Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger passes downfield under pressure from Texas Tech's Eli Howard on Sept. 26, 2020 in Lubbock. (AP Photo/Mark Rogers)

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: That’s Sam Ehlinger, with a hard ‘g’ — as in great

Posted September 26th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • “I think we’re going to take this thing,” Ehlinger said, “and we’re going to win it in overtime.”
  • Ehlinger was equal parts psychic and heroic on this exasperating afternoon of football in West Texas that was filled with one exhilarating play and sloppy mistake after another and ended with one of the dramatic and most improbable Longhorn victories in school history. 
  • “That’s the GOAT right there,” the Longhorn nose tackle said appreciatively of Sam. “He’s the Tom Brady of college football.”

LUBBOCK — As Texas Tech running back SaRodorick raced down the visitors’ sideline at Jones AT&T Stadium on Saturday to complete an apparently game-sealing, 75-yard touchdown run, he wasn’t even in the Texas Tech end zone before someone showed up at Tom Herman’s side.

It was a determined Sam Ehlinger, who approached his head coach with a very blunt message.

Texas, Herman’s steely-eyed senior quarterback told him, was not going to lose this game. Not this time. Not this season, his final season.

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Despite a haughty scoreboard that reflected a 56-41 Red Raiders lead with only 3:13 to play, the Longhorns were not going down on his watch.

“I think we’re going to take this thing,” Ehlinger said, “and we’re going to win it in overtime.”

Echoed Herman, “I do, too.”

Ehlinger was equal parts psychic and heroic on the exasperating afternoon of football in West Texas that was filled with one exhilarating play and sloppy mistake after another and ended with one of the dramatic and most improbable Longhorns victories in school history. 

And one of their biggest comebacks ever as well. For Sam, it was the sixth game-winning drive of his career, second at Texas behind only Major Applewhite’s seven.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger throws a pass as Texas Tech defensive end Eli Howard rushes toward him in Saturday’s 63-56 overtime win in Lubbock. Ehlinger passed for five touchdowns. (Michael C. Johnson/USA Today)

A grateful and relieved Herman digested the game in the proper context, appreciative of the win that came in an ocean of mistakes on special teams and in tackling. Texas was not to be denied, and one of the grittiest quarterbacks to ever wear the burnt orange was the biggest reason why.

“When your quarterback looks at you and says they left too much time on the clock, I believed him,” Herman said. “If he wanted to sell me oceanfront property in Arizona, I’d probably write him a check.”

What desert?

Ehlinger just makes you want to believe.

“The only way we have a chance is by believing,” Ehlinger said. “If you don’t believe, you don’t have a chance.”

In the span of two minutes, he directed the offense to a pair of touchdowns and a game-tying two-point toss to Brennan Eagles before throwing his fifth scoring pass of the day in overtime to lift the eighth-ranked Longhorns to a stirring 63-56 victory.

Ehlinger kept Texas (2-0, 1-0 Big 12) undefeated in this very young but very wacky season. The win came in the Longhorns’ first venture on the road, and already a fifth of the season is gone. Ehlinger has been near perfect and probably the best player in the nation.

Two games, 10 touchdown passes, two wins.

The rugged quarterback may not have had the one singular play in this game that might be stamped as his Heisman moment, but Joe Burrow’s third-and-17 completion for LSU’s game-winning touchdown in Austin sure got a lot of air time all season last year, and that was in September as well.

Texas Tech quarterback Alan Bowman and Texas’ Sam Ehlinger meet on the field after the game at Jones AT&T Stadium in Lubbock. They each threw five touchdown passes. (Michael C. Johnson/USA Today)

Asked if any of his six touchdowns — he also ran for one and took another to the end zone’s doorstep before getting tackled at the 1 —  might qualify as a Heisman moment for him personally, Ehlinger shrugged and said, “No.”

That’s because he doesn’t think in those terms, but he’s as legitimate a Heisman frontrunner as anyone else. He came to Texas, the local boy done good and doing better all the time, because he bleeds burnt orange through and through. You can almost see his clenched teeth, he wants to win so badly. That’s Ehlinger with a hard ‘g,’ as in ‘great.’ 

In many respects, he’s Texas’ James Street of the modern era, not the prettiest or flashiest of runners or throwers, but a winner like that 20-0 quarterback who won a title for Darrell Royal in 1969. Just try to find another quarterback to top Ehlinger’s efficiency, his consistency, his heart.

Sam’s career ledger reads only 20-13 without a conference championship, but it’s almost impossible to blame him for many of those 13. 

Teammate Keondre Coburn tried to provide some perspective.

“That’s the GOAT right there,” the Longhorn nose tackle said appreciatively. “He’s the Tom Brady of college football.”

Coburn might want to slow down a smidge. Ehlinger’s yet to even win a Big 12 championship, much less a natty like Street did. Like Brady does over and over in Super Bowls.

Ehlinger’s got those same kind of intangibles, however. His tangibles are pretty damn good, too. He’s got thunder thighs and refuses to go down on his power runs. He’s in search of new first downs, not necessarily glory. He’s not the most accurate deep thrower but he sure sees the field well and spreads the ball around.

He’s got way too much humility to selfishly dream for himself because that would leave his teammates out.

It’s hard to argue with a guy who ranks third all-time in career rushing touchdowns by a UT quarterback. He’s got 26, tied for second with Marty Akins, another winner and the first All-American wishbone quarterback. Vince Young had 37 such scores, including one very memorable one in Pasadena that Ehlinger would very much like to duplicate.

Of course, there was that one interception he threw, the first of the season on a third-quarter rollout when he was looking for Brenden Schooler and Tech’s Alex Hogan stepped in front for the easy pick. A total of 73 passes so far, and one pick.

Herman, as you’d expect, didn’t even think about yelling at his senior leader.

“I never yell at my quarterback when they throw a pick,” he said. “I know they feel worse about it than I do. He did hit a funk in the third quarter and didn’t look like himself. But he bounced back like his old self.”

Ehlinger always does. 

There’s plenty left before he leaves Austin. This, he said, will not be the favorite game of his career. It won’t be the one he’ll tell his grandkids about as they gather at his knee someday.

“I sure hope not,” he said. “That was 2020 in a nutshell.”

And Sam in a nutshell as well.

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