Texas football made a giant leap, but Sugar Bowl loss to Washington showed lingering flaws
NEW ORLEANS — After Quinn Ewers’ last-ditch pass was knocked down onto the Superdome turf, the clock hit 0:00 and Texas’ renaissance season officially came to an end. Several Longhorns froze in a state of disbelief.
Center Jake Majors dropped to a knee at the 16-yard line as a sea of Washington Huskies ran onto the field behind him. Receiver Xavier Worthy crouched in the end zone, helmet off, watching the scene unfold. As the Longhorns trudged toward their tunnel back to the locker room, the Huskies celebrated while Prince’s “Purple Rain” blared over the stadium speakers.
“It’s just a bad feeling,” Majors said afterward. “It just sucks to swallow that pill.”
No. 3 Texas was a play away from a dream scenario, playing for a national championship in its home state. Instead, the Longhorns must live with the shortcomings that led to a 37-31 loss to No. 2 Washington in the Sugar Bowl.
In their climb back to national relevance, the Longhorns proved to be a changed team from those that failed in the recent past. This Texas team learned how to win big and survive close calls. It showed resilience and proved it could finish. That’s why Texas earned a spot in the College Football Playoff.
But on Monday, Texas (12-2) met its match. Washington (14-0) has done everything the Longhorns have done and then some. And the Huskies were strongest in the areas Texas was most vulnerable.
The Longhorns were good. Washington was better.
Texas didn’t steamroll its way to the top four. The Longhorns won in myriad ways. It was often their top-flight run defense and large, athletic defensive front that set the tone. The offense peaked in the final two weeks of the season to put games well out of reach. Special teams proved a consistent positive contributor. But getting all three to come together at once was a tougher task.
Throughout the 2023 season, flaws surfaced. A handful of teams threw effectively on the Longhorns. Oklahoma passed its way to a win in the final moments of the Red River rivalry. Houston threw for 378 yards and 8.2 yards per attempt two weeks later before Texas escaped with a seven-point win. Texas averaged more penalties per game (6.3) than 12 of the 14 teams in the Big 12. Scoring touchdowns in the red zone was a consistent issue, as the Longhorns ranked 121st nationally in red zone touchdown rate entering the Sugar Bowl (49 percent).
Texas endured those issues and still won the Big 12 title and punched its ticket to New Orleans. But those flaws proved fatal against a team with the veteran experience and resolve of the Huskies and the golden left arm of Michael Penix Jr.
Penix, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, was unquestionably the best player on the field on Monday. And the Longhorns didn’t have an answer for him.
“We just couldn’t get him on the ground, and that was probably the most frustrating part,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said. “He was elusive in the pocket. And he did a good job of avoiding the rush and then keeping his eyes (downfield).
“It just kind of felt like every time they threw it, and we were in pretty good coverage, they made the play.”
No one was more ready for the College Football Playoff than Michael Penix Jr.
Penix and his collection of receivers, led by Rome Odunze, Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan, were sharp from start to finish. Rarely did a Penix throw sail off target. The receivers found open spaces in the secondary with Penix usually getting the ball to them in just the right spot with perfect timing.
Texas didn’t sack Penix once. He typically had sufficient time to throw, enabling his gaudy stat line: 29-for-38 passing, 430 yards and two touchdowns.
“We couldn’t put enough pressure on the tackles, quite frankly, to get a holding call to even get them off-schedule,” Sarkisian said. “They really played on-schedule all night, and that makes it difficult.”
Texas, which averaged more than six tackles for loss per game this season, managed only three against the Huskies.
Then there were the penalties. The game started with one, as Majors was called for an illegal snap. That infraction proved to be an omen. The Longhorns were offside on their first defensive play. Back-to-back holding calls on their third drive wiped out two positive plays, including Ewers’ 31-yard pass to running back CJ Baxter. Texas finished with 10 penalties — tying a season high — for 66 yards.
In addition to two turnovers the Longhorns committed, Texas made things hard on itself.
“I didn’t think that we were being stopped,” receiver Jordan Whittington said. “We just had self-inflicted wounds. And you can’t do that when you’re playing a really good team.”
Texas couldn’t capitalize on a few key scoring opportunities, fumbling twice in Washington territory. In the game’s final minutes, when trying to rally back from a two-score deficit, Texas took seven snaps inside the Washington 15 that resulted in three points across two possessions.
These are things that Texas could get away with against teams like Kansas State or Houston. But not the unbeaten Huskies.
Still, the Longhorns had a chance to win in the final seconds, which underscores their perseverance. In some ways, Monday’s game mirrored Texas’ only other loss. The Longhorns suffered from plenty of their own miscues against Oklahoma in October, from turnovers to red zone struggles, yet they led the game in the final two minutes before Dillon Gabriel delivered Texas its first defeat.
Determination and fight has been a calling card for this resurgent Texas team. Players lamented mistakes but emphasized how far they have come. Sarkisian emphasized Texas should hold its head high. Its two losses came by a combined 10 points.
“We all played our hearts out,” Ewers said. “And I don’t question anybody’s effort in that locker room at all. But I couldn’t be more proud of the way that we attacked this year because I know most of y’all didn’t believe that we would be here right now.
“And we’re going to continue to focus on the opinions inside our four walls and continue to build.”
Where Texas goes from here will be telling. Ewers has a decision to make about his pro future, as do a handful of others. Texas moves to the SEC next season, and the 12-team Playoff begins.
Texas spent much of the past dozen years serving as a punch line, a team that couldn’t live up to expectations. This year the Longhorns exceeded them, won a Big 12 championship for the first time since 2009 and contended for a national title. Sarkisian’s build is going smoothly.
Whether the Longhorns can sustain this success remains to be seen. Monday showed Texas isn’t quite national title-worthy yet, but the season was a rousing success.
Whittington, who made a leaping 41-yard catch to give Texas one last shot at glory, is one of 13 veterans who were on the team before Sarkisian arrived and are still on the roster. They didn’t complete their mission. But they brought Texas back into the national conversation.
“I’m not gonna sulk on it,” Whittington said. “I’m not going to look at this season as a loss. I came to University of Texas and left it in better shape than I found it. I came back to win the Big 12, we did that.
“I still think we left a lot out there.”
(Top photo: Chris Graythen / Getty Images)
First appeared on theathletic.com