Is Texas back? Not quite yet, West Virginia is aiming to prove

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Over the last few years, it has been one of the most frequently asked questions in the world of college football – almost a running gag of sorts.

Is Texas back?

Every time it appears the Longhorns have answered the question in the affirmative, some anvil falls from the sky to squash poor Bevo in the horns.

There was a minute where it looked like Charlie Strong had it going, but two weeks after beating No. 5 Oklahoma in 2015, he lost 24-0 at Iowa State. (Those Cyclones finished 3-9 and got coach Paul Rhoads fired anyway). Strong was fired at the end of his third season in 2016, making way for Tom Herman.

Herman started his second season in shaky fashion, with Texas losing its opener against a Maryland team embroiled in off-field chaos. But the Horns rebounded with impressive wins over USC and Oklahoma, seemingly eliminating the question as to whether they were back among the nation’s elite.

Until last week.

Texas tripped up against an Oklahoma State team that had just been embarrassed by lifeless Kansas State, bringing West Virginia back into a tie atop the Big 12 standings with four games remaining.

Whether or not Texas is back, the Mountaineers have to operate under the assumption that’s the case against a program that does not lack for 4- and 5-star talent.

“They have good players. That’s obviously an unbelievable program that they’ve built there,” said WVU quarterback Will Grier. “Programs like that know how to play football at a high level.”

Thanks to Grier’s counterpart, sophomore Sam Ehlinger, scoring has not been an issue for Texas. Ehlinger has matured from his 11-touchdown, 7-interception freshman season. This year, he has 13 touchdowns and hasn’t been picked off since throwing two against the Terrapins in the opener.

“Ehlinger does a good job of if something is not there, then he’s not going to force it,” said West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “He’s not afraid to throw the ball away, number one. Number two is he can tuck the ball away and run with it. I think that he keeps plays alive with his feet. He gets away from pass rush and steps up, but he never tries to force the ball into traffic.”

Statistically speaking, Ehlinger doesn’t appear to be the most dangerous mobile threat in the world with 277 rushing yards on 86 carries. But when you remove his 11 sacks from the equation, he’s averaging 4.6 yards a pop with eight rushing touchdowns. Though he’s not likely to hit a home run with his feet, he’s good enough to keep the chains moving and the defense frustrated.

“When we’re rushing three and dropping eight, we have to have somebody accounting for him, because if he can’t find it, he’s going to take off and run on us,” Gibson said. “If we blitz him, then you have to be able to tackle him once we get there.”

Tackling the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Ehlinger can be easier said than done.

“I think he’s about my size,” said WVU middle linebacker Shea Campbell. “Watching him play, he brings a lot to the table. It’s interesting to see what’s going to happen.”

Ehlinger is far more of a risk to hurt teams through the air thanks to two of the Big 12’s most imposing targets. Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson are tied for fourth in the league with 46 receptions each.

There is nothing little about Lil’Jordan (6-4, 225 pounds) or Johnson (6-6, 220), each of whom is capable of snagging a pass from midair or breaking away while Ehlinger buys an extra second to throw.

“They’re big-play guys, and they do a good job of moving them around and not keeping them in the same spot,” Gibson said. “Humphrey will play in the slot a lot, they’ll move him. For Johnson, they’ll move him to the left or right. It doesn’t really matter. We have to do a good job and know where they’re at.”

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