On Saturday afternoon, following a disappointing team performance against the TCU Horned Frogs that included a fumble near the goal line while attempting to score the go-ahead touchdown, Texas Longhorns senior quarterback Sam Ehinger was disappointed and frustrated.
“This university deserves better,” Ehlinger said. “It’s very frustrating when it’s self-inflicted and it’s preventable by attention to detail and playing the way that we all know everybody is capable of playing in this program.”
A little more than 12 years ago, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow was in a similar position after the Gators were upset by the Rebels in an early-season game, ending hopes of an undefeated season and putting the program’s national title hopes in jeopardy. In the post-game press conference, Tebow’s impassioned speech became the stuff of legends.
“To the fans and everybody in Gator Nation, I’m sorry, extremely sorry. We were hoping for an undefeated season. That was my goal, something Florida’s never done here. But I promise you one thing — a lot of good will come out of this,” Tebow said.
“You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season, and you will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season, and you will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season.
Forgive Ehlinger for not making bold proclamations in public any more, especially in the heat of the moment — he’s learned his lessons from what was, in hindsight, his ill-advised claim following the Sugar Bowl nearly two years ago.
Behind the scenes, however, Ehlinger had a tough conversation with his teammates on Sunday morning.
Ehlinger doesn’t need to let the public know how much he wants to win, but he did decide to use some of the credibility that’s he built to remind his teammates that he wants to win more than he cares about being liked.
“Being respected is more important because you want to win and so I was kind of challenging guys to understand that aspect of it — to step up and take ownership of the program and the details of discipline,” Ehlinger said.
Texas ranks 64th of 74 teams nationally in penalty yards per game at 82.3, with many of those penalties resulting from poor attention to detail. Cumulatively, those mistakes cost the Longhorns hundreds of yards during Saturday’s game, ranging from a holding penalty that negated a 96-yard kickoff return to an illegal formation penalty that brought back a 47-yard reception by junior running back Keaontay Ingram.
Ingram, of course, was the culprit on that late fumble when he tried to reach out and extend the ball over the goal line, a cardinal sin in a program that highly values ball security.
“We get in our own way and we can eliminate that by being disciplined in every single thing that we do,” Ehlinger said. “Discipline is not a switch that you flip on Saturdays — discipline is something that you work on every single day and it starts with how you get out of bed in the morning.”
Any discussion of taking responsibility starts with Ehlinger. And he knows that. After all, he’s the player who expressed public disappointment in his performance following his historic effort against UTEP.
“I’m the first to admit I made a lot of mistakes and I’m not trying to make anyone feel like I’m sitting on a high horse saying that everybody else is wrong, because I’m certainly wrong,” Ehlinger said. “I apologized for the mistakes that I made, but that’s the way it’s got to — be put the team before yourself and really focus on the details and take ownership of it.”
Ehlinger went 17-of-36 passing for 236 yards against TCU, an average of only 6.6 yards per completion. The four touchdown passes were a positive, as were his 49 rushing yards on eight attempts, but the overall performance wasn’t up to the standards of a quarterback who know ranks among the best in school history.
Some of the mistakes by Ehlinger’s teammates were more understandable.
Injuries forced sophomore wide receiver Jake Smith to play some outside at the Z position until he missed a block on a screen pass that resulted in a hard hit on graduate transfer wide receiver Brenden Schooler. In Smith’s first career start, the missed block was intended for a player who arrived in Austin five weeks ago.
How many times has Smith even repped that play in practice blocking for Schooler?
Given that Smith suffered his hamstring injury days after Schooler committed to Texas and Schooler only started taking reps in the slot following the season opener, the answer is surely not often.
How about redshirt sophomore right tackle Christian Jones, who was flagged as an illegal player downfield on a run-pass option that initially produced a 26-yard pass to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Al’Vonte Woodard down into the red zone?
Jones didn’t even play football until his junior year of high school and was making his third start at Texas after playing primarily on special teams last season. He’s improved quickly throughout his three starts, but he’s still lacking career repetitions.
Not only that, but regulating his blocking depth on those plays requires a high level of spatial awareness. And it was some bad luck to get called for it — in the Big 12, officials could flag a lineman for getting more than three yards downfield on a run-pass option on a high number of those plays. Big 12 offenses run a high number of those plays.
For some players, the excuses are more flimsy, but still legitimate.
Wide receiver Joshua Moore is in his third year in the program, so why was he covering up senior tight end Cade Brewer on the big pass play to Ingram that was called back? That’s a simple thing to fix.
Why wasn’t Moore on the same page as Ehlinger when he carried his route vertically on Ehlinger’s interception just before halftime instead of breaking the route off? TCU was bringing a blitz on the play and did a better job of understanding the hot route adjustments than Texas did.
Of course, Moore also missed nearly two full seasons due to injury and suspension, so he’s also taking the most extensive reps of his college career so far.
The bottom line is that successful football is a complex machine that requires a high level of attention to detail from every one of the players, especially on running plays.
“Football is a team sport and you got to have all 11 guys on the same page. The best teams have all those 11 guys on the same page on every single play with extreme detail, down to the inch, and if one guy is not on the same page, then it can mess up the entire play and the entire team,” Ehlinger said. “So getting guys to understand that the team is in the details and in the way that they’re coached is extremely important, because we’ve shown we have the talent and guys can make plays.”
Regardless of the proper methods of accurately assigning blame, the whole team has to start showing more improvement from week to week than it has so far. Perhaps the second bye week of the season coming up after this weekend’s Red River Showdown will allow for that, but it needs to start happening before then.
Oklahoma is simply too vulnerable and the need too great for Texas head coach Tom Herman to improve on his 1-3 record against Lincoln Riley.
And that starts with Ehlinger receiving some vocal support from the rest of the team’s leaders.
“There’s a lot of guys that haven’t necessarily spoken up that need to step up and need to voice how they’re really feeling about taking everything with discipline and doing things right all the time,” Ehlinger said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m pushing guys not to like me — that’s not what it is. I think that seeing at the end of the day if we win, people will respect that and be content with that over maybe a friendly conversation when somebody messes up.”