NEW ORLEANS — Immediately after losing the Big 12 Championship to Oklahoma on Dec. 1, a dejected Sam Ehlinger stood in front of the media and made a simple, yet bold, announcement.
“I will make it my mission to never let this team or this school feel this disappointment again.”
Growing up a lifelong Texas fan in Austin, the hometown quarterback struggled with the idea of not only losing to Oklahoma, but falling one game short of Texas’ first Big 12 Championship since 2009. His statement wasn’t as dramatic as Tim Tebow’s spiel was in 2008, but it hit home for Longhorn fans who have begged for somebody like Ehlinger to restore national relevance to the program.
One month later, Tom Herman, the fan base and even Ehlinger knew they would have to play a near-perfect game to pull off an upset over an SEC powerhouse in No. 5 Georgia.
Some called it heroics, others called it just another day at the office. The Sugar Bowl MVP simply called it a “little magic,” and it all started hours before kickoff, when the team arrived at the Superdome. Players hopped off the bus wearing their usual game day attire: khaki pants, a white button down with a burnt orange tie and a black blazer — everybody except Ehlinger.
The Austin native and Westlake High School alumnus arrived at the home of the New Orleans Saints sporting a white Drew Brees high school jersey with the number 15 and ‘Chaps’ embroidered across his chest.
“Coming into the Superdome, I had to respect Drew because of all the amazing things he’s done in this building,” Ehlinger said. “And I wanted to play like him and have a little magic.”
The majority of that “magic” didn’t come through the air, though. It came on the ground, and the Longhorns weren’t even trying to disguise it. With two rushing touchdowns to Ehlinger’s name and a 20-7 lead, the Longhorns lined up on the one-yard line for a 1st and goal. There was no doubt who was getting the ball.
After getting ruled short on Ehlinger’s first rushing attempt, the offense lined back up and tried to push it in, but the Georgia defense stuffed Ehlinger short of the goal line on second down and then again on third.
Neither Herman nor offensive coordinator Tim Beck flinched with the 4th and goal looming. They knew who they wanted to give the ball to, and the fourth time was the charm as Ehlinger narrowly got the ball to the goal line.
“Sam is a baller. He’s a dog,” junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey said. “He’s going to run people over, take some hits, throw the ball. He’s going to do everything for us.”
One two-point conversion later and Texas’ 28 points proved to be just enough in a 28-21 upset over Georgia. But Ehlinger wasn’t done for the night. He still had to deliver the line of the night.
After Texas hoisted the Sugar Bowl Trophy, Ehlinger was announced as the Sugar Bowl MVP for going 19-27 for 169 yards along with 64 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
The quarterback walked onto the stage and, similar to Vince Young’s 2004 statement at the end of the Rose Bowl, said without any hesitation, “Longhorn nation, we’re baaack.”
Herman’s smile said it all. He was later asked if his heart dropped after Ehlinger poked fun at the now infamous line. Herman quickly said, “Yes. I’ll never know what that means, ‘Is Texas back?’ I’m never going to comment on that. It could mean a lot of different things and so I’ll never comment on that. I know we’re headed in the right direction. I don’t ever want to give any kind of finality to where we’re at because we are always making progress.”
Ehlinger immediately ran over to his mother, Jena Ehlinger, who was standing in the front row where she watched her oldest son lead his team to a Sugar Bowl victory. Despite having thousands of eyes focused on him, Ehlinger shared an intimate moment with his mother, wiping tears away as he headed back to the tunnel with his trophy.
Sam didn’t know it, but as he swapped his jersey for the Drew Brees threads for the postgame press conference, the clip of his declaration went viral.
“When he said that, I was like ‘Keep saying it,’” defensive end Charles Omenihu said. “That's the confidence this man exudes to the offense and to the whole team. … It's really been transcending and inspiring to everybody on this whole team and the whole University.”
Tuesday night was the finale for seniors like Omenihu, and it might be the final chapter for Humphrey, who said he will talk to his family before deciding to declare for the NFL Draft or stay at Texas for his senior year.
As for the state of the program, the Longhorns are now 2–0 in bowl games during the Herman era, 17–10 overall and 10–4 in the 2018 season.
The question, ‘Is Texas back?’ will have eight months to marinate in the minds of both Texas and college football fans. For now, with the futures of several juniors pending, one of the only certainties seems to be Sam Ehlinger playing quarterback for his hometown team, doing what he does best: wearing his emotions on his sleeve as he leads the effort to bring Texas back.