On August 20, to cap what was once again the most discussed topic of the offseason — as it has been seemingly every offseason since the turn of the decade — Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman announced that “barring any sort of catastrophe,” sophomore Sam Ehlinger had earned the starting nod over junior Shane Buechele.
“Let’s make no mistake, Shane Buechele had a great camp. He didn’t do really anything wrong,” Herman said after announcing Ehlinger as the starting quarterback. “I just feel like there’s a lot of years of coaching experience on our staff and neither of them did anything to justify saying ‘you can’t win with that guy.’ It was a matter of who do we feel gives the best chance to win in the first game.”
“We’ll see if we’re right.”
11 days removed from the remarks, catastrophe struck, and the staff was wrong, at least as far as the first game of the 2018 slate is concerned.
Trailing the Terps, 34-29, the final 6:38 of the Longhorns season-opening loss proved to be a sight for the sore eyes of Texas, which were firmly fixated upon Ehlinger as he attempted to take complete control of the position. The opportunity to do so was placed before him on a burnt orange platter — twice. Prior to the final few minutes, Ehlinger’s stat line read 15-of-26 for 208 yards with a pair of praiseworthy touchdown connections to Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson. Aside from a few errant passes, there was some improvement in his poise and accuracy to note.
Constructing a game-winning drive to send the Horns home with a win would have served as the cherry atop a fairly positive performance.
The first attempt to reach this feat fell short just two plays after Texas took over with 6:38 remaining.
After utilizing his legs to the tune of a quick 10 yards to move the chains, Ehlinger’s attempt across the middle connected with Tre Watson, but it was the one wearing No. 33 for Maryland sparking “here we go again” memories of 2017 losses to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. Moments later, Ehlinger and the offense were awarded another potential game-winning opportunity after the defense forced a Maryland three-and-out. This time around, it was a controversial Tre Watson fumble that sent Texas’ offense back to the sidelines, seemingly set to watch the Terps drain the remaining four-plus minutes from the clock.
However, another Maryland three-and-out later and it was Ehlinger trotting back on the field for one final attempt at piecing together a game-winning drive. Surely, the third time would be the charm, right?
Ehlinger wasted no time putting his previous interception in the past with a 17-yard strike to Lil’Jordan Humphrey to move the chains to midfield. If that didn’t invite confidence, a 13-yard pitch-and-catch to Duvernay on 4th and 6 to keep the drive alive in Maryland territory entertained the idea that somehow, some way, Texas would leave FedEx Field with a win.
Those aspirations ended three short plays later, as Ehlinger followed a pair of incompletions with an overthrown heave at Humphrey to mark his second interception in three series. The latter effectively ended the Longhorns hopes of avenging last season’s loss to the Terps.
Sam Ehlinger commits his second awful interception, and second reminiscent of the horrendous ones in games late last season. #HookEm QB situation far from solved.— Dustin McComas (@DMcComasOB) September 1, 2018
VIDEO: Sam Ehlinger explains his interception that ended the game. #HookEm pic.twitter.com/bclYzbMhqO— Ricky Doyle (@RickyDoyle) September 2, 2018
Ehlinger’s fourth quarter finish is likely far from what Herman had in mind when he dubbed the sophomore as the starter several days ago, but his confidence in his quarterback isn’t wavering after Week 1. During his post-game press conference, Herman told the media “I don’t have any doubt [Sam Ehlinger] has what it takes.”
Regardless of what the masses and the media may think, the head coach’s vote of confidence is the one that counts, and for now, Ehlinger still enjoys that.
Even if only behind closed doors, though, that leash may very well be tightening, as it should be. Following his latest pair of costly fourth-quarter interceptions, marking his second such occurrence in three appearances including the 2017 regular-season finale loss to Texas Tech, Ehlinger is now just 2-5 as a starter. Consequently, the coach who remains confident in him owns a .500 winning percentage (7-7) at Texas and has nearly doubled his entire two-year loss total from his time Houston.
Considering what’s still to come — a capable Tulsa team, three top 16 squads in No. 15 USC, No. 16 TCU, and No. 7 Oklahoma, as well as a road trip to Manhattan for a meeting with Kansas State — several more unsavory endings could be on the horizon if Texas can’t find some way to generate more consistently quality contributions from its quarterback.