Big 12

Recap: Best, worst of a heartbreaking Texas loss to USC

September 17, 2017

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LOS ANGELES – Emotionally drained as he took his seat in front of a live microphone for his postgame news conference, Tom Herman said it best after Texas suffered a 27-24 double-overtime loss to fourth-ranked USC.

“There’s no moral victories in college football,” Herman said from within the bowels of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum after addressing a team he said was experiencing sorrow and dejection. “They don’t put, ‘Loss (yeah, but they played really hard).’ That doesn’t happen. We lost.

“But if we can’t hold our head high and learn from all of the good that came from this game — to go into the No. 4 team in the country’s house… and be up by three with 30 seconds left — after everything that had happened, especially on offense that happened poorly, to be in a position to win the game, I think that says a lot about how far we’ve grown up as a team in the last two weeks.”

Texas did grow up. The Longhorns just couldn’t quite break the tape before the Trojans did, finishing on the wrong end of a thriller in the City of Angels.

How the Longhorns (1-2) lost: The players, especially those on the defensive side of the ball, played with the level of effort and determination needed to run with the Trojans. That said, a lot of the shortcomings could and should be directed to the coaching staff, particularly on offense. Herman and offensive coordinator Tim Beck abandoned the running game even when the game was close (Chris Warren III led all Texas rushers with 15 yards on only four carries). With the offensive line in shambles, a drop-back passing game and the inability of the offensive line to hold off the USC defensive charge resulted in Sam Ehlinger getting sacked five times on a night when the Trojans recorded 10 tackles for loss as a team. Aside from the first drive of the second half, the final series in regulation and the overtime period, the Texas offense was a hot mess that couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities afforded them by an exceptional defensive effort.

How the Trojans (3-0, 1-0 in the Pac-12) won: I’m sure Clay Helton won’t care how it happened, but he has to feel like the Trojans walked away with one that maybe they shouldn’t have. The numbers will show that Sam Darnold threw for 397 yards, but Texas intercepted the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft twice, sacked him three times, prevented USC from converted any of its fourth-down tries (0 for 3) and had a goal line stand early in the game. Texas might have exposed some weaknesses in the USC offense, but it’s going to be easier to fix those errors with this one having gone down in the win column.

Game MVP: Goes to Todd Orlando and the entire Texas defense. What a performance the Longhorns had in not only slowing down, but having their way with the powerful USC offense at times. The cleanly-executed blitzes got home and made Darnold rush throws, USC was never able to establish a ground attack and the Trojans scored only one red zone touchdown in regulation. Whether Anthony Wheeler (12 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks), Malik Jefferson (11 tackles, two tackles for loss), DeShon Elliott (seven tackles, one tackle for loss, two interceptions, one defensive touchdown) or Charles Omenihu (three tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss) were to get singled out, you’d be leaving out a very worthy game MVP candidate. The defensive performance Saturday night was light years ahead of what the Longhorns put on video against Maryland and could be a sign of things to come.

It was over when: Ehlinger was stripped by USC defensive lineman Christian Rector on second-and-2 from the USC 3-yard line in the second overtime. Ehlinger was trying to fight for extra yardage and Rector made a tremendous play to rip the ball out while Ehlinger was stuck in a pile of bodies around the line of scrimmage. USC gained only one yard on its ensuing drive, but Chase McGrath hit 43-yard field goal to win it for the Trojans.

Horns Up: To Ehlinger in the fourth quarter and overtime. When the game was in the balance, Ehlinger delivered a gutsy performance that would’ve gone down as an all-time great achievement had Texas been able to pull off the upset. Ehlinger’s final numbers aside (21 for 40, 298 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions; 10 rushing yards on 19 carries), the true freshman had an 11-for-21 performance in the final period of regulation and the two overtimes, throwing for 162 yards and both of his touchdowns when the Longhorns needed him to come through. Sure, he had some freshman mistakes late (a costly interception on a desperation throw and the fumble trying to fight for extra yards), but Ehlinger has stones the size of smart cars when the staff called on him to make a play.

Horns Down: To the defensive execution on the final play of the first half. USC’s 45th and final offensive snap before halftime was when the damn finally broke through the first two quarters. Sam Darnold found Ronald Jones II over the middle of the field and, against a prevent defense, the McKinney native weaved his way through the Longhorns for a 56-yard touchdown. The play was deflating for a defense that played so well up until that point (183 yards allowed on 44 first-half plays prior to the final snap). That touchdown allowed proved to be a game-changing score at the end of the night.

The game’s biggest surprise: Was how well the defense defended the run. Malik Jefferson said after the game that mindset of the Texas stoppers was to not give USC an inch on the ground. After shredding a physical Stanford defense for 307 yards last weekend, the Trojans couldn’t bust a grape against Texas on the ground, mustering only 71 yards on 37 carries (1.9 yards per rush). Herman has talked about how one of the marks of a championship team is how well they can defend the run. Texas played championship-level defense on Saturday night and it all started with stymieing the USC ground game.

