The Horns were hanging over the void, about to plunge into the abyss.
After Texas Tech running back SaRodorick Thompson broke multiple tackles to race for a 75-yard touchdown run with 3:13 remaining in the fourth quarter — the type of racing that doesn’t result in an arrest — ESPN’s win probability put the odds of a Red Raiders victory at 99.8 percent.
Sometimes, though, that 0.2 percent looms large.
Make no mistake — everything had to go right for the Longhorns to avoid the program’s first loss on the South Plains since 2008 and end any hopes of the Big 12 making an appearance in the College Football Playoffs.
Unfortunately for Texas Tech, quarterback Alan Bowman committed the cardinal sin of throwing the horns down prematurely.
Meanwhile, on the Longhorns sideline, Ehlinger went to head coach Tom Herman full of confidence — “They left us too much time,” Ehlinger told his head coach. “So we’re going to tie this thing up and win it in overtime.”
“If he was trying to sell me oceanfront property in Arizona, I’d probably write the check,” Herman said.
Take that to the bank.
Texas only had one timeout remaining, but Texas Tech quickly made another strategic error. Unsure that the kickoff coverage unit could hold D’Shawn Jamison in check, the Red Raiders opted for a sky kick, giving the Horns possession at the Texas Tech 41-yard line.
Senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger picked up a chunk play on first down, completing a pass for 27 yards to graduate transfer wide receiver Brenden Schooler. A second target to Schooler fell incomplete, but walk-on Kai Money caught the next pass for 20 yards and Ehlinger finished the drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Brennan Eagles.
Only 34 seconds ticked off the clock as Texas checked off the first box on the way to an improbable victory.
Then the Longhorns needed to recover the ensuing onside kick.
Junior kicker Cameron Dicker struck it perfectly, getting a big second bounce that a Texas Tech player was not able to corral in the air. The bad bounce for the Red Raiders turned into a perfect bounce for the Longhorns as redshirt sophomore tight end Malcolm Epps recovered it at the Texas Tech 42-yard line.
The first four plays only went for 24 yards until Ehlinger took a 3rd and 1 carry for 10 yards. And then the margin for error almost evaporated — fifth-year senior right guard Denzel Okafor was penalized as an ineligible downfield player on a run-pass option and senior center Derek Kerstetter was called for a snap infraction.
A little bit of extra room arguably helped the Longhorns, however, as redshirt sophomore wide receiver Joshua Moore was able to find some open turf on a switch route and Ehlinger hit him for an 18-yard touchdown.
The Horns were still down by two points, so offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich dialed up an empty set with the running back lined up behind three players to the field and Eagles isolated on the boundary, the same play that West Virginia used against Texas in 2018. After that loss, Texas installed the play, using it against Oklahoma State and Georgia in the Sugar Bowl in the last two seasons.
There are multiple options on the play — flip the ball out to the running back on the screen, run a quarterback draw, or throw the fade or slant to the single receiver. Ehlinger was worried about the Mike linebacker dropping underneath that slant, but Eagles wanted it instead of the fade and Tech ended up blitzing, opening up a window for Ehlinger to find Eagles.
Despite a disappointing preseason camp and start to his junior season, Eagles won on his slant route, Ehlinger made the delivery, and Eagles got an assist from his facemask to secure to catch.
But then it was Texas that nearly left too much time on the clock — Texas Tech still had 40 seconds and a timeout left to try to win the game in regulation and nearly did so, but Bowman’s deep pass to wide receiver TJ Vasher led the senior just out of bounds. The drive fizzled as the clock ticked to zero.
Check (with a sigh of relief).
When Texas Tech deferred to start overtime, Yurcich went back to what is becoming a staple play — the glance RPO schemed to create one-on-one coverage for Moore as the single receiver. Prior to the snap, it looked like an obvious call and, indeed, it was, as Ehlinger found his speedy target for a 12-yard touchdown.
A four-yard loss on the first play for the Red Raiders in overtime put Texas Tech behind the chains and Bowman wasn’t able to complete his subsequent two passes, resulting in a desperation 4th and 14 play that landed in the hands of junior safety Caden Sterns. It was the third interception for the Horns in the game, with the previous two coming in key moments when it appeared that the Red Raiders wrestled momentum away from the visitors.
“I think it’s just understanding that the only way that we have a chance is by believing.” Ehlinger said. “If you don’t believe, then we don’t have a chance.”
Herman focused on the team’s ability to win despite so many high-profile miscues.
