In the press box of AT&T Stadium, the momentum swing when senior linebacker Gary Johnson’s forced fumble through sheer hustle gave the Texas Longhorns the ball at the Texas 8-yard line against the Oklahoma Sooners last Saturday during the fourth quarter in the Big 12 Championship game didn’t immediately feel as big as such swings in the Cotton Bowl.
And, indeed, any Texas momentum didn’t last any longer than the ensuing drive’s second play, when Oklahoma cornerback Tre Brown came on a blitz from sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s right side to force a game-changing safety nearly halfway through the final quarter.
The Sooners stretched the lead to 32-27 with those two points and never looked back. That felt big.
Ehlinger, looking left on the play-action pass, never looked right. “Absolutely not,” a dejected Ehlinger admitted after the game when asked if he saw Brown coming.
Oklahoma had apparently noticed a tendency — the Sooners recorded a sack earlier in the game on the same blitz when Ronnie Perkins came free on a twist — and exploited it when the slide in protection didn’t make it and Ehlinger didn’t notice Brown coming. Senior tight end Andrew Beck said he’d only seen the Sooners run that particular blitz once this season leading into Saturday’s game. Ehlinger called it a “game-plan blitz.”
Having taken the sack and the safety, Ehlinger did the only thing that he could do after the game. He admitted his mistake, and later expressed his emotions about that play.
“We had an opportunity, our defense did a great job of getting the ball back to us, and then offensively we didn’t take care of our part of the bargain,” Ehlinger said. “That’s on us. That’s on me.”
Ehlinger finished his statement by echoing former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow’s impassioned speech following Florida’s stunning early-season upset at the hands of Ole Miss in 2008.
“I will make it my mission to never let this team or this school feel this disappointment again,” Ehlinger said.
Ten years ago, Florida went on a spectacular tear following Tebow’s speech, winning eight games to finish the regular season, beating Alabama in the SEC title game, and then defeating Oklahoma in the BCS national championship game after the infamous Big 12 tiebreaker had allowed the Sooners that opportunity by keeping the Longhorns from playing for it themselves.
Tebow’s speech became known as The Promise. Gators head coach Urban Meyer eventually had it engraved on a plaque, because of course he did.
Ten years later, the legacies of Meyer and that Florida team are much more problematic than they were when all parties involved were the largely unfettered objects of veneration.
Following the loss to Oklahoma, all parties involved at Texas should not receive unquestioned veneration nor the unquestioned belief that Ehlinger’s legacy at Texas will include a national championship.
However, that moment in the media interview room at AT&T Stadium reflected Ehlinger’s resolve and leadership before quickly transitioning into a truly notable non-verbal exchange between the young quarterback and his head coach.
The next question after Ehlinger’s vehement statement was about what Tom Herman and Ehlinger have learned during the 2018 season.
“I think that we learned that we can hang with anybody when we play well,” Ehlinger said. “So that’s going to give us a lot of confidence heading into the bowl game and heading into next year. I think, like Coach said, we really bought into what the coaches preached and we loved each other and we’ve learned that the only thing that can stop us is us.
“The games that we’ve lost we’ve hurt ourselves. I think that, while that’s very frustrating, I think it’s enlightening to know that we are going in the right direction. We can fix those things.”
As Ehlinger remained stony-faced and determined, Herman’s reaction was nothing short of extraordinarily telling in the midst of a press conference seeping with disappointment.
In that moment, Herman recognized the absolute alignment of his sophomore quarterback with his program’s overall culture. Herman saw the alpha male he’d fallen in love with nearly two years ago upon his return to Austin as the Texas head coach. Herman saw a quarterback who might just be able to live up to the vow he’d made only moments before.
Ehlinger’s teammates downplayed their quarterback’s role in the loss, took responsibility for their mistakes, and expressed confidence in the future.
Despite the fact that Ehlinger personally apologized to junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey after the game, in part because of a miscommunication that resulted in an interception on the final Texas drive, Humphrey deflected some of the blame for the outcome.
“He’ll take the bullets, he’ll take the responsibility for the loss, but like I said, that’s a team loss,” Humphrey said. “You can’t just put all that weight on his shoulders. We’ve got to do a lot better to go make plays on the offensive side and get stops on the defensive. We didn’t do enough on both sides.”
For senior linebacker Anthony Wheeler, the loss was about biting too much on play-action passes by Oklahoma that put extra pressure on the secondary and getting out of gaps at times.
Senior defensive tackle Chris Nelson stuck around Austin through the coaching change and all the adversity so that he could help Texas play in games like the Big 12 Championship and the Sugar Bowl. When Ehlinger truly has a chance to fulfill his vow, Nelson won’t be around, but he still believes.
After all, Nelson and other teammates like Beck have raved about Ehlinger’s work ethic, determination, and leadership.
“I feel he’s going to lead this team to greatness because of his competitiveness,” Nelson said. I like his fight. He has great effort for the guys and has a love for the game, so I feel like this team is going to go a long ways.”
For Beck, it’s about his belief that Ehlinger will lead future Texas teams back to AT&T Stadium for Championship Weekend.
“Thankfully for him, I’m excited for his future,” Beck said. “He’s going to play in this game a couple of more times before he leaves here. So he’s got no reason to be bummed. I know he wanted to win it. Everybody that was in that locker room wanted to. But like I said, I’m excited for him and this entire team’s future because they’re going to be back here real soon.”
Perhaps, a year from now or two years from now, the Longhorns will be Big 12 champions and we’ll look back and call it The Vow. Skip the plaque, though — the trophy will suffice.