In 2017, Texas Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger was a true freshman when he received his second start — a road trip to Los Angeles to face the No. 12 USC Trojans at the Coliseum, one of college football’s biggest stages.
“I mean, that was my first road game,” Ehlinger said on Monday. “I was 18. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Obviously, it was the first time USC and Texas had played since the game that’s in the background on Chip’s screen. So it was a big deal.”
It wasn’t just Ehlinger’s first road game in college, it was also his first time to travel on a plane for a football game.
“That game for sure was definitely my most nervous moment because I had no idea what I was stepping into in my first road game, playing college football, playing Sam Darnold,” Ehlinger said.
Down 14-10 with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Ehlinger led the Longhorns on a slogging 14-play, 91-drive that ended with a 17-yard touchdown pass from Ehlinger to wide receiver Armanti Foreman to take the lead.
USC was able to tie the game and send it into overtime.
“I think freshman year, like oh my gosh, it’s overtime, like, we have a chance to beat USC, oh my gosh, it’s overtime,” Ehlinger said as he reflected back on how he experienced those moments as a true freshman.
After overcoming an early holding call in the first overtime, Ehlinger made three big plays in the passing game, capped by a short touchdown catch by tight end Cade Brewer. In fact, Ehlinger recalled on Saturday that it was the same play that the Horns ran for a late two-point conversion against the Cowboys.
In the second overtime, however, Ehlinger made the first big mistake of his career. Facing a second down only three yards from the USC goal line, Ehlinger fumbled the ball away as he crashed into the pile. Texas lost when USC kicked a field goal.
Five weeks later, Texas hosted No. 14 Oklahoma State in Austin. The Cowboys out-gained the Longhorns by nearly 150 total yards and held the ball for close to 10 minutes more than the home team. Still, it took a short field goal for Oklahoma State in the fourth quarter to tie the game and eventually send it into overtime.
“We’re playing Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State. This is crazy,” Ehlinger thought.
Texas received the ball second in overtime after the Cowboys kicked a field goal and moved it down to the Oklahoma State 6-yard line, largely thanks to a defensive pass interference penalty. Facing 3rd and 4, Ehlinger rolled left, couldn’t find any open receivers, waited, then lofted a ball into the end zone. It was intercepted by Ramon Richards. Had Ehlinger simply thrown the ball away, Texas could have kicked the short field goal to tie the game.
Instead, Oklahoma State celebrated the walk-off victory.
Three years later, Ehlinger is a different player.
“Night and day difference. Now I understand that calmness in those moments is being completely present on the task at hand, regardless of the situation,” Ehlinger said. “Now it’s like, okay, focus on your job, and execute your job at the highest ability and everything will take care of itself.”
Over three overtime games this season, that’s largely been the case. In seven overtime periods, Ehlinger has three passing first downs, two passing touchdowns, and 51 passing yards. He’s only completed 53.8 percent of his passes in overtime, but with the compressed fields, it’s not an area where a high level of efficiency is likely. On the ground he’s been even better, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, picking up two first downs, and scoring two more touchdowns.
There was a significant mistake — the interception against Oklahoma in fourth overtime that that ended the game on second down. Otherwise, though, Ehlinger has been a markedly different player than he was during his first season on the Forty Acres. Without that steady play in overtime, Texas could be 2-4. Instead, the Longhorns still have a chance to make the Big 12 title game.
And that’s the value of maturity at the game’s most important position.