NEW ORLEANS — Remember when Vince Young led Texas to that first Rose Bowl win over Michigan?
That game’s most outstanding player stood on the podium next to head coach Mack Brown and told Texas fans and a national television audience, “We’ll be back.”
Texas returned a year later and won a national championship.
Spring ahead 14 years. Sam Ehlinger stood on a stage in the middle of the Superdome. When asked about leading No. 15 Texas to a 28-21 win in the Sugar Bowl over No. 5 Georgia, the quarterback/battering ram verbalized what a title-hungry fan base had been hoping to hear at game’s end.
“Longhorn Nation, we’re baaaack!” Ehlinger yelled to the orange-clad fans who spent most of the fourth quarter rotating between chants of “S-E-C!!” and “Over-rated” at the outgunned Bulldogs.
When asked later if his heart dropped at Ehlinger’s announcement, coach Tom Herman said, “Yes!” Laughs ensued.
Yeah Tom, the bar has been raised, and your sophomore quarterback doesn’t mind doing the heavy lifting.
The 10-4 Longhorns have a quarterback who has shown he won’t shrink in the big moments. They have a quarterback that doesn’t mind getting his mouth bloodied. They have a quarterback that has learned that he doesn’t have to hit a home run on every play and that it’s OK to take a sack.
“He’s our leader,” said wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey. “He will do whatever it takes. He will run over people.”
Most important, Longhorn Nation has a quarterback who can take them to special places like VY did.
It’s not that Ehlinger outplayed Jake Fromm in the biggest game of his life, but it’s how he did it. He turned the clock back to that first meeting with Oklahoma where he played efficient, proficient, and downright brilliant football from start to finish against an elite team. Georgia players viewed him as the head of the snake during the week leading up to the game, but he emerged as the one with the sharpest fangs.
Texas has had better days statistically, but it was the tightest, most satisfying 355-yard offensive performance the program has seen in years. Ehlinger completed 19-of-27 passes for 169 yards and ran 21 times for 64 yards and three touchdowns, including a 1-yarder on fourth down to put the Horns up by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. That plunge was especially gratifying because he had been stuffed on three previous tries on the doorstep.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck called Ehlinger’s number six straight times on the fateful drive. No pretense, no trickery. Just good-old fashioned hard-nosed football. You could say Ehlinger and Texas SEC’d an SEC power.
“Sam’s a dog,” said teammate Charles Omenihu in the most complimentary way possible. “He went out and balled out against an SEC defense. I have mad respect for that man.”
Bevo XV may have gotten more pregame buzz for his charge at Georgia’s bulldog mascot, but Ehlinger set the tone when he showed up to the Superdome in a No. 15 Westlake High School jersey with the name “BREES” on the back.
Ehlinger said teammate Davante Davis saw the jersey in a shop window in downtown New Orleans this week and bought it for him. Ehlinger happily reimbursed his teammate then channeled his inner Brees to Georgia’s chagrin.
There’s nothing like paying homage to the great, and Ehlinger followed up with a humongous performance on the same field that Brees has dominated in his legendary career.
“Yeah, coming into the Superdome, I had to respect Drew because of all the amazing things he’s done in this building,” Ehlinger said. “And I wanted to play like him and have a little magic. I was just paying my respects to him. We’ve connected a few times. He’s always been incredible to me, reaching out, always letting me know that he’s there if I need him.”
Brees, the first Westlake quarterback to win a Super Bowl, wasn’t at the game. But he saw pics of Ehlinger in his jersey.
“What a stud!” Brees tweeted. “Rooting for him tonight!”
The final numbers will show that Ehlinger accounted for 3,774 yards of offense and 41 touchdowns in his first full year as a starter. Want a comparison? Young accounted for 2,928 yards and 26 touchdowns during his sophomore year that ended with that win over Michigan.
Ehlinger has a long offseason to take in the biggest win this program has seen since the 2008 team beat Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. He could run for mayor, but that isn’t necessary. He already owns the city.
So are the Longhorns back as Ehlinger proclaimed?
Who knows? They will lose 13 starters — eight on defense — and return with a much larger set of expectations in 2019.
But if they if they take this a step further, the 2019 national title game will be held in…you guessed it, New Orleans.