LOS ANGELES — It was almost déjà vu.
Texas came into California as an underdog to the mighty men of Troy, and despite a ton of mistakes and some home cooking, almost pulled off the improbable upset behind a stellar defensive performance and true freshman QB who found his swagger in the 2nd half.
Still, the No. 4 USC Trojans forced overtime with no time remaining and triumphed in double overtime over the Horns, 27-24, on a Chase McGrath 43-yard FG at the LA Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night.
“I told ’em in the locker room there’s no moral victories in college football,” Tom Herman said. “They don’t put loss and in parenthesis say, ‘Yeah, but they played really hard.’ That doesn’t happen. It’s amazing how many mistakes your team can overcome “with attitude and effort.”
Despite a sluggish offensive first half by both teams, there Texas was, with the ball and chance to win with all probability virtually lifted out of the Coliseum like morning smog in Inglewood.
Texas QB Sam Ehlinger hit Armanti Foreman on a 17-yard TD toss with :45 seconds left in regulation to take its first lead, 17-14, and it looked like the Legend of Sam was upon us.
Only problem was that QB on the other sideline, Sam Darnold, was also ready for a fight. Darnold marched USC down the field in 39 seconds giving the freshman walk-on kicker, McGrath, an opportunity to nail his first collegiate field goal. When the 31-yarder split the uprights, Pac 12 After Dark was upon the 85K fans in attendance on a chilly night in LA.
Darnold, who went 28-49, for 397 yards, and 3 TDs, hit Deontay Burnett for a 25-yard TD toss on the first play of overtime, Burnett’s 2nd score of the night, and Texas once again had its back against the wall.
And just like UT’s previous scoring march, Ehlinger wasn’t phased. He hit fellow true freshman Cade Brewer on an 3-yard scoring toss and double overtime arrived.
One of the many bright spots was sophomore WR Collin Johnson. He’s become to go-to receiver for UT QBs and made big play after big play, finishing with 191 yards on seven grabs. Ehlinger, 21-of-40, for 298 yards, two TDs, and two INTs was also impressive after a shaky first half.
“We know we’ve got a guy that’s a warrior on the road versus a Top 5 team,” Herman said about his 18-year old signal-caller.
When Ehlinger settled down, the offense came to life despite losing All American OT Connor Williams (knee), and both his running backs (Kyle Porter and Chris Warren) combining for 24 yards on the ground.
“In my first road game, in front on 90K playing the No. 4 team in the nation, it was exciting,” Ehlinger said. “Every competitor has nerves. I tried to put it all out there. My teammates deserve that.”
“The guys played hard. That’s really all I can ask for,” receiver Collin Johnson said. “If we can just keep playing like that, we’ll have a chance to do great stuff this season.”
The defense was the biggest surprise. After yielding 51 points to Maryland in Week 1, this group has made major strides in all facets, especially the defensive line. Charles Omenihu (three tackles, one sack, one TFL), Poona Ford (four tackles), and Chris Nelson (three tackles) led the defensive front.
Not to be outdone were the Longhorns linebackers. Malik Jefferson continues to play at a high level in 2017. He tallied 11 stops and three TFLs, not to mention the quarterback pressures. “The defense was having fun out there, they couldn’t wait to get back onto the field,” said Herman.
Add Texas CB Holton Hill (seven tackles, two PBUs) and S DeShon Elliott (seven tackles, two INTs, two PBUs, one touchdown, and almost another), and this defense might’ve turned the corner. “To the public, it might be (Elliott’s) coming-out party. We see it all the time,” Hill said. We have a lot of potential.”
“We played for each other tonight and will continue to play for our brothers and teammates,” Elliott said.
But why the sudden change over the last two weeks?
“Heart,” Jefferson said about what was different about this unit vs USC. “We took away their game (Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr) and put them in a one-dimensional offense, and we capitalized on it. This just needs to be an every-week thing.”
It was all defense in the first half. Mostly.
USC got on the board late in the 2nd quarter when Darnold hit Burnett for a 15-yard TD grab after a 6-play, 37-yard drive at the 2:40 mark.
Texas answered, on defense of all places, when DeShon Elliott took a Darnold pass snow-cone style 38 yards to paydirt and tied the game at 7-all less than two minutes later.
Thinking the first half was over, USC had two plays left in the bag and they used them. Darnold hit Jones for a 56-yard TD with no time left on the clock. Any momentum UT thought they’d take into halftime vanished in six seconds.
Texas punched back to start the 2nd half. A 12-play, 54-yard drive culminated in Josh Rowland connected on a 39-yard FG to bring the Horns within four, 14-10, early in the 3rd.
Herman made sure to say that college football standings don’t carry asterisks. It trickled down to his junior LB.
“Our guys kept fighting,” Jefferson said. “We finally understood we have to go out there everyday and play like it’s a championship game,” who pointed to his head as to say the mental side was the difference. “We had to find our identity. We proved to ourselves we can do this. We were having fun.”
Another positive was the feedback from players about their young QB.
“We loved it,” Jefferson said emphatically. “A guy with that much passion and heart is what you want. He thought he let us down. But he was actually the heart and soul of this game. Him fighting, him pushing, him going that hard, taking those hits. You can’t say anymore. His performance showed how much he wanted to win that game.”
And they almost did like we’ve seen before in LA.