Nearly everyone knew the physical, risk-taking Sam Ehlinger would get hurt at some point this season, but no one knew when. When came Saturday.
But Shane Buechele came up large. Well, large enough.
With the injury to Ehlinger early in the Baylor game, Texas had to formulate a new plan of attack on the fly. That came in the form of Plan B Buechele, who, uh, shouldered the load and may have to again.
Ehlinger started for the seventh time this season, but didn’t finish this one. He left the game early in the first quarter with a bloody hand and shoulder sprain injury and did not return. Who knows when he will?
Let’s not bury the lead. Or the quarterback. Sam looks to be OK.
Head coach Tom Herman said barring a negative MRI test, the staff is hopeful that Ehlinger might be throwing again by the end of next week. An open date can only help his recovery. The knowledge that Texas has a more than capable backup is even more encouraging.
“There could have been some panic, some shock,” Herman said. “But Shane Buechele is the most engaged, the most prepared, the most positive backup I’ve ever been around in my life, and I’ve been around some good ones. What an unbelievable teammate he is. He’s just so fully invested in his team, I can’t thank Shane enough.”
Since losing the job to Ehlinger in August, the junior has earned raves for his maturity and selflessness as a reserve. And should.
He could have moaned and complained about losing the starting job. He could have vented on Twitter. Hell, he could have announced he was transferring immediately, something that’s suddenly in vogue in college football.
He did none of those things.
“It’s crazy,” Buechele said. And why hasn’t he considered leaving?
“Because of the love I have for my teammates,” he said. “I’ve been here three years, and there’s a bond I’ve created with them. They’ve had my back, and along with my family, they’re my motivation.”
Buechele has bided his time and waited for his name to be called. It was called Saturday after just 10 plays. If it turns out to be more than a one-game absence for Ehlinger, Texas could be in some trouble. Ehlinger has proven himself the better quarterback, and Buechele the genuine article.
Buechele is more than capable, given a clean pocket and time to throw. He threw a great deep ball as a freshman and showed that on the pass to Johnson. He finished with 20 completions in 34 attempts for 184 yards and a 108.1 efficiency rating.
He got the job done, but was hardly perfect. He couldn’t lead his team to any second-half points, no thanks to two Cameron Dicker misses. He overthrew some open receivers. He threw a touchdown pass but also an interception and very nearly another in an erratic performance at best.
But he got the ball to his best players, and the bottom line is he led No. 9 Texas to a scary 23-17 win to keep the Longhorns undefeated in Big 12 play and still in the College Football Playoff conversation if on the very fringe.
Of course, Buechele should be good in relief. He’s the son of a major-leaguer. And he’s even decent at the long ball as he hit Collin Johnson in stride on a 44-yard strike.
OK maybe he’s not All-Big 12 material at this point. He’s for sure an All-American teammate.
He admitted to some early nerves, but those soon dissipated. And he also showed plenty of rust against an aggressive, blitzing Baylor defense after not having taken a single snap since he started Texas’ win over Missouri in the Texas Bowl. He left that bowl game with a torn hip muscle that would require January surgery. He turned things over to Ehlinger, who never turned them back and won the job this August.
And Buechele was history. Well, not really. Maybe Ehlinger will return against Oklahoma State in two weeks and Buechele will be a footnote in a special season. Or maybe he won’t, and Buechele will have to ride to the rescue once more. He could.
He made only one big mistake Saturday and ended up with a higher quarterback rating than Baylor’s Charlie Brewer, who’s a terrific sophomore and came close to completing a 97-yard drive to win it. He was throwing into the end zone at game’s end, but ran out of downs and time.
Buechele had his time, and you had to feel happy for him. He doesn’t get a single rep with the No. 1 offense during the week — “the starter should get them all,” Buechele said — yet he got the lion’s share of them Saturday. And the win.
“Shane played unbelievable,” Johnson said. “A lot of quarterbacks in his position, you see him move way from their team. But the way he shows up at practice, he gains players’ respect and unreal praise in the locker room.”
Buechele is a decent and at times good quarterback, but he’s immobile and is 11-9 as a starter for a reason. That said, he deserves credit for bailing out Texas when his team needed him.
The Longhorns need Ehlinger and his resolve and running ability to truly separate themselves, but Buechele is more than serviceable as a tried-and-somewhat true backup. He’s calm and poised like Ehlinger. He’s as fairly accurate as Ehlinger. And when it came to a 1-0 record on a Saturday, he was just as good as Ehlinger. And good enough.