Texas takes Sugar Bowl on Ehlinger’s shoulders

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Photo Credit: Ashley Ephraim | Daily Texan Staff

NEW ORLEANS — If there’s one trap Texas players and coaches have avoided falling into, it’s using the B-word.

But as orange and white confetti fell from the rafters and quarterback Sam Ehlinger stood on stage accepting his 2019 Sugar Bowl Most Outstanding Player trophy, he couldn’t help but utter the famous phrase to Longhorn fans around the country.

“Longhorn nation, we’re baaaaack!”

Nobody exactly knows what the phrase means. But the widespread eruption of cheers from his teammates, many of whom were making confetti angels on the turf 20 feet away, signaled Texas had finally found a foothold on its climb toward once again being one of college football’s elite programs.

“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, and I've commended him so many times. And I'll commend him again for just being the guy he is and the way he is because it's really been transcending and inspiring to everybody on this whole team and the whole University.”

Ehlinger, who tied a Sugar Bowl record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (3), was the unquestioned leader Tuesday night in New Orleans as the Longhorns took down No. 5 Georgia, 28-21. For the full 60 minutes of action, the game appeared to be Texas’ to lose as it controlled the tempo completely and asserted dominance in nearly every aspect despite the Bulldogs entering as two-score favorites.

The culmination of Texas’ first 10-win season in nearly a decade began in the opening minutes as Ehlinger led his unit down the field in a tone-setting, 75-yard drive that quickly displayed the Longhorns’ readiness.

Georgia responded in contrasting fashion by tallying just eight total yards and one first down through the first quarter. It wasn’t until the Bulldogs fell behind 17 points at the beginning of the second that they scored their first points on a touchdown toss from Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm to Brian Herrien, giving fans a chance to exhale for the first time since kickoff.

Todd Orlando’s defense never faltered, though, holding Georgia scoreless for almost the next 30 minutes of play.

Then, it was Ehlinger who had the ball in his hands — four times, to be exact — during the defining moment of the game.

Ehlinger’s number was called three times on the one-yard line in hopes of pushing through the line of scrimmage for a touchdown. He was held up short of the goal line on all three runs.

Head coach Tom Herman’s trust in Ehlinger didn’t diminish, even after being stuffed on the same play three times in a row. Ehlinger took another snap on fourth down, this time successfully squeezing through the wall of blockers for the score, giving Texas a 28-7 fourth-quarter lead which proved to be too much for Georgia to overcome late in the contest.

“I think that mindset and the physicality and the ‘whatever it takes’ and the 4th and inches is the mindset that our offense needs to have, our team needs to have every single play,” Ehlinger said.

After the game, Herman was asked by a reporter if his heart dropped when Ehlinger claimed Texas was back. Before the question was finished, Herman interjected with a quick, “Yes!” Still, Herman couldn’t hold back a smile at the thought of his quarterback’s confidence in the program moving forward.

Ehlinger wasn’t the only one under the impression this year’s Longhorn team was primed for a successful run. Many seniors like Omenihu, who previously lacked much of anything to show for their run at Texas, decided changing the trajectory of the program was a mission that couldn’t wait another season.

“I knew in the offseason … that this team was going to be an amazing squad,” Omenihu said. “And that was a personal dream of mine to play on a stage like this and to win a game. This was a huge part of why I decided to come back to school. That's the best decision I've ever made in my 21 years of living, for real.”

Looking ahead, Texas once again faces the loss of a number of key players to April’s NFL Draft. But with a future Heisman candidate at quarterback and a ninth-ranked recruiting class on the way, the Longhorns have shown there’s reason to believe they haven’t hit their ceiling yet. Herman will be the first to argue just that.

“(This win) just means we're headed in the right direction,” Herman said. “We lost in Dallas a month ago, and it left a really bad taste in our mouth. So the good thing is there's still a lot for this program to achieve, mainly winning our conference title.”

Herman continued, “But to beat such a quality opponent like that the way that we did it and to do it on this kind of stage in the Sugar Bowl certainly leads me to believe that we're headed in the right direction.”