The game’s biggest disappointment: Were the self-inflicted wounds that added up to a loss at the end of the night for the Longhorns. Texas turned the ball over in the red zone twice in regulation, did at the USC 7-yard line in the second overtime, fielded a punt on the bounce in the end zone to cost themselves valuable field position, had a fourth-down fake punt conversion negated due to a penalty, has issues with the quarterback-center exchange and experienced a host of other untimely errors.

Drive of the Night: Was the 14-play, 91-yard drive that ended with a 17-yard touchdown pass from Ehlinger to Armanti Foreman. The offense hadn’t scored until that possession and there were so many critical plays on the march that gave Texas its first lead of the day, 17-14, with 45 seconds to go in regulation. Ehlinger hit Lil’Jordan Humphrey on a cross-body throw on second-and-17 for the first first down. Ehlinger had two tough runs, including a 2-yard charge to keep the chains moving on fourth-and-1 at his own 28. There was a 47-yard bomb from Ehlinger to Collin Johnson to move the ball into USC territory. A fourth-and-10 dart to Foreman, who made an exceptional catch in traffic, that kept the drive alive. It ended with Ehlinger throwing on the run to his right and finding Foreman, who got two feet down in the red paint of the USC end zone, for the go-ahead score. It would’ve been the stuff of legend had the Longhorns pulled out the win and still could do a world of wonders for the Longhorns in their process of learning how to win.

Run of the Night: Goes to Ehlinger, who ran four yards on third-and-5 to set up a fourth-and-1 on the aforementioned 91-yard drive. It was a physical play where Ehlinger tried to bull forward for whatever he could get. He appeared to take a vicious shot to the back at the end of the run, but he managed to come up just shy of the marker to set up a fourth-and-1 chance, which he converted.

Catch of the Night: Goes to Foreman, not for the touchdown grab he had in the fourth quarter, but for the 11-yard snag he had on fourth-and-10 to keep the scoring drive alive. It’s so hard to take away from the night Johnson had, and the top catch the sophomore had might have been the ball he muscled away from Iman Marshall for 21 yards to convert a second-and-20 in the first overtime. But Foreman gets the nod for hanging onto the ball and getting blasted in traffic to keep the only regulation scoring drive by the offense going.

Block of the Night: Goes to the other 10 Longhorns who were on the field when DeShon Elliott returned a Darnold interception 38 yards for a touchdown with 19 seconds to go in the first half. Elliott pulled in a ball off of a ricochet, managing to bring it in with his fingertips without letting it hit the ground, and followed a convoy of blockers to the end zone for the defense’s third touchdown of the season. At a time when the offense couldn’t bust a grape, Elliott’s touchdown gave the Longhorns a huge lift (which unfortunately was followed by the 56-yard scoring strike from Darnold to Jones moments later).

Hit of the Night: Goes to Holton Hill, who made an exceptional open-field on USC’s Stephen Mitchell to force a turnover on downs midway through the third quarter. Mitchell appeared to have an easy path to the line to gain and beyond after catching the ball from Darnold on a shallow crossing route. Hill, however, made a diving tackle in space to trip up Mitchell just shy of the marker and give the ball back to the offense at their own 34. With Texas trailing at the time by four, 14-10, Hill’s stop kept the Longhorns in the game and the Trojans from seizing momentum.

Stat(s) of the Night: After winning the first two overtime games in program history (2013 against West Virginia, 2016 against Notre Dame) Texas has now lost its last two (2016 against Kansas) overtime contests… The Elliott pick-six was the fifth non-offensive touchdown for Texas this season through three games (the Longhorns had none in 2016)… This was the second-straight game where the Texas defense held the opponent to under 100 yards rushing… Elliott now has five interceptions in his career… the 191 receiving yards recorded by Johnson stands as the fourth-best single-game total in school history… Ehlinger’s 298 passing yards trail only the 318 Shane Buechele threw for last year against West Virginia on the single-game Texas charts for a true freshman… Foreman has scored in all three Texas games this season… Wheeler set career-high marks in tackles for loss (3.5) and sacks (1.5)… The 3-yard touchdown reception by Cade Brewer was the first catch of his career.

Story of the Night: It’s a case of good and bad going forward for Texas. The good is that the defense looked the way Herman and Orlando thought it would when the season started and it’s possible that with the confidence the stoppers will take moving forward from this showing that the Longhorns can produce this kind of a performance on somewhat of a consistent basis. The bad is even though Ehlinger looked capable of running the offense, the loss of Connor Williams (on crutches and wearing a knee brace after the game) and the disappearance of Warren means this squad could have trouble moving the football going forward. Herman did mention after the game that Warren had suffered an eye laceration, but he said the lack of running the football had more to do with the offensive line issues. If the Longhorns can’t run the football then they’re going to be in a world of hurt. The fact that some of the offensive decision making reverted back to the head-scratching moments on display in the Maryland is troubling considering the Longhorns are going to play more quality teams the rest of the way.

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