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Texas may need QB Sam Ehlinger to approximate his Cotton Bowl performance

With a banged-up shoulder, there are significant questions about whether the sophomore is healthy enough to lead the Longhorns offense to victory.

NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

No Texas Longhorns quarterback in the storied history of the rivalry with the Oklahoma Sooners has ever put up more yards of total offense in that game than Texas sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger.

For the Austin product and the lifetime Longhorn to move to 2-1 against Oklahoma and secure the first Big 12 title for Texas by winning Saturday’s championship game in Arlington, he may have to approximate his other two performances against the Sooners.

Oklahoma’s offense is that just that good, and every aspect of the Texas offense depends on Ehlinger — from the passing game to the running game to pre-snap decisions made at the line of scrimmage, it’s all on No. 11.

Given the ease displayed by Ehlinger in carving up the Sooners defense twice already, the biggest question surrounding Saturday’s game at AT&T Stadium is whether Ehlinger’s shoulder if healthy and will remain so throughout the game.

Ehlinger originally suffered a Grade 1 AC sprain to his right shoulder the week after his win the Cotton Bowl. After taking a facemask to that same shoulder and suffering an AC contusion against Iowa State, Ehlinger didn’t return against the Cyclones and struggled with his accuracy last week against the Jayhawks.

On Monday, head coach Tom Herman said that Ehlinger’s shoulder was bothering him and expected that to continue on Saturday, though mitigated by the game’s magnitude. Throughout the week of practice, however, Ehlinger was a full participant at the same level that he has been every week since the Baylor game.

During Tuesday’s media availability, Ehlinger downplayed the significance of the injury and said that he felt more healthy than he has in almost six weeks.

Likewise, junior wide receiver Collin Johnson didn’t think it will impact Ehlinger this weekend when he was asked about it on Tuesday.

“I haven’t heard him complain about it one time,” Johnson said. “He’s found a way to really play through it at a really high level. I’ve never heard him complain about it and he’s done a really good job of still leading this offense through adversity.”

The concern is whether Ehlinger can replicate his rushing success in the Cotton Bowl without suffering another critical hit on that shoulder. Back in October, Ehlinger ran for three touchdowns in turning 18 non-sack carries into 84 yards.

Especially in the red zone and short yardage, Ehlinger’s running ability is huge for the Texas offense, not to mention his ability to stay ahead of the chains with off-schedule scrambles on drop backs.

Infamously called a fullback playing running back by TCU head coach Gary Patterson this season, Ehlinger’s signature toughness has an impact on his teammates beyond providing such a material impact to the offense.

“It’s great to see a quarterback with that kind of grit,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you think quarterbacks are finesse and don’t like getting hit and things like that, but Sam has that grit and he’s someone who can really lead this offense.”

Ever since Ehlinger suffered a concussion last season, there’s been plenty of discussion about whether he should take greater care to protect himself. To that end, Ehlinger has actually slid several times this season, but his decision to put his shoulder down in an attempt to pick up a first down near the end zone against Iowa State resulted in Ehlinger re-aggravating his shoulder injury.

It was vintage Ehlinger. Junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay believes it’s difficult to try to take that away.

“It goes through my mind, but we all know he’s a tough player and a tough runner and that’s a big part of his game,” Duvernay said when asked about Ehlinger protecting himself. “So, I mean, if he takes that away he may not be the same person.”

Against Kansas, Ehlinger definitely wasn’t the same quarterback he was earlier in the season, even after his shoulder injury when he threw for over 300 yards against West Virginia and Texas Tech. In those games, he had seven passing touchdowns and zero interceptions. In Lawrence, Ehlinger clearly struggled with his accuracy, throwing two interceptions and experiencing multiple passes come out of his hand poorly.

Until that Kansas game, the post-injury performances by Ehlinger didn’t feature as much running as the USC and Oklahoma games, but did feature his top three games in terms of passer rating — as well as Ehlinger performed against the Sooners, he was better against the Mountaineers, Red Raiders, and Cyclones, at least in that particular metric.

On Saturday, protecting the football will be at a premium after Ehlinger threw his first two interceptions since Maryland last week against Kansas. Winning the turnover battle will almost certainly be a key indicator for Saturday’s game, just as it was in the Cotton Bowl.

Hitting small windows may be nearly as important because Texas depended on Johnson and junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey to physically win one-on-one battles in man coverage against the Oklahoma defensive backs in October. Both did so, repeatedly, with Ehlinger putting numerous passes on the money.

The new wild card is Duvernay — Ehlinger had trouble hitting his fastest wide receiver early in the season, but connected with Duvernay for three touchdown passes against West Virginia and Texas Tech, including key late touchdowns of 48 and 39 yards.

If the Longhorns need an explosive play of 40 yards or more in the passing game late, look for Duvernay to receive that target. And feel some increased confidence in Ehlinger connecting with him based on recent results.

For a kid who grew up dreaming of playing for the Longhorns against the Sooners, Ehlinger doesn’t need outside motivation, but a reporter did ask offensive coordinator Tim Beck on Wednesday about what he tells his young quarterback before Oklahoma games.

“Play within the system,” Beck said of his message to Ehlinger. “I constantly remind him that he’s good enough just playing Sam Ehlinger and playing with passion and love for his teammates and having fun and enjoying it, because it’s gonna be a blast.”