Column: Protection of quarterback necessary for offensive success

Michael Shapiro

Texas limped off the field at the Cotton Bowl early Saturday evening with a 29-24 defeat in tow, falling short of Oklahoma after taking a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. And while the Longhorn defense surrendered a 59-yard touchdown to give the Sooners a lead with 6:53 to go, the enduring memory of 2017’s Red River Showdown will be Texas’ offense falling short in the final minutes, crippled by its inability to protect the quarterback.

The Longhorns weren’t devoid of chances to score in the final seven minutes of regulation. Texas marched to near midfield with just over five minutes remaining, placing victory well within reach. But on first-and-10 from the Longhorns’ 48-yard line, the drive began to unravel.

Following an 18-yard scramble to the right side, freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger pirouetted away from a defender once again, dashing two yards before getting driven to the turf. The play did not appear notable at first, until Ehlinger laid on the ground for extended time, forcing him out of action in order to enter concussion protocol on the Texas sideline. 

The injury occurred on Ehlinger’s 19th carry of the day, with less than half of his rushing attempts coming via designed runs. Texas’ signal caller spent much of his day in Dallas on the run, taking hits outside of the pocket when his offensive line couldn’t protect him within it.

“I worry about it, I mean, we don’t want our quarterback carrying 20, 22 times,” head coach Tom Herman said. “I think there’s always a fine line in dealing with guys that can make those plays with his feet. I know the offensive line thanks him a lot for dropping back as much as we have had to the last couple games and only
giving up one sack.”

The Longhorn offensive line has given up just one sack in the past two contests, but credit for that statistic should go to Ehlinger, not his counterparts up front. The 6-foot-3, 230 pound Ehlinger has become increasingly adept at shedding defenders in the backfield through four starts, excelling at escaping the pocket. 

Much of the Longhorns’ struggles up front can be attributed to the absence of left tackle Connor Williams, who went down with an MCL and ACL sprain as well as a torn meniscus against USC in Week 3. The junior was projected to be the anchor of Texas’ offensive line after an All-American campaign in 2016, protecting either Ehlinger or sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele’s blindside. While the right side of Texas’ offensive line still had question marks entering the year, the left side looked to be solidified, with Williams and veteran left guard Patrick Vahe holding down the fort.

However, with Williams now out, holes have sprung up throughout the Longhorn offensive line. Texas now sports a true freshman at right tackle and a sophomore starter on the other side, paired with another sophomore at center. What originally looked to be an experienced line has transformed into a makeshift group of youngsters and inexperienced upperclassmen.

There’s not much Herman and company can do personnel-wise regarding the offensive line’s depth chart. The Longhorns have adapted a next-man-up mentality, with nothing but individual improvement to rely on moving forward. And although Ehlinger’s mobility has shielded the offensive line’s deficiencies thus far, that won’t be the case through the remainder of Big 12 play. For Texas to keep up with the high-octane offenses throughout the conference, it needs to start protecting its quarterback. If not, another sub-.500 season looms on the 40 Acres.