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Golden: Texas’ Sam Ehlinger was all-time good, not all-time great, and that’s OK

He was a good quarterback.

It’s how we should remember Sam Ehlinger.

Was he all-time good at Texas? Absolutely.

Was he all-time great? No, he wasn’t.

And that’s fine.

Nov 27, 2020; Austin, Texas, USA; Texas Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) hugs head coach Tom Herman before his last home game at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium against the Iowa State Cyclones . Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

It isn’t always fair, but quarterbacks are judged by wins and losses and Ehlinger didn’t have enough big wins to be in the statue conversation with modern stars Vince Young and Colt McCoy and OGs like James Street and Bobby Layne.

Friday’s 23-20 loss to Iowa State in his final home game closed the door on Texas’ chances to compete for a Big 12 title, and with two games remaining, the talk can now switch over to the familiar but tired refrain of sending the senior class out with a bowl win.

Ehlinger’s frustration was shared by a countless number of UT fans. This program is now at 11 years and counting since its last Big 12 title.

“I wish it didn’t have to go this way,” he said.

Ehlinger and the other seniors walked off their home field for the last time with a loss and the knowledge that they won’t make it to the Big 12 title game. And also sobering for Ehlinger: He is now the first four-year starting quarterback in school history to not win a conference title.

It’s the biggest unchecked box of his college career. Football is a team game, but when it comes to legacy, the position of quarterback is viewed through a more critical lens. As I wrote earlier this season, Ehlinger is somewhere on the fringe of the top 10 — definitely the top 15 — quarterbacks in school history. The absence of a conference title keeps him from any serious talk of top five.

That could have changed had the Horns won a Big 12 title his senior year. It appeared possible early on after Texas took a 10-0 lead that would have been 14-0 had Tom Herman remembered that that it’s fine to call a run play for No. 11 inside the 10-yard line.

Ehlinger played well at times, but his offense produced only 10 points over the last 55 minutes. And despite a bevy of big plays, Texas put up its second-lowest points total this season.

Ehlinger was outplayed by Iowa State’s Brock Purdy, who made more clutch plays when it mattered most.

Props should be given to Matt Campbell and Iowa State. That’s a good team in a conference that isn’t great this season. Bottom line, the Longhorns lost because of the Longhorns.

A close game usually comes down to a couple of plays, and the two that will replay in Ehlinger’s head will be the fourth-and-1 carry that came up inches short — should he have extended the ball? — with a chance to go up 11 points late, and the sack he took that added to the difficulty of Cameron Dicker’s season-saving field-goal attempt that sailed wide left.

“I may could have gotten the ball out of my hands, but I didn’t want to risk turning it over,” Ehlinger said. “So I could just eat it.”

Ehlinger said he was looking downfield at four vertical options on that last play from scrimmage and didn’t feel the tackler coming up from behind.

You can’t take that sack. How many thousands of households said that same sentence over and over right before Dicker missed from 58 yards.

Yeah, mine too.

And just like that, Texas’ season has come down to playing out the string.

For the record, earlier this week Ehlinger carefully sidestepped the question of coming back for one more season since the NCAA is allowing it, but seeing him celebrate with his classmates indicated his college days are numbered. That is, unless we’re in for a bombshell of an announcement at season’s end. The feeling here is that he has three games left as a Longhorn, and none will have any sort of postseason relevance attached.

Ehlinger’s final chapter will be written sometime in late December or early January, and it should include huge props for leading the program out of the 2017 wilderness after three straight losing seasons under Charlie Strong.

If Texas wins out — including the bowl game —  he will finish his career with a 28-16 record as a starter, which isn’t horrible but not in the stratosphere of a Young’s 30-2 mark or McCoy’s 35-8 or Street’s 20-0. He’ll exit as UT’s career leader in total touchdowns (134 and counting) and rushing touchdowns for a quarterback (currently 32), but he’d trade any of those stats for one more chance at a Big 12 title.

He should be appreciated. Ehlinger is one tough son of a gun who has never offered up excuses when things don’t go his way. He learned from that goal-line fumble that led to an overtime loss his freshman year at USC. He trotted back onto the field minutes after he was knocked senseless against Oklahoma later that same season — it was a concussion, no question — and one year later, he outdueled eventual Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray in an epic Red River Showdown victory in 2018.

Longhorn Nation wholeheartedly believed him when he proclaimed “We’re baaack!” to millions of viewers after the Sugar Bowl win over Georgia two years ago. But the Horns weren’t back. They have gone 13-9 over the next 22 games.

He played his butt off and let the results speak for themselves, even tough ones like Friday.

“Seeing him going out on Senior Night with a loss hurts my heart,” said Longhorns cornerback Josh Thompson, his roommate.

Ehlinger understands the realities that come with wearing the heavy crown known as a quarterback’s helmet. He will go down as the tough-minded leader who stabilized the program and capably led Texas football back into a winning era, just one that didn’t come with any championships.

That’s his legacy.