On arguably the biggest stage of his career, surrounded by a record crowd of 103,000-plus in what ultimately became a 37-14 win over the No. 22 USC Trojans, Texas Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger completed a mere 45.5 percent of his pass attempts. On paper, Ehlinger’s 15-33 effort now stands as the worst completion percentage of his young tenure at Texas.
Raw numbers don’t always portray an accurate picture, though, and that proved to be especially true throughout Ehlinger’s latest outing.
The 18 incompletions don’t necessarily equate to 18 poor passes, and when dissecting and diving a bit deeper into the numbers, Ehlinger’s least impressive completion percentage in 12 appearances becomes arguably his most praiseworthy showing to date.
Of Ehlinger’s 18 incompletions, five will go down as drops with Jerrod Heard, Collin Johnson, Devin Duvernay, and Lil’Jordan Humphrey each having instances in which they were unable to hold onto the ball. Five drops mean 15 percent of his 33 attempts found their target, but that target was unable to find a way to haul it in.
This isn’t to say each of these five attempts were perfect passes, as evident by Ehlinger under-throwing Duvernay for a drop that likely would have been a touchdown if the speedy receiver were hit in stride. But nevertheless, five attempts fell to the turf because the receiver couldn’t control the ball.
Had each of those five attempts been hauled in, Ehlinger’s completion percentage would have climbed to 60.3 percent with his final stat line of 223 yards and two touchdowns adding approximately 50 more yards and one more touchdown, as Johnson dropped a would-be 15-yard score as he fell to the ground.
Drops excluded, Ehlinger still saw 13 other attempts fall incomplete, but again, this wasn’t an example of sheer inaccuracy.
Perhaps the most telling statistic here is four attempts being thrown away under pressure.
Whether it was versus USC, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech in 2017, or versus Maryland in 2018, Ehlinger’s early reputation was largely built around his tendency to force passes under pressure, which consequently led to seven interceptions in those four games alone.
The losses to the Cowboys, Red Raiders, and Terrapins were directly correlated to Ehlinger’s late-game interceptions.
Save for one lone example on Saturday — an attempt to Humphrey that was a bit late and nearly picked off — that wasn’t the case against the Trojans. Rather, four of Ehlinger’s incompletions were due to him tossing the ball out of bounds under pressure, which is certainly a sign of his progression from previous appearances.
Another incompletion was batted at the line, while another connection to Johnson was dubbed incomplete after he was pushed out of bounds before being able to drag one foot. All things considered, only seven of Ehlinger’s 18 incompletions were true misses, per se, although that sample size reveals that overthrowing his target is still a bit of an issue.
Drops aside, not forcing the issue and throwing the ball away aside, the most impressive facet of Ehlinger’s efforts on Saturday is how composed and consistent he was on third downs.
In garbage time, after Texas established a comfortable 37-14 cushion, the sophomore was 0-2 on third down attempts, but prior to that point, he was as composed and efficient as he’s ever been in Austin. En route to Texas chipping away at USC’s lead, and ultimately building a 23-point lead of its own, Ehlinger was 6-8 on third down, with five of those attempts moving the chains and the other being a connection to Humphrey beyond the sticks, which he turned into much more and spun free for a 47-yard score.
The impact this efficiency can have on the outcome can be summed up into one simple statistic: 24 of Texas’ 34 points largely came courtesy of these contributions on third down.
Furthermore, in addition to keep drives alive with his arm, Ehlinger utilized his legs to move the chains on third down on two occasions, along with a four-yard run on 4th and 1 after rushing for nine yards on 3rd and 10, a four-yard touchdown run on 2nd and 3 from the USC four-yard line, and a 12-yard scamper on 2nd and 10 down the stretch.
Ehlinger finished with 35 yards on the ground, despite losing 20 yards to a pair of sacks.
A general glimpse at the stat sheet may scream inefficiency, and that 15-33 effort wouldn’t surprise most given many of Ehlinger’s previous performances.
In this instance, though, the numbers do lie, and Ehlinger’s latest performance is as praiseworthy as any he’s had at Texas.
“I thought Sam played really well. There was a couple things here and there that I’m sure he wished he had back, but nobody has played the perfect game in the history of football, so he played the way we needed him to play,” Tom Herman said of Ehlinger on Saturday night during his post-game press conference. “He made plays with his legs, he converted on third downs. He made some big-time plays on the third downs in the second half. We weren’t great on third downs in the first half, and we picked it up, and a lot was because he made some big-time throws and stood in there when he needed to and stuck to the game plan in terms of, you know, taking shots.”
Continued development will be key, though.
There’s no erasing his two costly fourth-quarter interceptions versus Maryland, but beyond that, Ehlinger has displayed improved patience and composure in the pocket and a more notable knack for knowing when to simply throw the ball away and move on to the next play.
The raw numbers won’t reveal those intangibles, nor the entire story of his improvement as a passer, but entering a stretch that features a pair of stout pass defenses in No. 17 TCU and Kansas State, and the need to produce points to keep pace with No. 5 Oklahoma, Ehlinger’s improvement thus far has been apparent and it will remain essential going forward.