Sam Ehlinger has shown Texas fans plenty of good and plenty of bad this season.
One moment on Saturday, he tossed a beauty of a pass for a 50-yard pickup. The next moment, he evaded a would-be sack, turning a broken play into a positive one that left the West Virginia defense dazed and confused. And if you stuck around long enough, you saw Ehlinger throw a head-scratching pick-six that let the Mountaineers back into the game.
On a cold, rainy Saturday in Morgantown, Ehlinger showed why he’s the ultimate risk-reward player.
“You got to forget about the past if it’s good or bad,” Ehlinger said, “because you can’t let it affect the future.”
After watching sophomore Shane Buechele start the game and lead the Longhorns for the first two series, Ehlinger gave Texas a spark. The plan had been for Ehlinger to come in on the third offensive series no matter what. But he was unsure if it’d be for good.
“Obviously we knew that I was going in the third drive,” Ehlinger said, “but I had no idea after that what was gonna happen.”
The Longhorns went three-and-out on Ehlinger’s first series. His second was when things changed.
On the first play of the second quarter, Ehlinger delivered a perfect ball to redshirt freshman wide receiver Reggie Hemphill-Mapps down the sideline, which went for 50 yards and set up Texas in the red zone for the first time in the game. Minutes later, Ehlinger tossed a four-yard touchdown pass to graduate transfer tight end Kendall Moore to put Texas up 7-0.
The next Texas drive was peak Ehlinger. Facing a third-and-9, he evaded a West Virginia rusher who had broken free, scrambled out of a near-sack, then sprinted down the sideline for a 17-yard gain. The next play, Texas tried a trick play and had junior wide receiver Jerrod Heard throw a pass back to Ehlinger, who then ran for 23 yards to the West Virginia 31.
Ehlinger found junior running back Chris Warren III down the seam for a 20-yard touchdown pass moments later to put Texas up 14-0 late in the first half.
Texas fans had seen the reward. But then came the risk in the second half.
Facing a third-and-8 at West Virginia’s 22-yard line with under six minutes to play in the third quarter, Ehlinger dashed for 17 yards to set up a first-and-goal on the five. Ehlinger popped up after the play and pointed his hand forward to signal a first down.
It was the reward.
The Longhorns looked ready to break open the game and go up by three touchdowns.
But on the very next play, Ehlinger committed a costly mistake. A West Virginia defender broke loose in the backfield and got a hold of Ehlinger as he dropped back to pass. Instead of taking the sack, Ehlinger attempted to get rid of the ball as he went to the ground.
It was the risk.
Ehlinger desperately flung an errant pass that found the hands of West Virginia safety Kenny Robinson, who returned it 94 yards for a touchdown to cut the Texas lead to 14-7.
He wasn’t fazed by that play, either. Ehlinger calmly led Texas on two more touchdown drives in the second half to help ice the game.
“He’s tough. He’s a competitor,” head coach Tom Herman said. “He gives us a dimension in the run game. He rushed for 68 yards, 7.6 yards a carry — that’s a pretty good day at the office.”
Ehlinger has given Texas fans a dose of everything this season — a lot of good and, at times, a lot of bad.
But the most important thing he gave them on Saturday was a 28-14 win, making the Longhorns bowl eligible for the first time since 2014.
“Coach kept saying, ‘Just keep swinging, keep swinging. It’s gonna pay off. It’s gonna pay off. Keep swinging,’” Ehlinger said. “Obviously we would’ve liked some of the games (this season) to go differently, but we kept our head down and we kept working. To be able to go to a bowl and have that opportunity after the hardships and the close games that we’ve went through this year says a lot about the coaching staff as well as the players on the team.”