SOPHOMORE SAM REDUX
As a fresh-faced quarterback heading into hostile territory a season ago, now-sophomore Sam Ehlinger nearly led Texas to a double-overtime win against USC last year.
A win this year would be doubly special, especially with the game on the Forty Acres Saturday, not to mention the magnitude of a Texas vs. USC affair. And the addition of fans believing the sky is not just falling but plummeting right now.
Ehlinger, true to his nature, isn’t hearing any of that as Texas prepares for what is, once again, the biggest game of its season.
“I just see it as another game,” he said. “I'm blessed to have the opportunity to play such a top program at home. It's what you dream of, so no I don't see it as a coming out game. It's a big game for us, but it's also just another one on our schedule.”
Poised to turn Texas season into something special, the Horns ultimately fell 27-24 in an exhilarating and eventually heartbreaking contest in California at the LA Memorial Coliseum. Once again, the game will be under the lights on national TV and once again, the outcome of this game stands to tell the nation a lot about the Longhorns hopes, and reality.
Perhaps it’s obvious but Ehlinger needs to get near last year’s numbers of 298 passing yards and two touchdowns — while eliminating the two interceptions, as well as the sputtering offense that keeps popping its head up this season.
“Overall, our offense is moving in the right direction and the receivers are going and getting the ball, we're getting some push up front so that makes it a lot easier on the quarterback,” he said.
CALMLY GET PUMPED UP
Part of what put Texas in position to win last season has them there this year, too. That’s imposing and intimidating junior wide receiver Collin Johnson. The talented Texas wideout logged seven catches for 191 yards a year ago. He harkened back to last season and admitted it felt like a breakout game for himself and the offense.
Coming off a narrow win over Tulsa in which many expected the Horns to come out firing and put up a crooked number in the 40s or even 50s, Johnson puts the game in perfect context knowing it’s a big game, and another game — the next game.
“Like Coach Herman always talks about, don't make the moment bigger than it really is,” Johnson said. “You just gotta go out there and don't prepare any different than you prepare against Tulsa or whatever. We prepare the same way and that's our best. We show up to practice every day ready to work.”
Yet he continued, “Deep down, there's that feeling it's going to be a special game.”
EVERYTHING IS NORMAL (NOTHING IS NORMAL)
Evening out the excitement and expectation while maintaining passion is needed for all four quarters, just not a half as Texas has shown sometimes.
Senior leader Charles Omenihu was adamant that the team isn’t looking at this game out of scope. Though everyone knows this is not a normal game, acting normal is crucial leading up to the game — and especially vital in the game.
“No it's just another game on our schedule. You get fired up for every game. Every game is a big game,” he said, “of course it's USC, two storied programs and people are going to try and push that, but me and the rest of my teammates take it as another game. Every game is a big game and prepare the same way for every game.”
The constant asking of players whether this is just another game in itself takes it from being a normal game to something special.
Another senior defensive lineman, Chris Nelson, also revealed that Texas knows it needs to play special to win. Against USC, against everybody, because special is what will make this team turn opponents from special to normal.
“We don't try to have that mindset but when an opponent like USC comes in — of course there is a level of hype,” Nelson said. “Everybody's ready, everybody's hyped up. Just excited for this game so the juice is pumping right now.”
CHECKING IS COOL
Seeing youngsters come into the fold the past few years, veteran tight end Andrew Beck knew almost immediately that his current QB had nothing but cool running through him.
“I've always, from the first snap he took in a game, I've always had a lot of faith in him,” Beck said. “And that's a credit to him and credit to the coaches because they prepared him to play in a game. If they didn't think he was ready and didn't think he was capable they wouldn't have put him in a game.”
Parlaying that cool into the nitty gritty is something Ehlinger believes the offense has absorbed now, and he is ready to put that into action against the Trojans.
That means during this spectacular contest of nationally renowned programs, going for the unspectacular. Keeping the offensive flow going, and wear the Trojans out.
“It's really easy to play quarterback when your offensive line is giving you time as well as pushing dudes around in the run game,” Ehlinger said. “So, I think that was a huge step for me and it made me feel comfortable back in the pocket. Like we talked about after the game — there were some things in the check downs instead of forcing it and just taking the easy ones. That helped as well.”
NO OFFENSE, BUT IT MIGHT BE THE DEFENSE
Locked in on how the Horns will perform this week against USC, plenty of attention goes toward the offense and when it will start humming again.
Likely, though, the Horns defense will be the key to grabbing a victory.
With freshman quarterback JT Daniels under helm for the Trojans this season, a veteran-laden squad infused with young talent like the Horns have has to make the youngster feel anything but normal Saturday.
“In the back of my head it's just pressure that's all I can think of right now is getting pressure on him,” Nelson said. “He's a young quarterback so we want to get as much pressure on him and get him uncomfortable.”
That pressure should allow the secondary to show it can blanket receivers and make game-turning plays. Against Tulsa, freshmen Caden Sterns and BJ Johnson snagged interceptions, something senior DB PJ Locke feels added immensely to the defense’s confidence ahead of USC.
“I think it's a positive step ahead because that just builds your confidence. It's your first game in DKR, the stadium is rocking, you're in front of hometown fans — you go out there and first play of the game you create a takeaway,” Locke said. “That's a huge confidence boost to let you know, ‘OK, yeah I can play on this level.’ I just keep telling them, keep building on it.”
A year after Texas thought it had the game won on an Ehlinger touchdown only to see the Trojans rally and claim the win, the thought is the same — finish the game.
“Yea, that’s been our whole mindset right now is finishing games,” Nelson said. “(Because) yeah we felt like we had it.”