Football

Tom Herman and the “save us, Sam Ehlinger” offense

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A recurring theme is now evident in Texas’ conference games. The Longhorns sputter on offense with a big play here or there and limited production in the run game, while the defense gives up just enough to where the Longhorns need to mount a comeback in the late stages of a game. Texas’ corresponding efforts in the final stretch of conference games is based on spread passing and lucky bounces.

The offensive explosion to open the season versus UTEP now stands as an outlier. Three games against varying quality of opponents (Texas Tech, TCU, Oklahoma) have been played and each contest has followed the “save us, Sam Ehlinger” script of scoring deficit, passing-passing-passing, exciting finish.

Texas head coach Tom Herman would prefer not to have to rely on the “save us, Sam Ehlinger” script. Herman has endorsed the need for “complementary football” and repeated “we’re going to win with great defense” throughout his tenure at Texas. But Texas gets into “save us, Sam Ehlinger” because of struggles with complementary football and playing defense.

It has been the most successful offensive approach for the 2020 Longhorns during conference play.

The passing offense in Big 12 games before Ehlinger and the rest of the Longhorns must kick it into overdrive averages a paltry 5.47 yards per attempt. Were that mark his regular season YPA, Ehlinger would rank No. 67 out of 71 eligible quarterbacks per official NCAA statistics.

Ehlinger’s last five minutes/overtime YPA would rank No. 23. His current overall mark of 7.48 places him at No. 40, but his 6.09 conference YPA would put him at No. 65, one spot ahead of Baylor’s Charlie Brewer.

Ignoring YPA, his passing touchdown numbers in one quarter of game time and five overtime periods rival his passing touchdown production in 165 minutes outside of crunch time.

Ehlinger is not perfect by any stretch and he would be the first to say it. He has on multiple occasions including after his standout season opening game. His late interception against the Sooners ended the comeback attempt he manufactured.

He is not perfect, but he definitely can lead a capable spread passing offense that can diminish the role of the current lackluster offensive line. The question is, will Herman adopt that approach?

Herman said following the Oklahoma game his team needs to figure out a way to sustain normal tempo drives. In his first press conference after UT’s most recent open week, Herman specifically identified rushing offense as something that improved the most with the extra practice time.

Running the football is an important feature of any offense, but running the football as the feature of an offense (a.k.a. establishing the run) is more in line with a Big 10 way of thinking as opposed to one from the Big 12.

Darrell K Royal’s quote about how two of the three results from passing the football hurt a team’s chances of winning may stand out in the mind of Longhorn fans, but the days of the wishbone are no more. Plus, the potential positive outweighs the potential negative, especially when a quality quarterback is at the helm of the offense.

Even Oklahoma, who won three national championships with Royal’s trademark offense, figured out passing was the pathway toward success for their most recent national championship and College Football Playoff appearances.

Texas’ best offense this year is its passing offense. The risks Herman often cites about “airing it out” have validity. Three straight incompletions would put a defense still attempting to find its footing back on the field quickly, but there are high-percentage routes and throws, such as in the screen game, that can act as extensions of the run game.

Texas is not going to shift from Herman pro-spread to Mike Leach 200-proof air raid. That offense is as unique as the option run by service academies. Even Dana Holgorsen and Lincoln Riley, two of Leach’s most prominent pupils, value rushing offense.

However, they understand the best way to score as many points as possible as fast as possible is through a passing offense with the potential for explosive plays. Herman has a quarterback who can capably lead that offense, even if he isn’t an expert pro-level passer right now.

Whether Herman does so or not could determine whether his offense will begin to pull away from opponents or will continue to have to come back in the last five minutes just to have a chance.

Cover photo by Ty Russell, provided by OU Athletics