STILLWATER — Through three games, Mike Gundy sees something markedly different in Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
“I don’t know they’re doing or what his reads are,” Gundy said. “I just know he’s much more productive than he was in the past.”
Ehlinger, a junior who has been compared to Vince Young and Tim Tebow because of his penchant for running the football with power, ranks 11th in the nation in passing yards per game and 17th in passer efficiency.
“Just from what they’ve done this year, they have changed, in my opinion,” Gundy said. “They’re throwing the ball much more than they ever have been. Traditionally … they were rushing the ball and were more of a power team. I don’t see that now. I see a team that’s throwing the ball down the field.”
An improved Sam Ehlinger will be on Gundy’s mind this week as the Cowboys open Big 12 Conference play on Saturday night at No. 12 Texas. OSU is 3-0 and largely untested, while Texas is 2-1 with a home loss to No. 4 LSU.
In that Week 2 showdown, Ehlinger was mostly brilliant, throwing for a career-high 401 yards and four touchdowns and also adding a rushing TD. In his last 16 games, Ehlinger has 34 touchdowns and three interceptions.
“I see him as a better throwing quarterback,” Gundy said. “He’s in game, what, now for him? (Twenty-six.) My history, at that position, he’s three or four (years) in and the game’s probably slowed down for him. You can tell. He’s a pretty good college quarterback.”
Texas coach Tom Herman this week expounded on areas of Ehlinger’s progress.
“Just his control of the offense,” Herman said. “I mean, completion percentages are great and all that stuff, but just knowing where to go, getting out of bad plays and into better ones, and then being on time with his throws.
“It’s a testament to him, to be honest, that we were — the Sunday after last week’s game, we were like, ‘Yeah, Sam, probably wasn’t his best game,’ and you look up and he’s got 400 yards of offense and five touchdowns and you’re talking about that being, you know, not his best game. We have very high expectations of him, and he as that of himself.”
The reality is that Herman probably will need Ehlinger to be elite again. The Longhorn defense, in games against Louisiana Tech, LSU and Rice, ranks 96th in the nation (10th in the Big 12) in total defense (417.3 yards per game), 125th in the nation (10th in the Big 12) in pass defense (330 ypg) and 108th (10th in the Big 12) in pass efficiency defense, allowing opponents to complete 67.2 percent of their throws.
Two weeks ago in Austin, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow became a Heisman frontrunner with 471 yards passing and four TDs as he led the Tigers to a 45-38 victory.
“We are,” Herman said, “what our stats say we are.”
Now consider that in OSU, the Longhorns face the nation’s leading rusher (Chuba Hubbard averages 174 yards per game) and the nation’s leading receiver (Tylan Wallace averages 130 yards per game).
“I’ve used the phrase before: it’s the scene from “Armageddon,” right? Scariest environment imaginable,” Herman said. “That’s all you have to say.
“They’ve got a quarterback (redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders) that can not only throw it … but is a threat with his running ability, too. So it’s gonna be a challenge, for sure. But you can’t sell your soul, I guess, to stop one, because they’re so proficient in the other. You’ve just got to be sound.”
OSU owns four straight wins over Texas and has beaten the Longhorns five straight times in Austin. One reason has been the Cowboys’ playmakers. In last year’s 38-35 OSU victory in Stillwater, Wallace caught 10 passes for 222 yards and two long touchdowns.
“I know he’s preseason All-American for a reason,” Herman said. “They don’t give those distinctions to guys that are bums. He’s really, really good. He’s as complete a receiver we’ll see in terms of his route running ability, separation ability, speed. And then the really cool part, when you watch his game, he’s a ferocious blocker too. Which for a receiver of his talent is rare.”
Also in that game, Hubbard rushed for 80 yards as a backup to Justice Hill. Hubbard is coming off a career-high 32-carry, 256-yard, three-TD performance at Tulsa.
“The thing that stands out,” Herman said, “is his vision and his ability to be going this way and see that the hole is here, or be going this way and see that the play is to bounce it. His decision making with the ball in his hands is really, really good.”
Oklahoma State’s fate may ultimately hinge on its young quarterback.
Sanders has ranged from very good to adequate so far, but the competition has been soft. Maybe Texas’ defense is soft, too, but the Longhorns do have a strong collection of athletes and a respected coordinator in Todd Orlando.
Texas will present a challenge that Sanders didn’t get from Oregon State or McNeese or Tulsa.
“Sometimes early in a quarterback’s career, in my opinion, the game moves really fast for ‘em,” Gundy said. “After they mature — which looks like where Ehlinger is right now — the game slows down for them. And so Spencer’s game hasn’t slowed down yet. And it won’t for another 10 games, in my opinion. He stays healthy and continues to work and improve, it should start slowing down for him about this time next year.”
Lucky him: he’ll have the nation’s top rusher and receiver to help guide him through the obstacles.
“Supporting cast is huge for a young quarterback,” Gundy said. “I mean, we all know that. If you go out with an immature offensive line and you get beat around a little bit, or you don’t have skill to go to on the perimeter, it makes it even more difficult and then they get frustrated even more. So it helps that you have guys out there that can help him. He just needs to stay in his world. He needs to play his game, and distribute the ball based on what our coaches think is best with our offensive scheme and he’ll be fine.”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.