three fourth-down attempts, and the linebackers and defensive line turned in excellent performances.

In fact, the potent Trojans rushing attack gained only 71 yards on 37 carries.

And other than a crushing 56-yard touchdown pass to Ronald Jones II by USC just before the half, the vaunted passing game led by Darnold was generally held in check.

Had Texas been able to eliminate those two big mistakes that led to the crucial touchdown and game-tying field goal, Longhorns fans would be celebrating a huge victory on the road against an excellent team.

Instead, the team will have to continue to improve to become more of that finished product that Herman wants, but it can now do so with the knowledge it can compete with the best in the country, even on the road.

For this team, that’s worth something — the ‘Horns showed a lot tonight, and left it all on the field.