By Steve Habel, Senior Contributing Writer
AUSTIN, Texas — The highly-ballyhooed Texas Longhorns' home game against the visiting USC Trojans is just about ready to boil over.
The clash between two of the sport’s most tradition-rich programs — each desperate to take a step forward this season — comes to fruition Saturday as Texas takes on No. 22 Southern California before a sold-out crowd at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
Games don’t get much bigger than this, even with the 'Horns out of the top 25 and the Trojans battling to stay in. The importance escalates even more because both teams can’t afford lose even more than they need to win.
Texas coach Tom Herman said his team is still a work in progress after the first two games of the 2018 season and he expects the Longhorns to improve and be up to the challenge against the Trojans.
Herman's sentiments mirror those of USC coach Clay Helton, who said the best is yet to come from his team.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of necessity to motivate our guys to practice this week,” Herman said. “We are playing at home against one of the best teams in the country. Obviously we have quite a bit mental preparation left, but the physical work was really, really good this week.”
The Longhorns and Trojans both are 1-1 on the season and still trying to find out just how good they are going to be. Saturday's game will be a thorough examination in the most pressure-packed of situations.
Texas comes into the game on the heels of a tougher-than-expected 28-21 home win over Tulsa. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger finished 21-for-27 for 237 yards with two touchdowns, and fumbled once against Tulsa, but played well overall, especially at the end of the game when he engineered a 13-play scoring drive with the help of some check-down passes, including one on UT's final touchdown.
Ehlinger had two crucial interceptions in the fourth quarter in the Longhorns' season-opening loss to Maryland Sept. 1 and seemed none the worse for wear last week.
"We already have seen him play well as a true freshman against USC," Herman said of Ehlinger, "so I'm excited for him to continue growing, with this weekend being one of the steps in his growth process, certainly."
Ehlinger’s job is to look deep first, but last year his first instinct was to pull the ball down and run. Now, he’s patient enough to move through his progressions and get the ball to his checkdowns. When he’s throwing the ball as accurately as he’s been, everybody feels good about things.
“It was one of his best overall all-around operation playing the position,” Texas offensive coordinator Tim Beck said of Ehlinger’s performance against Tulsa. “When Sam plays within the confines like he did, plays within himself, he can be very effective.
USC heads to Austin to play for the first time since 1966 after losing, 17-3, on the road at No. 9 Stanford last week. The three points were the fewest points in a game for the Trojans since being shut out by Washington in 1997.
Helton said Tuesday that true freshman quarterback JT Daniels is progressing well after sustaining a bruise to his right (throwing) hand during Saturday's loss.
Daniels hit on 16 of 34 passes for 215 yards in the defeat and had two interceptions in the fourth quarter as the Trojans were trying to get back into the game late. He is just 18 years old and played like a true freshman facing a top-10 team on the road in his second collegiate game.
"It's doing good," Helton told the Los Angeles Times about Daniels’ hand. “[Daniels] went out there to compete, and he competed like a warrior,” Helton said. “Every experience is a learning experience — some are good, and some are not so good.”
Even though the Trojans only put a field goal on the board last week, USC had six drives that advanced at least as far as the Cardinal 40. In other words, the Trojans can move the ball.
USC outlasted the Longhorns, 27-24, in double overtime at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 2017 when Ehlinger, making his first college start, fumbled near the Trojans goal line. It was the first meeting between the two teams since Texas beat the Trojans in the 2005 BCS National Championship game in the Rose Bowl.
The Trojans don't recognize that game as a loss because that season's results were vacated by the NCAA when it decided star running back Reggie Bush received impermissible benefits. Without that loss counting, USC is now 5-0 against the Longhorns, according to the Trojans.
UT's game notes press release states that Saturday's game is the seventh all-time meeting and that USC holds a 5-1 series record.