Everyone inside Mercedes-Benz Superdome knew what was coming.
Every fan, every coach, every player and every reporter.
It was fourth-and-goal from the Georgia 1-yard line. All it took was one more play by the Bulldogs’ defense, a unit widely regarded as one of the top in the country for the majority of the season, and the threat of going down by three scores would be gone.
Everyone knew Sam Ehlinger, Texas’ dual-threat quarterback who ripped the Bulldogs’ defense apart Tuesday night, would get the ball. Didn’t matter.
Ehlinger took the shotgun snap — yes, Tom Herman elected to go shotgun on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line — and bolted forward. He lowered his shoulder as he neared the goal line, barely reaching the ball across before his knee touched the turf.
Had his knee touched down a split-second earlier, the Bulldogs would’ve gotten their stop. Instead, it was Ehlinger and the Longhorns (and their fans, who took up at least 65 percent of the attendance) who could celebrate his game-clinching score.
It turned out to be the game-winner, after a pair of late Bulldogs touchdowns made the final score much closer than the Longhorns deserved.
“It wasn’t the call,” Bulldogs linebacker Monty Rice said. “It wasn’t the players that were out there. We just didn’t wrap up. We didn’t play well. We didn’t tackle well on defense, especially, we missed a lot of big tackles.”
Rice wasn’t lying. The Bulldogs missed countless tackles throughout the night, so much so that the Longhorns finished with 178 rushing yards and 355 total yards. Ehlinger, who attended the same high school as New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and even donned the Saints legend’s high school jersey before the bowl game, threw for 169 yards.
“Coming into the Superdome, I had to respect Drew because of all the amazing things he’s done in this building,” Ehlinger said. “And I wanted to play like him and have a little magic. I was just paying my respects to him (by wearing the jersey).”
Ehlinger, like the ghosts of quarterbacks’ past (Joe Burrow at LSU, Jalen Hurts at Alabama) opened the game up with his legs. The Longhorns’ run-pass option approach, par for the course in today’s college football scene, consisted of Ehlinger reading the defense out of the shotgun, then having the choice to either hand the ball off to a running back, keep the ball himself and run, or pull up and shoot a quick pass to a streaking receiver, running back or tight end.
And that approach saw great success against a Bulldogs defense missing its best defensive back (Deandre Baker) and sack leader (D’Andre Walker).
Ehlinger’s three scores all came via the run, the area the sophomore excelled in Tuesday night and had excelled in for most of 2018. A true dual-threat quarterback, Ehlinger’s legs opened up lanes for other Longhorns, and helped Tre Watson reach 91 yards on 18 carries (5.1 average).
The sophomore’s legs weren’t the only things working for him, either. And Baker’s absence was noticeable. Seven different Longhorns caught passes from Ehlinger, who even caught a pass of his own (and nearly scored) on a trick play near the goal line.
“They were known for having tight-end ‘pop’ passes,” said Bulldogs defensive back Tyson Campbell. “So, it was just, making my reads, reading my keys. I think we did a good job of that today, but we just couldn’t tackle.”
On a cold, foggy night in the French Quarter, it was Ehlinger who made the Bulldogs defense look like dollar-store voodoo dolls. Not the other way around, as many expected.
And it was Ehlinger, Brees jersey and all, lighting it up inside the house Drew built.
“(Ehlinger) is a competitor,” Rice said. “He reminds me a lot of Jake Fromm. … We just missed tackles. I don’t think it was anything special Ehlinger did, we just missed tackles. He’s a strong kid, big dude, he can run, he’s mobile.
“He’s known for running, so it’s not like we didn’t know he could run, we just missed tackles.”