The Texas Longhorns were on the brink of an upset over the USC Trojans in Los Angeles, the type of win over a top-five opponent that has been increasingly rare for the Horns in recent seasons. It was the type of win capable of emphasizing the effectiveness of new head coach Tom Herman’s early efforts at rebuilding the Texas program.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger, playing in only his second game due to injury, had just made up for a sack on the opening play of overtime by finding Reggie Hemphill-Mapps for an 11-yard gain to set up a critical 3rd and 8.
Quickly under pressure, Ehlinger moved right, tried to step up in the pocket, then escaped right, chased by a USC defender. As he neared the sideline, running back Chris Warren III flashed open and Ehlinger found him in a small window for an 11-yard gain and a critical first down at the 11-yard line.
“I knew we were coming to see a great game. I knew that we were coming to see a quarterback that could create outside of the pocket, make plays down the field, I just didn’t know that quarterback was going to be Sam Ehlinger,” color analyst Joel Klatt said on the broadcast after that impressive third-down conversion.
“This kid has had quite a performance tonight. I mean, just a sensational second half. He has been very gritty and tough running for first downs and making great decisions here in crunch time.”
Texas called quarterback power and Ehlinger followed his blockers through a seam up the middle of the USC defense, lowered his shoulder, and finished the eight-yard run with both hands on the football.
Again, Ehlinger kept the football, running into a pile of offensive linemen and USC defenders. As his forward progress slowed, a Trojans player ripped out the football and running back Kyle Porter was pushed away from the recovery. USC picked it up and put the game away with a 43-yard field goal on the subsequent possession.
The big-time win was not to be.
The mistake in ball security overshadowed the rocky but impressive performance by Ehlinger and foreshadowed continued issues in big moments. He’s only watched the play once since then.
“It was real tough. It was a crazy game,” Ehlinger said on Tuesday. “It was one of the loudest atmospheres I’ve ever been in. My first road game. I was 18 years old. Looking back on it, it was a pretty surreal moment, regardless of the outcome, just being in the Coliseum, such a historic place. And to play against one of the top quarterbacks, it was just an amazing experience.”
A year later, questions still persist about whether Ehlinger can make the right decisions and protect the football in late-game situations after two fourth-quarter interceptions against Maryland in the season opener.
So, will Ehlinger use that fumble as motivation this week? Herman doesn’t think so.
“I think you always have to tame a guy like Sam a little bit,” the Texas head coach said on Monday. “He gets pretty lathered up on game days and so again that’s a good thing. But using previous mistakes as motivation, I don’t see that in him, I think he wants to beat USC to beat USC. He doesn’t want to beat them to exact any kind of revenge or atone for any kind of thing or anything like that, I think he wants to beat them just because he wants to go 1-0 this week.”
For Ehlinger’s part, he’s already mastered the type of coach-speak that often precedes games that aren’t like every other game.
“I just see it as another game,” Ehlinger said. “I’m blessed to have the opportunity to play such a top program at home. It’s what you dream of, so no I don’t see it as a coming out game. It’s a big game for us, but it’s also just another one on our schedule.”
Except it’s not — the Trojans are one of the most successful programs in college football history and the opponent in the legendary 2006 Rose Bowl that culminated with the Horns winning the school’s only national championship since 1970. Saturday’s game in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium will arguably be the biggest home game in close to a decade and could feature the most raucous crowd since West Virginia in 2012.
It’s also a significant opportunity for Ehlinger to showcase his improvement from last season on a national stage coming off his most efficient performance as a college quarterback — 21-of-27 passing for 237 yards and two touchdowns, along with 12 carries for 51 yards and a rushing touchdown.
“Yeah, you know, it’s really easy to play quarterback when your offensive line is giving you time as well as pushing dudes around in the run game,” Ehlinger said. “So, I think that was a huge step for me and it made me feel comfortable back in the pocket. Like we talked about after the game, there were some things in the check downs instead of forcing it and just taking the easy ones. That helped as well.”
An increased willingness to check down to his running backs was a significant feature of the Tulsa game, especially on the final two drives when Texas needed the offense to move the ball to keep the Golden Hurricane from finishing its comeback.
One particular play stood out to Herman — the 11-yard touchdown pass from Ehlinger to graduate transfer running back Tre Watson in the fourth quarter. According to Herman, the first read on the play was to senior tight end Andrew Beck, but Beck wasn’t open, so Ehlinger quickly swung the ball out on time and on target to Watson, who was able to scoot into the end zone for the game’s most critical score.
Herman wasn’t willing to agree with the description of taking those check downs as a metamorphosis, but he does expect the upward trajectory to continue.
“Yes, I think Sam Ehlinger is going to continue to improve,” Herman said. “So to say that it was a watershed moment or anything like that, he’s going to have a lot of improvement throughout his career.”
What could become a watershed moment? If Ehlinger is able to continue to take the available yardage on check downs and avoid critical mistakes, while still providing the playmaking ability that had Klatt gushing about him a year ago.