Revisiting a classic: Ehlinger and Rector share memories from 2017's 2OT thriller

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Percy Anderson | Daily Texan Staff

When Texas and USC are pitted against each other in the same sentence, nearly every college football fan paints the same portrait in their minds.

The image of Vince Young sprinting to the corner of the end zone in the 2006 Rose Bowl to claim a national championship stands as one of the sport’s most memorable moments, especially for two lifelong Texas and USC fans: Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger and USC defensive end Christian Rector. Both were heavily involved in 2017’s matchup, which didn’t disappoint. 

“It was real tough. It was a crazy game — one of the loudest atmospheres I’ve ever been in,” Ehlinger said. “It was my first road game, I was 18 years old.”

Despite a lack of experience, Ehlinger was able to string together a mammoth of a drive. Texas’ only offensive touchdown occurred with 45 ticks on the clock after a 91-yard possession as wide receiver Armanti Foreman scored on a diving reception to claim a
17-14 lead.

“I knew they had Sam Darnold on the sidelines with enough time to go down and kick a field goal so I wasn’t content yet,” Ehlinger said. “Honestly, I was standing on the bench just praying.”

Then, a poised Darnold worked his magic. His offensive prowess allowed the Trojans to pierce deep into Longhorn territory and set up a 31-yard field goal for Chase McGrath to tie the game at 17-17 as
time expired.

On the first play of overtime, USC broke the knot as Darnold threw a missile to a streaking Deontay Burnett, two steps ahead of Texas cornerback Kris Boyd in the end zone. Ehlinger, in his second career start, would have to execute on the biggest possession of his life, and he did. 

The true freshman quarterback capitalized by finding tight end Cade Brewer in the end zone to force a second overtime.

“It felt like the only way we were going to win the game was if we had gotten the ball back,” Rector said. “I was consciously thinking, ‘We need to get this ball back or else we lose this game.’ If we were able to get the ball in Sam Darnold’s hands at the end of the game, we were gonna have a chance to win.”

Then, the infamous disaster struck an upset-hungry Texas squad.

Second down and two, ball on the three-yard line. The end zone was within sniffing distance. Ehlinger, a confident runner, bullied his way past the trenches to a first down. However, he kept his feet driving and Rector saw a golden opportunity. USC forced a fumble.

“They were having success with the power play, so they ran it to my side,” Rector said. “We were able to hold (Ehlinger) up, and I saw that ball in his hand, and I just muscled it out. With the angle I was at on the side of his arm, I was able to rip the ball out. As you see from the replays, the ball goes flying out into the air.”

Texas running back Kyle Porter was the closest specimen to the pigskin at the time it jarred loose from Ehlinger’s cradle. But Rector made a heads-up play and removed Porter from the equation, blocking the halfback so that cornerback Ajene Harris would reap the benefits.

“My next reaction is to prevent anyone from Texas getting on the ball,” Rector said. “The running back was the next closest guy and I pushed him out of the way. My defensive line coach likes to say that I’m a savvy player. Not only do I try to make a play on the ball, I try to go above and beyond to put the team in the best position as well.”

Trojans ball — all they had to do was score.

Four plays later, McGrath was swarmed by a sea of red and gold, as his teammates applauded the freshman for sinking the kick of his life, and their season.

“It was ultimately a sigh of relief when he made that kick,” Rector said. “We all ran out to the field and everyone in the Coliseum
was shaking.”

Texas departed Los Angeles with what-ifs, only plays away from attaining a victory for the ages. The Longhorns receive another opportunity to make amends for last year, 364 days after the heartbreak at the Coliseum.