Much of what transpired between Texas and No. 4 USC on Saturday night may have seemed unreal to fathom.
For starters, the Longhorns looked tough — really tough — on defense. So tough that Texas picked off USC star quarterback Sam Darnold twice — including a pick-six — held him to a 57 percent completion rate and sacked him three times.
And for the first time in a long time, Texas looked like a completely different program — one not mired in mediocrity, but instead, one that looked like it belonged on the same field as the Trojans.
“I told them in the locker room, ‘There’s no moral victories in college football,’” head coach Tom Herman said. “We lost. But if we can’t hold our head high and learn from all of the good that came from this game … after everything that had happened, especially on offense, that happened poorly, to be in a position to win the game, I think that says a lot about how far we’ve grown up as a team in the last two weeks.”
The Longhorns entered their highly anticipated road matchup with No. 4 USC as 16.5-point underdogs. Sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele did not play for a second-straight week, and junior left tackle Connor Williams, a preseason first team All-American, injured his left knee in the second quarter and did not return.
But with under a minute to play, freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger scrambled to his right and fired a dart to senior wide receiver Armanti Foreman in the corner of the end zone to give the Longhorns the lead with 45 seconds left in regulation.
The play itself was every bit as perplexing as what the scoreboard read: Texas 17, USC 14. Many Texas fans were probably thinking the same thing — how in the world could this be happening?
But it was happening, until Darnold spoiled the party and led a late, game-tying drive to send the game into overtime. In the second overtime, the Longhorns watched USC freshman kicker Chase McGrath boot a 43-yard field goal through the uprights to give the Trojans a 27-24 victory.
Texas fell to 1–2, marking the fourth time in the last five seasons that the Longhorns have gotten off to a 1–2 start. But there was one difference about Saturday night.
“We are finally understanding that we need to play every game like a championship game,” junior linebacker Malik Jefferson said. “Not that we thought this was a championship game, but we needed to find that out and go out and find our identity.”
There was a noticeable difference on defense, too. On Saturday, Texas did what it had been clamoring for since the loss to Maryland — “cut it loose.”
The Longhorns held a potent USC offense to just 17 points in regulation after the Trojans had put up 49 and 42 points in their first two games. Jefferson delivered pad-popping hits, and junior safety DeShon Elliott had two interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.
Even in defeat, the Longhorns changed the narrative about their program Saturday night and gained back some national respect. It’s a team that still got smoked by Maryland at home, but also one that took Darnold and the No. 4 Trojans to the wire at the Coliseum.
“I’m grateful that we caught them early,” USC head coach Clay Helton said after the game. “Because that team is going to be good.”
Only time will tell.