Quarterback Sam Ehlinger's two late interceptions, Tre Watson's fumble prevents the Longhorns from mounting a fourth-quarter comeback at FedEx Field
Posted September 1st, 2018
LANDOVER, Md. — Sometimes, the depths of Texas’ mediocrity defies belief.
Last season, the Longhorns gave up 51 points to a team that finished 4-8. One year later, those same Maryland Terrapins — picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten East division — forced three consecutive turnovers in the final seven minutes to capture a 34-29 win.
Things were supposed to be different in coach Tom Herman’s second season, but they weren’t. At least not on Saturday at FedEx Field. Just like last season, UT’s No. 23 preseason ranking will be gone when the poll is updated before week two.
“A lot of people are gonna want to say this feels a lot like last year. It doesn’t to me,” Herman said. He’s now 7-7 at Texas, but the coach truly believes “we’re a better team now than we showed.”
Maryland fans among the 47,641 in attendance started chanting “Over-rated!” with less than 8 minutes left in the first quarter. Texas (0-1) has now lost back-to-back season openers for the first time since 1991-93.
All that talk about togetherness rings hollow when the Longhorns come out looking nervous and fall behind by 17 points. “We have to come out and not try to play so perfect. Just play loose,” defensive lineman Chris Nelson said.
The promise of offensive consistency feels misguided when the unit averaged 0.78 yards on 14 of the first 15 plays. To UT’s credit, that 15th play was a sizzling 39-yard touchdown catch by a diving, fully-extended Devin Duvernay.
“We beat ourselves out there,” receiver Collin Johnson said. “Losing doesn’t make you a loser. It’s just how you respond to it. We’ve got to respond to it the right way and focus on next week.”
It’s also hard to get excited about quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s growth and development when he threw two critical interceptions at winning time. Ehlinger said the first interception with 6:09 remaining got tipped. The second with 1:04 to play came on third-and-10 from the Terps’ 33-yard line.
Needing a touchdown to take the lead, Ehlinger rolled to his right and looked for Lil’Jordan Humphrey. Maryland’s Antoine Brooks had easy pickings at the Maryland 11.
Ehlinger completed 21 of 39 passes overall for 263 yards. He did throw a beautiful fade route to Johnson for a 22-yard touchdown. Those two hooked up for a 33-yard connection in the third quarter that set up Kyle Porter’s 2-yard touchdown run.
At that point, Texas had come all the way back and took a 29-24 lead. But Texas fans will disregard all of that. All they’ll remember is Ehlinger’s turnovers. Those picks sandwiched a Tre Watson fumble at the Texas 49, which also mucked up the proceedings.
“It’s awful,” Ehlinger said. “To have three turnovers in the last three drives, first one, arm got tipped. Second one was a fumble. Third one, had to take a chance. Obviously we need to protect the football to win, but before that, we should’ve never been in that situation.
“We started too slow, we started hesitant. I think it’s a great learning moment for us.”
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The Longhorns are going to rally around Ehlinger. Frankly, they don’t have much choice. Herman said it was too early to speculate on whether he would try junior Shane Buechele next week against Tulsa.
“I still love him,” tight end Andrew Beck said. “He’s going to be our quarterback and we all love him. That’s not the defining moment of Sam’s career, I can assure of that. It’s not the defining moment of the season. I’m not too worried about it. He’s going to be fine, I promise.”
Ehlinger may be fine, but how about these Longhorns as a whole?
“It’s not much of a setback,” guard Patrick Vahe said. “We just have to move on from this, learn from all the mistakes we had in this game and show that we can get better as a team.”
The way this game began, it looked like the Longhorns were eaten up with butterflies. P.J. Locke III was caught flat-footed as the Terps went after him on the game-opening drive. Freshman Jeshaun Jones got loose and scored relatively easy.
Jones sure came ready to go. He scored on a 27-yard run, caught a 65-yard touchdown pass and then threw for another score — a 20-yard toss to Taivon Jacobs — giving the Terps a 24-7 lead. He became the first freshman at the FBS level to score by rushing, receiving and passing since Oregon’s Marcus Mariota did it against Arizona State in 2012.
The Texas defense struggled to stop the jet sweep, a running play designed to stretch the field from sideline to sideline. Maryland finished with 143 rushing yards. Tayon Fleet-Davis got loose around the left end and scored from 17 yards out to give Maryland a 31-29 lead with 14:25 remaining.
Then, officials stopped the game for 1 hour, 26 minutes for lightning. The skies opened up, turning the place into a giant slip-and-slide factory for the fourth quarter.
During the break, both teams rested in the locker room and tried to stay loose. Maryland players continued to think about their fallen teammate Jordan McNair, an offensive lineman who died this summer. School officials honored him with a pre-game video tribute. The Terps started the game with 10 men on the field and took a delay of game penalty, which UT declined. It was total class.
“From the players to the coaches and staff, everybody in the building that pack our parachutes — we all just stuck together,” Jacobs said. “That’s the result of today.”
The other team felt the same way but committed too many mistakes. Multiple veterans committed critical penalties, including linebacker Gary Johnson, who was ejected for targeting.
The defense was supposed to keep the Horns in games like this. Ehlinger wasn’t supposed to throw late interceptions. None of this was supposed to happen in Herman’s second year. And yet, it did.
“Not angry at our players, thought they played really hard,” Herman said. “We’ve got to find a way as coaches to make sure we play smarter.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.