A heartbreaking afternoon at the Cotton Bowl for Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Andrew Daeb | USA TODAY Sports | Daily Texan Staff

Sam Ehlinger ran for his life Saturday — the dirt staining his white pants showed that much. But the coveted golden hat is speeding toward Norman, Oklahoma, out of the senior quarterback’s reach.

In Ehlinger’s four seasons as Texas’ starter, he’s tasted the sweetness of a Red River Rivalry victory just once. Photos from the Longhorns’ win over the Sooners in 2018 show the quarterback beaming on the sideline. 

He looked much different Saturday — dejected— after he threw the late, game-ending interception that would send the red side of the Cotton Bowl into a frenzy. 

“I have a lot of emotions right now,” Ehlinger said. “I don’t know which one best pinpoints how I’m feeling. I’m disappointed. Obviously, I would’ve liked things to be different.”

It didn’t matter that Ehlinger took the Longhorns to four overtimes: This was no “moral victory,” as head coach Tom Herman once put it when Texas lost to Oklahoma in 2017, for Ehlinger or the team.

The worst part for the quarterback is that the game may have been the end of a journey, bitter as the outcome was. Updated eligibility rules due to the pandemic have granted Ehlinger the opportunity to suit up in the burnt orange one more year, but he’s said he hasn’t thought that far ahead yet.

If he doesn’t return next year, then the defeat oozes with finality. This was the last chance for Texas’ golden boy to beat Oklahoma again and stunt in that golden hat.

“Crushed, absolutely crushed,” Herman said. “I feel like we all let him down.”

The extent of Ehlinger’s disappointment is great, but he put on a brave face anyway. He’s chosen to stay positive, even though the situation looks so bleak. Ehlinger can’t keep his head down for too long when players in the locker room look to him as their leader.

“He keeps our heads up,” said Jordan Whittington, redshirt freshman wide receiver. “He gives us faith. I know he gives me a lot of faith. We came together and we fought. That was the main thing that he’s done is keep fighting.”

Winning has been on Ehlinger’s mind since Texas upset loss to TCU last Saturday, and he let his teammates know about his desperation last Sunday at a team meeting.

Senior defensive lineman Ta’Quon Graham felt as gutted for Ehlinger as Herman did.

“It’s a crushing feeling to disappoint one of your teammates,” Graham said.

Ehlinger has faced elite Oklahoma quarterbacks in each of his four Red River Rivalry starts. This year, it was Spencer Rattler, the No.1-ranked high school player in the class of 2019. 

Last season, he faced transfer Jalen Hurts, who had won a championship with Alabama. Ehlinger went up against Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray in his first two starts. The latter two have both taken shots at Ehlinger’s game, but he’s thankful to have played against them.

“I would’ve liked to beat them all five times,” Ehlinger said. “But obviously that didn’t happen, and  I can’t change that. It’s been a great experience competing against a really good program, and I think what Coach Riley’s doing and all the incredible athletes that they have, hats off to them.”

Saturday was not a “moral victory” for the quarterback, but he can walk away from the Cotton Bowl saying he gave it his all.

“I feel like playing this game, you only get a limited number of snaps in your life,” Ehlinger said. “One day football will be over, and regardless of the circumstance, regardless of the situation — why wouldn’t you attack every play with everything you have?”