“Really proud of our team, obviously, to go on the road, to have the mistakes that we made continually, especially defensively and special teams, and to find a way to gut it out at the end, just extremely proud,” Herman said. “We know we got a lot of work to do.”
The biggest mistake on offense came at the end of the third quarter, when Ehlinger was flushed out of the pocket to his right and tried to find Schooler. The ill-advised pass was intercepted and returned to the Texas 10-yard line. Texas Tech scored on the next play to take its first lead, 42-38.
Throughout the game, the Texas offense was choppy, struggling to get the running backs going in the first half despite a heavy emphasis on first-down runs. Then Ehlinger got out of rhythm in the third quarter as the offensive line struggled in pass protection, giving up multiple sacks against three-man rushes. When the line wasn’t giving up pressure, it was committing penalties, with the right side of Okafor and redshirt sophomore right tackle Chrsitian Jones turning in outings they would both surely like to forget.
In the third quarter, Texas only gained 38 yards of offense, averaging 2.9 yards per play and failing to convert all three third downs.
“As poorly as we tackled on defense, we certainly didn’t do them any favors in the other two phases of the game,” Herman said.
The special teams disasters rated highly on the Charlie Strong-era scale. One punt from junior Ryan Bujcevski was shanked under pressure. Another was blocked and then returned for a touchdown. In the third quarter, junior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison muffed a punt that was recovered in the end zone.
Focus was also an issue, according to Ehlinger, flagging in the third quarter as the offense stalled and the special teams mistakes piled up. The win probability for Texas hovered in the 80s or 90s for most of the game, but 21 points by Texas Tech in the third quarter completely changed the game’s dynamics.
Fortunately, Texas didn’t let the mistakes completely spiral.
“I felt that we kind of woke back up and realized, ‘Alright, here we are,’ Ehlinger said. “I think that was a very mature step for us and something that needed to happen.”
Texas blocked a punt of its own in the third quarter when sophomore safety Tyler Owens came screaming off the edge. Freshman cornerback Jahdae Barron scored when he recovered it at the Texas Tech 2-yard line. It was the first blocked kick for the Longhorns since 2017 and the first blocked kick for a touchdown since Josh Turner in 2011.
Special teams coach Jay Boulware also made an adjustment after the early pressure by Texas Tech, choosing to roll Bujcevski away from it with rugby-style punts that suit the former Aussie Rules football player.
The tackling was about as bad as the special teams, likely a result of limited hitting in preseason camp and the defense trying to adjust to the speed of the game and tackling in space after UTEP failed to provide much of a challenge two weeks ago.
Herman believes that the team can fix the tackling and the special teams issues.
“All of these are really good teaching moments and we’re gonna celebrate the things we did well and work on the things we didn’t,” Herman said.
Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Keondre Coburn noted that in the past when the defense struggled, players started pointing the finger at one another and assigning blame. Instead, they kept moving on to the next play.
“For us to find the intestinal fortitude to come out and not give up, not hang their head down 15 with three minutes and some change, let’s find a way to win that thing,” Herman said. “I think there’s a lot of confidence that can come from that, but also a lot of humility. And that was the thing that that I stressed and that some of the leaders on the team stressed, hopefully this humbles us.”
One player who already has plenty of humility is Ehlinger, who went 27-of-40 passing for 262 yards and five touchdowns. On the ground, he added 69 yards on 16 carries despite losing 18 yards on sacks and also scored a touchdown.
His 100th passing touchdown made him the second player to reach that milestone in school history, behind Colt McCoy’s 134 passing touchdowns. McCoy is also the only other quarterback in Texas history to throw for five touchdowns in a game — Ehlinger has now done it in two consecutive games to start the season. The rushing touchdown marked the 15th game that Ehlinger has scored once or more on the ground and once or more through the air, surpassing McCoy’s school record.
Asked if he had a Heisman moment in the game, Ehlinger was blunt.
Ehlinger does have an emerging favorite target — redshirt sophomore wide receiver Joshua Moore, who built on his career performance against UTEP with five catches for 73 yards and three touchdowns. With sophomore Jake Smith and redshirt freshman Jordan Whittington both injured, Ehlinger didn’t have a security blanket in the slot, but Moore helped provide some of the dynamic play that Texas is used to getting from that position.
But is this win going to be the type of game that Ehlinger tells his grandkids about?
“I sure hope not,” Ehlinger replied. “It’ll be mentioned as 2020 in a nutshell.”