LUBBOCK — Sam Ehlinger was asked what he’d said to Lil’Jordan Humphrey the moment after the wide receiver out-wrestled the smaller Texas Tech defensive back for the ball and the winning touchdown in the closing seconds.
“That I love him,” the beaming Texas quarterback said, “because it’s true.”
What’s not to love?
Humphrey’s a 6-4, 220-pound freak of an athlete with springs in his legs and ripping biceps and soft hands that lock onto footballs. And Ehlinger’s a centaur of a quarterback with bulging thighs and a thick torso and unbridled confidence and a penchant for winning heroics as Texas’ long-awaited savior at the position.
Theirs is a mutual admiration society and a tight bond that has helped the 19th-ranked Longhorns escape the heartbreak of consecutive losses the last two weeks as well as an albatross of overwhelming expectations. Others also played big-time roles in this journey, and Longhorn Nation loves ’em both, even moreso after they combined to produce an electric 41-34 victory over Texas Tech on a cold, blustery Saturday night.
But it’s started with Ehlinger, the hometown quarterback with man-sized will and a remarkable composure that serves him well in times like Saturday.
He’s made for this, isn’t he?
“I really, really would like to not have to be in those situations where we (lose) a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, but I do love those situations,” Ehlinger aw-shucked. “I do love having the game on the line and the ball being in our hands because we just have so much confidence in ourselves. I don’t think I was born for it or anything, but I absolutely love it.”
Orange Jesus is here. He finally arrived to save the day in the form of a 6-3, 230-pound sophomore who has carried the burden of this team through thick (a six-game win streak) and thin (back-to-back defeats of late), stuck out his strong chin and invited his teammates to hop on his sturdy back.
He did it once more here in West Texas where crazy is always the order of the day in meetings between these two Big 12 rivals. As if it weren’t enough for him to throw for four touchdowns and more than 300 yards for the fourth time in his short career and build a 34-17-advantage in the fourth quarter, Ehlinger was called upon again to break a 34-34 deadlock in the final 105 seconds of yet another thriller.
He calmly led the team 75 yards downfield in seven rapid plays, running the ball three times for 33 yards and putting Texas in position for the clincher. It came on a perfectly thrown 29-yarder to Humphrey, who outleaped Texas Tech’s Damarcus Fields and scored in the exact same corner of the end zone where Michael Crabtree broke Longhorns hearts 10 years ago to deny Texas a path to the national championship game.
Payback’s a cinch. At least when Ehlinger is at the controls.
Never mind that he’s only 9-7 in his career starts at Texas. Sure, he was a turnover machine as a freshman, but the Longhorns have averaged 27 points a game in their losses with him as the starter and 35 points a game in the three defeats this season.
“What Sam is doing is unbelievable,” senior wide receiver Jerrod Heard said. “He has so much patience. As a young guy who used to be back there, it can be stressful at times. He’s a mature leader for a young guy, and that’s a plus for him.”
You pronounce his name with a hard G, and playing hard is the only way this Westlake folk hero knows how to play. He’s the perfect answer for a program that has searched for a dynamic quarterback since Colt McCoy limped off the field at the Rose Bowl in January 2010, and he’s become that person. All he’s done is help resurrect a moribund program that hasn’t been able to get out of its own way.
None of this team’s shortcomings has been his fault. He scores 41 against West Virginia, and he loses. He scores 41 against Texas Tech, and he wins. Barely. That’s the nature of this perplexing team, which can beat almost anybody and lose to nobodies (read: Maryland).
But he’s been the one constant. He’s been a quarterback who in all truth has played almost as well as Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and West Virginia’s Will Grier, just without the same pizzazz in part because of a leaky defense.
“I think the confidence is great in Sam,” coach Tom Herman said. “Again, I’m telling you he sees the game as well as any guy I’ve been around. There’s nobody that locker room would rather have leading the team in a drive like that. We have grown up a lot.”
And so has Ehlinger, a 20-year-old whose dad died of a heart attack when he was a teen-ager and who smiles back at adversity. Sometimes, trying to lead your team to victory in a riled-up stadium doesn’t seem quite so overwhelming.
“He’s just poised,” Humphrey said. “You can lean on him every time.”
Ehlinger’s always had a calm about him. He’s as physical a runner as any fullback, and he finds extra yardage. He’s evolved into a helluva decision-maker, so much so that he’s set a new Big 12 record with 280 consecutive passes without an interception. That’s two hundred and freaking 80. This from a guy whose coaches once weren’t sure he’d throw eight in a row without a pick.
Sure, he can take way too many sacks and “absolutely” said he was mad at himself for taking five Saturday. But his has been a transformation perhaps unlike any other these eyes have witnessed in the last four decades. In many respects, Ehlinger is developing into a modern-day James Street. He’s been that impressive, that natural a winner. It’s going to be interesting to see how much better he can get.
For sure, he helped Texas beat a turnover-prone Texas Tech with a hapless pass defense ranked 124th in the nation and an erratic performance from its third-string quarterback, Jett Duffey. And these Longhorns could have unraveled during a furious Red Raiders comeback, but Ehlinger wouldn’t let it happen as he preserves the chance of a 9-3 regular season and a coveted spot in the Big 12 championship game.
What’s better, it even looked like a team that could go 9-3 although that’s obviously jumping too far ahead for a club that rarely gets too far ahead and rarer still stays very far ahead. Every single game this season has been razor-thin close.
“We make things interesting, don’t we?” Herman said.
Without question. But Ehlinger’s more deadly than dull. Keep going in this positive direction, and it’s conceivable Texas could wind up in the top 10 of the CFP rankings and in a major bowl like the Sugar or Alamo. It’s all on the table for the Longhorns, who overcame the emotional beatdown of back-to-back losses by a total of four points.
Herman’s club still has to get by dangerous Iowa State, but catches the Cyclones at home and then wraps up with a game against last-place Kansas on the day after Thanksgiving. Until the final quarter, Texas had looked and played like a complete team for the first time since Oklahoma, minus that fourth quarter as well, of course.
Sam, on the other hand, is built for the fourth quarter. He drove Texas downfield for Cameron Dicker’s winning field goal against the Sooners, and he did it again Saturday to deliver the knockout punch against the Red Raiders.
“My mentor, Greg Davis, taught me a long time ago that in critical moments of games, think players, not plays,” Herman said. “And for us, No. 11 (Ehlinger) and 84 (Humphrey) are pretty good players, and they’re playing pretty good right now.”
What’s not to love?