Maybe Tom Herman really does have some pixie dust.
After a season-opening flop, the first-year Texas coach said that restoring glory in Austin required more than just sprinkling pixie dust. His former boss, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, took an unveiled and unnecessary shot at Herman.
Granted, the Texas Longhorns couldn’t seal the deal on what could have been a signature upset victory for a program that is trying to recover from three consecutive losing seasons. A two-touchdown underdog, Texas came within 45 seconds and one play of stunning fourth-ranked USC in a sold-out Coliseum Saturday night.
Iconic programs like Texas don’t count near-upsets or moral victories. But as Herman tries to re-program his roster, the Longhorns proved it could stand toe-to-toe with a team that is favored to reach the College Football Playoff.
“A pretty heartbreaking loss,” Herman said of his team’s 27-24 double-overtime defeat. “There are no moral victories, but the effort and spirit could be a turning point in their season. It’s amazing how many mistakes you can overcome with passion and attitude.
“We wanted to win. There was a lot of tears, a lot of sorrow, a lot of dejection in that locker room.”
The Longhorns defense was heroic, keeping Texas in a game where its offense had no running game and was playing a freshman quarterback. Making his second start in place of sophomore Shane Buechele, Sam Erlinger was often running for his life as UT’s offensive line – missing All-American tackle Connor Williams after a second-quarter injury – had little success blocking the Trojans pass rushers.
Erlinger finished 21-of-40 for 298 yards and drove the Longhorns 91 yards to take a 17-14 lead with 45 seconds remaining. But his fumble in the second overtime set the stage for the Trojans’ game-winning field goal. On a second-and-2 at the USC 3, Erlinger was stacked up and USC defensive lineman Christian Rector ripped the ball free to make sure the Longhorns’ possession came up empty.
“He’s a guy that had some freshman issues tonight but was a warrior there down the stretch on the road against a top-5 team,” Herman said of Erlinger.
USC quarterback Sam Darnold, whose offense also was devoid of a running game thanks to UT’s defense, was cool in the clutch. After Texas took its only lead of the game, he had 52 yards on three completions to get the Trojans in positiom for the field goal that forced overtime. One of his completions was a jump pass when he avoided a sack and found running back Stephen Carr for 21 yards over the middle.
On the last play of the first half, with five seconds remaining, Darnold completed a mini-Hail Mary. His short pass to running back Ronald Jones II, who ran it the rest of the way for a 56-yard touchdown. Jones got a de-cleater block from Steven Mitchell on Texas defensive back John Bonney at the 15-yard line. Jones probably would have scored anyway, but it was a brilliant capper to an exquisite play end the first half.
The Longhorns don’t play again until they open Big 12 Conference play at Iowa State on Sept. 28. The Thursday night, nationally televised game at Jack Trice Stadium will be a challenge as the Cyclones (2-1) will be geeked up for an upset.
And between now and then, Austin will be buzzing about the Texas quarterback situation.
Erlinger’s heroics – despite his mistakes, he seemed to grow in confidence as the game progressed – nearly lifted the Longhorns to an improbable victory. Buechele has been sidelined the last two games with a right (throwing) shoulder injury he suffered in the opener. He was in uniform against USC but didn’t play.
“We’ll see how Shane feels Monday,” Herman said. “If he feels great, if he’s 100 percent, he’ll probably get the bulk of the first-team reps. And we’ll continue to give Sam some (first-team reps), too. It’ll be fun watching those guys compete going forward.”
The Texas offensive line, which has already lost two players to season-ending injuries, needs Williams’ injury to not be serious. But the line’s inability to provide protection to Erlinger or open running lanes was one of the biggest negatives from the USC game. After rushing for 400-plus yards against San Jose State, the Longhorns had just 68 yards on 35 carries.
It was Herman’s first loss in seven games as a head coach facing a ranked team. As an offensive coordinator (Ohio State) and head coach (Houston), he had been 11-0 when his team was an underdog. The Trojans changed those notes with their double OT victory.
“It was a win,” said Darnold, who was 28 of 49 for 397 yards and three touchdowns. “I don’t know where it ranks but it’s great to get over a program like Texas.”
The UT program might not be “back” – but at least it appears that it’s on the road back.
“After we lick our wounds and realize how close we came,” Herman said, “I think we’re going to be able to build upon this immensely.”