Familiar failure envelops Tom Herman, Texas as another thrilling Red River Showdown ends in disappointment
The latest Red River Showdown was so there for either team to snatch that the opportunities should have been measured in hang time. Oklahoma played without its leading rusher. Its five-star quarterback was benched. For large stretches, its defense couldn't tackle air, never mind Sam Ehlinger.
Ah, but Texas will be the one kicking itself all the way back to Austin. The Longhorns rallied from down 10 and then again 14 down with less than 5 minutes left. The best story would have been for Ehlinger -- the author of those rallies -- to complete the magic trick by using his arm, legs and pure will to smack down the Sooners as a senior.
That wasn't to be after Oklahoma beat No. 22 Texas in four overtimes, 53-45. The fairy-tale-to-be ended when Texas' rock-solid quarterback threw an interception in the end zone.
It was his second of the game. Ehlinger still might have been the best player on the field. Before that, he had accounted for six touchdowns (four rushing). As Texas' offensive line wore down, Ehlinger was the offense. After Oklahoma went up 31-17 with less than 5 minutes to go, the only mistake was leaving Ehlinger enough time to rally.
"In any year to quit, this would have been the one," Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said.
Instead, Ehlinger threw a pair of touchdown passes in the final 3 ½ minutes -- the second with 14 seconds left in regulation.
At that point, OU's defense was sucking so much air there wasn't enough oxygen in the Cotton Bowl to compensate. At that point, Oklahoma had been outscored 45-10 in the fourth quarter this season. At that point, OU had played without leading rusher Seth McGowan, out with an injury. At that point, OU quarterback Spencer Rattler had been yanked from the game for ineffectiveness in the first half only to return and account for three of his four touchdowns in the second half and overtime.
At that point, Ehlinger wasn't exactly playing for Tom Herman's job but maybe to stave off increasing grief the Texas coach will get from losing to Oklahoma again.
Herman has to be feeling the pressure at this point. Four games into his fourth season, the 'Horns are 2-2. He knew enough to trust Ehlinger, putting the game on him. Texas ran 16 plays in the four overtimes. Ehlinger passed or ran on all 16, scoring twice.
"We've got the best leader in the country," Texas wide receiver Jordan Whittington said.
In the fourth overtime, Rattler found Drake Stoops -- Bob's son! -- for the go-ahead and eventual game-winning touchdown pass. Defensive back Tre Brown provided the pick for a defense that was drawling its last breath.
The loss dropped Ehlinger's record against Oklahoma to 1-4. The result unleashes the hounds on his coach, who had some emotion creep into his voice when speaking about his quarterback.
"Crushed, absolutely crushed that we as a family didn't do enough collectively to finish his career against these guys the way he deserved to," Herman said. "I feel like we all let him down. We don't get to play the game again."
Herman was speaking of the moment, but it was also a reminder that Saturday might be it for Ehlinger against the Sooners. Unless the teams meet in the Big 12 Championship Game, part of the quarterback's legacy will be written in that lone 2018 win.
Ehlinger was the hero that day, accounting for five touchdowns in a 48-45 victory. That was a season that was capped by a Sugar Bowl win. That was a season in which it was reasonable to think that Texas indeed was back.
But since that bowl game, Texas is 10-7. Saturday proved it is not back. It goes beyond soul-searching for an explanation.
"How do we get a group of guys that want to be great to translate their play in practice to the games?" Herman asked. "That's Job No. 1 right now."
That question shouldn't be asked in Year 4 of a regime. Every team in the country started with the same hinderance -- COVID-19. Texas has taken steps backward on its way out of the top 25. The 'Horns started the game with the sixth-most penalties among Power Five teams. Then they went out and committed 11 more against the Sooners, which added 10 tackles for loss, a blocked punt and a blocked kick.
OU seemed to finally suck the life out of Texas with a 17-play scoring drive late in the third quarter to go up by two touchdowns. Ehlinger wouldn't let the 'Horns die, willing the game to overtime.
Herman didn't go for two at the end of regulation or the second overtime to win the game. And maybe he shouldn't have. But after each score, it seemed like Texas couldn't be stopped because Ehlinger couldn't be stopped.
"You only get a limited number of snaps in your life," the quarterback said. "One day, football will be over. Regardless of the circumstance, regardless of the situation, why wouldn't you attack every play with everything you have?"
Coach and player have the same record against Oklahoma while at Texas. The difference is the coach is making $5.2 million per year despite not having taken over the Big 12 -- or the College Football Playoff -- just yet. Ehlinger's days as a college player -- and all the memories that go with them -- are dwindling.
An Austin native, he grew up 7 miles from UT campus. The only person more Texas might be the man who's name is on the stadium -- Darrell K Royal.
This downturn for Herman in Year 4 is not only disappointing but bewildering. Something has to change at Texas.
There will be plenty of Herman-on-the-hot-seat columns out there in the coming days. Those are easy to write after a game like this, especially considering OU has won five of the last six and nine of the last 12 meetings. Riley has won three of his four Red River games, four of five meetings including the 2018 Big 12 Championship Game.
Texas hasn't won more than two in a row against Oklahoma since Mack Brown's second year in 1999. Herman followed Charlie Strong and not much has changed in the Red River Showdown. For Texas to get back, it first has to beat Oklahoma -- consistently.
"I don't have the answer right now after a five-hour game in 90-degree heat in a four-overtime game, but our players will have answers in a very short time," Herman said.
Afterward, it was suggested to Riley that they'll be talking about this one for a long time.
"Forever," the coach said.
Ehlinger considered talking about the Sooners for the last time.
"It's unfortunate. I would have liked to beat them all five times," he said. "Obviously, that didn't happen. I can't change that."
He tried, though. Like hell.