When Tom Herman was introduced as the next head coach at the University of Texas, he tried to be as polite as possible in differentiating himself from the previous regime.
The prior head coach, Charlie Strong, had been fired after posting a 16-21 record, and despite any of Herman’s attempts to deflect, he was pressed to talk about Strong’s tenure.
Herman told the assembled media what he’d told the Texas players in their first meeting – that the definition of insanity is “repeatedly performing the same act” but “expecting different results.”
As Herman entered his second season at the helm, though, history seemed to be repeating itself.
A major reason that Texas had struggled so much throughout the 2010s was because of a series of offensive problems that had yet to be solved, and going into 2018, the Texas offense as a big of a question mark as it had ever been.
Much like Strong, following a season full of lackluster offense, Herman chose to hang on to his offensive coordinator rather than make serious staff changes. He stuck with coach Tim Beck, claiming that the continuity the former Ohio State OC brought with him would help the Longhorns overcome their offensive woes.
Despite questions about an offense that ranked 99th in S&P+ in 2017, however, Herman – who landed his first major head coaching job because of his acumen on the offensive side of the ball – soldiered on into his second year.
Then came a meltdown on FedEx Field in the Longhorns’ first game of the 2018 season.
Maryland had not been expected – at least by most pundits – to be much of an obstacle for Texas to overcome. The Terrapins were a 12 point underdog, and their head coach had been recently suspended following the death of one of his players in a team workout in June.
This was supposed to be a Maryland team bereft of direction and full of distractions. One that didn’t recruit the same type of players as a blue blood program like Texas.
Instead, under interim head coach Matt Canada, the Terrapins came out swinging against the Longhorns and amassed a 24-7 lead by the middle of the second quarter. Texas battled back to eventually take a 29-24 lead, but they were unable to close out the game, and ultimately lost – again – to Maryland in football.
The offense committed three late turnovers, including two interceptions by quarterback Sam Ehlinger, and stifled the Longhorns’ hopes of a game-winning touchdown.
Once again, the team seemed destined to have another subpar season because of their inability to move the football.
Despite criticism from media and fans, Herman reiterated that this was a changed Texas team. Claiming that his team was a better “than at any point” in 2017, the head coach stuck by his decision about who to start at quarterback and about his personnel decisions regarding the offense.
Soon, the rest of us would begin to see what Herman saw in his offense, as the Longhorns began establishing trends that would carry throughout many of their games.
One of the trends of the 2018 Texas Longhorns would be getting out to early leads. Against Tulsa, Texas got two picks and was on top of the Golden Hurricane 21-0 at halftime. They were out in front of Kansas State 19-0 by half and in the Cotton Bowl they were ahead of the Sooners 45-24 going into the fourth quarter. The offense was often able to score points from the opening gun, a change attributable to the improved play of Sam Ehlinger.
The true sophomore started connecting with receivers downfield for big plays, something that continued throughout the 2018 regular season.When it was all said and done, Ehlinger would have only three games without a passing play of at least 35 yards or more.
That kind of offensive explosiveness was driven by Ehlinger’s improved accuracy and the explosion of wideouts Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson, who broke tackles and picked up yards after the catch with strong, physical play.
And the offense helped the team close out games as well. Texas came up with points in the fourth quarter to pull away from Tulsa, TCU, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech, winning those games by an average of eight points a piece.
That ability to close out games proved so infectious that the Longhorns were able to hold on in games when their quarterback was injured. Against Baylor, Texas found themselves playing red zone defense against the Bear with seconds remaining in the game, but they escaped with a 23-17 victory.
Even so, the Longhorns’ run to the Big 12 title has been driven by their ability to take care of the ball more than anything else.
And, again, that has had a lot to do with the play of Ehlinger. The Texas signal caller broke a record this season for passes thrown without an interception, going ten consecutive games without throwing a pick.
Most preseason analyses of Ehlinger were critical of mistakes that he’d made late in games in 2017, but Ehlinger has taken care of the ball better than any quarterback in the Big 12.
As a Tim Tebow-sized quarterback with surprising elusiveness, Ehlinger has also been able to pick up needed yards on the ground. With eleven rushing touchdowns on the season, he’s found the end zone almost four times more than any other ball carrier on the Longhorns’ roster.
Of course, Texas can’t lay claim to having the best offense in the Big 12. By most statistical measures, Texas has an offense that’s fairly good compared to the rest of college football, but only average for the Big 12 conference.
Yet, the Longhorns’ ability to make big plays when they needed them has helped Texas begin winning football games.
After years of offensive inefficiency and a revolving door at the quarterback position, Texas was able to turn things around after Maryland because their offense was able to generate yards and points in crucial situations.
The guy wearing number 11 on his jersey has been a big part of that effort. There will likely continue to be questions surrounding whether Texas is “back” – and we have Joe Tessitore to thank for that – but one thing is for sure: the Longhorns have an offensive identity again.
That identity isn’t based as much on a system as it is a player. With Ehlinger taking snaps behind center, Texas football is as good as it’s been since Colt McCoy was on the Forty Acres.