Even in Defeat to USC, Tom Herman and Texas Make Strong Statement About Future

0:55 | College Football
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State Manhandle Pittsburgh
Sunday September 17th, 2017

Texas’s season-opening loss to Maryland was deflating for a handful of reasons. It turned the excitement over new coach Tom Herman’s debut into bitter disappointment. It signaled Herman hadn’t turned the Longhorns into a College Football Playoff threat in the space of one offseason. It suggested their preseason ranking was built on false hype. It revealed major weaknesses on both sides of the ball.

Two weeks later, Texas pushed Pac-12 favorite USC to the brink in a 27–24 loss in double overtime at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Longhorns were on the verge of a seismic upset after true freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger, making his second career start in place of sophomore Shane Buechele, connected with senior wide receiver Amani Foreman on a 17-yard touchdown pass on the right side of the end zone with 45 seconds remaining in regulation.

But the Trojans responded with an eight-play, 52-yard scoring drive capped by a 31-yard field goal from true freshman kicker Chase McGrath to send the game to an extra session. After the teams traded touchdowns to knot the score at 24, Ehlinger fumbled and USC recovered. Four plays later, McGrath connected from 43 yards to seal the win.

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The rematch of one of the greatest college football games ever—the 2006 Rose Bowl in which the Longhorns prevailed 41–38 thanks to a late touchdown run from quarterback Vince Young—was billed as a meeting between two bluebloods residing in levels of the Power 5 power structure. It almost turned into one of the biggest shockers of the season to date and, even in defeat, bolstered Herman’s reputation as a giant slayer.

Entering Saturday the Trojans, fresh off a 42–24 romp of Stanford, were viewed as one of a handful of serious challengers for a spot in the national semifinals, and the most promising one from the Pac-12. The Longhorns, even after recovering from that defeat to the Terrapins with a 56–0 smackdown of San José State, were considered, at best, a second-rate contender to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in the Big 12.

Those perceptions will be put to the test during conference play, but of the two squads, Texas made a much stronger statement on Saturday about what it can accomplish over the next couple of months. Though it may have been tempting to write off the Longhorns in the aftermath of that humbling opener against Maryland, they showed against USC that they’re capable of leveling up against top-tier opponents.

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A week after the Trojans bowled over the Cardinal’s nasty defense with 307 rushing yards and 623 total yards, they managed only 71 and 468, respectively, against Texas. Trojans star quarterback Sam Darnold tossed a pair of interceptions—one that Longhorns junior defensive back DeShon Elliott returned 38 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, and another from Elliott in the fourth quarter.

Tailback tandem Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr looked like maybe the nation’s best tailback tandem against Stanford, but Texas held up remarkably well in the trenches, getting penetration and plugging running holes. Jones did get loose for one score at the end of the first half, but that came on a 56-yard pass play in which Jones burned a group of Longhorns defenders on a diagonal run to the corner of the end zone.

That score spoiled an otherwise commendable effort from a Texas defense that looked out of sorts against the Terrapins in Week 1. It was the type of performance the Longhorns will need to build off of to lessen their burden on the other side of the ball against some of the high-powered offenses they’ll need to vanquish during their Big 12 slate, including the Oklahoma State unit that breathed fire on Pitt’s secondary Saturday.

Texas’s showing on offense wasn’t as encouraging, but it did offer an extended look at quarterback Sam Ehlinger against a formidable defense. Starting in place of sophomore Shane Buechele, the true freshman completed fewer than half his passes and tossed two interceptions, but he didn’t get much help from the Longhorns’ running game (68 yards on 35 carries), and he had to make do with inadequate protection from his line at times.

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No single player’s performance should be the biggest takeaway from Saturday. The focus ought to be on Texas, the collective: The effort the Longhorns put forth against a national title threat on Saturday night didn’t just make for a really entertaining game. It suggests they’re far closer to regaining their standing as a Power 5 juggernaut than their Week 1 flop, or the criticism Herman faced in the aftermath of it, suggested.

Texas will rue not seizing on an opportunity to knock off a trendy playoff pick in its own building, but the Longhorns showed they’re building on the foundation Herman inherited in Austin. That should become more clear during their run through league play.

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