DALLAS -- Early last week, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield poked fun at his true-freshman counterpart at Texas, playfully noting that Sam Ehlinger had failed to defeat Mayfield’s Austin high school alma mater. In the aftermath of Saturday’s thrilling Red River Showdown, in which Ehlinger nearly rallied the Longhorns from a 20-point deficit, Mayfield had nothing but respect for the young quarterback.
Even saw a little of himself in Ehlinger, too.
“Tough kid,” Oklahoma’s senior quarterback said. “You could tell by the way he carried himself, how he bounces back after getting hit. Just how we Austin boys do it, I guess. He's going to have a heck of a career, it's obvious.”
Mayfield wound up winning the game with a 59-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass.
Ehlinger, however, won over both sides of the Cotton Bowl divide with a gritty effort that had the heavily favored Sooners sweating to the end of their 29-24 victory.
“Love the kid, love the way he competes,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “He has it all. He’s a guy they can build their team around.
“The future is bright for him and Texas.”
From the moment they snagged his commitment two summers ago, the Longhorns had eagerly been waiting for the homegrown, former blue-chipper to step on campus. But really, Texas has been waiting for its newly minted quarterback of the future for much longer than that.
Ever since Heisman finalist and Big 12 champion Colt McCoy departed following the 2009 season after taking Texas to the national title game, the Longhorns have been cycling through starting quarterbacks faster than Franklin Barbecue does briskets, unable to find the answer at each turn. Not surprisingly, an unsuccessful quarterback quest dovetailed with Texas’ tumble from the pantheon of the college football into a middling program, reduced to hoping for mere bowl eligibility.
But with Ehlinger going toe-to-toe with Mayfield less than a month after doing the same with another Heisman-hopeful quarterback, USC’s Sam Darnold, the era of Texas moral victories could mercifully be coming to a close.
“He showed me all he needed to show me in Los Angeles,” said Texas coach Tom Herman, who indicated Saturday that Ehlinger would remain behind center even once Week 1 starter Shane Buechele makes a full recovery from an ankle injury. “Sam is a tough dude. He doesn't get rattled. He's competitive as all get out. He didn't need to show me anything in this game. I've seen everything I need to see from Sam Ehlinger.”
By Saturday evening, Oklahoma had seen enough of him, as well.
Once Mayfield propelled the Sooners to a 20-0 lead in the second quarter, it looked as if they were well on their way to yet another Red River knockout. But that’s when Ehlinger got off the mat, and the Longhorns came back swinging.
He waited out another oncoming Oklahoma rush to deliver a beautifully executed screen pass to Kyle Porter, who coasted 16 yards for Texas’ first touchdown. Then just before halftime, Ehlinger connected on four completions to put the Longhorns in range for a 34-yard field goal.
Suddenly and improbably, Texas was back in the game.
“We just ran our offense,” said Ehlinger, who threw for 278 yards and ran for another 110. “We got comfortable and started doing what we do.”
Ehlinger got even more comfortable in the fourth quarter, no matter how many shots the Sooners got off on him.
On a third-and-10, he dropped a gorgeous, 22-yard pass into the arms of fellow freshman Reggie Hemphill-Mapps as he crashed into the Texas sideline.
The following play, Ehlinger rolled left, but with nothing there, he weaved back to his right. In the face of three leaping rushers, he jumped back and dumped a pass to another freshman, tight end Cade Brewer, for 21 yards.
Then, on the next snap, Ehlinger peeled around a trio of Sooners before gliding in for an 8-yard touchdown, briefly giving Texas a 24-23 lead with eight minutes to go.
“No offensive lineman could ever ask for anything more from that guy,” said Texas left guard Patrick Vahe. “He played his butt off.”
If Ehlinger could’ve played only five more snaps, who knows what the outcome might have been Saturday.
After Mayfield’s go-ahead touchdown throw, Texas got the ball with plenty of time to retake the lead. But as Ehlinger was driving the Longhorns down the field again, his head slammed into the turf. For the next five plays, Buechele replaced Ehlinger as trainers gave the freshman a precautionary concussion test.
When Ehlinger returned, Texas faced second-and-22. Eventually, the drive, and effectively the game, ended at fourth-and-13.
“Been dreaming about [this game] for a long time,” said Ehlinger, a lifelong Texas fan. “The atmosphere was incredible. Losing the game was not incredible. But I'm looking forward to the next three years.”
Texas fans have been dreaming of a quarterback like Ehlinger for a long time, too. And after Saturday, dreaming of what’s to come.