Sam Ehlinger didn’t take the field for the second half with the rest of the team. Instead, Texas’ senior quarterback stayed behind in the locker room for a few minutes as he traded his helmet, shoulder pads and cleats for a black Texas jacket, burnt orange hat and headset.
Head coach Tom Herman didn’t say when or how, but Ehlinger injured his shoulder in the first half of Texas’ 55-23 win over Colorado in the Alamo Bowl. This time, it was beyond the usual bumps and bruises he’s suffered throughout his four years at Texas. The medical staff wouldn’t let him clench his teeth and play through the pain, as much as he wanted to.
Tuesday night wasn’t destined to be his heroic ride into the sunset in possibly the final game of his college career.
“I hate that he couldn’t finish the game. We wouldn’t be here without him,” Herman said. “To know that he was the leader behind this senior class being the winningest senior class since Colt McCoy is truly remarkable.”
If the 2020 Alamo Bowl was Ehlinger’s last game as a Longhorn, his college football finale draws an uncanny parallel to former Longhorn quarterback Colt McCoy, one of Ehlinger’s childhood idols.
Like McCoy in the 2010 National Championship game, Ehlinger injured his shoulder seriously enough to not return to the final matchup of his career and spent most of his last game watching heartbroken from the sideline.
And just like in 2010, the prime-time national stage was set for a highly-touted understudy quarterback to break out.
The difference was that in 2020, Texas won.
“I told (Ehlinger) how proud I am of him. I would assume that he knows that by now; how appreciative this entire program and university is of him and what he’s done,” Herman said. “What went through my mind was (what I was also) thinking during the last two games –– it’s next guy up.”
So Herman looked at redshirt sophomore quarterback Casey Thompson, smiled and said “You’re up, kid.”
“I told him that I believed in him and his team believed in him,” Herman said. “‘Go do you.’ And he did.”
Thompson wasted no time turning what could have been a disastrous second half into a statement win for the Longhorns. He said he didn’t feel nervous. He had prepared for this moment for so long and so intensely that it felt like practice.
His first pass was a 13-yard touchdown strike to Joshua Moore to give Texas a 14-point lead. His sixth pass was another touchdown to Moore. Then he added two more scores to tie the school’s bowl record for touchdown passes.
“Sam (Ehlinger) was just like, ‘Hey man, I really appreciate you,’” Thompson said. “I think it took some relief off his shoulders as the starting quarterback (when the) backup goes in the game and (he could) see him be successful.”
Ehlinger said last week that he hasn’t decided if he will return next season, although he has thought about it. If he chooses to end his college career, he’ll end it the same way McCoy did in 2010 –– with a shoulder injury while going for his fourth-straight bowl victory.
“I don’t know what the future holds for (Ehlinger), but I know that I’m thankful for him being on our team, being on my team each and every day,” Herman said. “What he means to us is indescribable.”