SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Call them the best 7-5 team in the country.
Well, 8-5 now.
That was the takeaway for Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham about a Texas Longhorns team that stomped his one-time College Football Playoff contender, 38-10, in Tuesday evening’s Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.
The statement was both an acknowledgement of the talent possessed by Texas and the extent to which head coach Tom Herman’s team underachieved this season after last year’s heady victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Perhaps Utah simply didn’t want to be there, though — that was the excuse for Georgia last season.
Whittingham’s team didn’t sleep walk through the game, at least in his opinion. His teams aren’t known for doing that in bowl appearances, a big reason why he entered the contest with an 11-2 record in such games.
“Well, they were well prepared,” Whittingham said. “They played hard. They were well-coached. I don’t know if angry is the right word but they certainly played with a purpose... We didn’t play as well as they did.”
Facing what Herman said they anticipated was going to be the most physical team the Longhorns played all season, Texas was more physical than the Utes, rushing for 231 yards on 6.2 yards per carry, setting a season high with five sacks, and holding the strong Utah running game to 3.5 yards per carry.
Texas was able to accomplish those feats with Herman calling what he hopes will be his last game for the Longhorns and co-defensive coordinator Craig Naivar stepping into the play-calling role on the other side of the ball.
Junior defensive end Ta’Quon Graham credited Naivar for calling the game well, while Herman said he thought the third-and-long package was as good as it has been all season.
Only practicing eight times during bowl preparation helped, as the team came into the game as fresh and healthy as they’ve been all season. But Naivar was also able to accomplish several other impressive feats — for instance, he tweaked the defense enough that senior defensive end Malcolm Roach called it “almost a whole new defense.”
Most importantly, Texas was able to play fast and without the assignment errors that often plagued the team this season. When the Longhorns did make mistakes, sophomore safety Caden Sterns said the team speed was able to erase most of them. Utah only scored 10 points, after all.
Naivar also put his players in better positions to succeed, most notably sophomore linebacker Joseph Ossai, a natural edge player who was often tasked with playing inside linebacker due to a lack of depth. Instead of forcing Ossai to play off the ball, Naivar started former walk-on Cort Jacquess, a San Antonio native and Longhorn legacy who made his name over the last two seasons on the scout team.
“Oh yeah, Cort’s a great story,” Herman said. “You know, if there was a Scout Team Player of the Year award, he would have won it probably back-to-back years. He’s really tough, really physical, and just understands football.
“He sees the game really, really well, and we knew that — you know we were going to be short in that area, especially with Jose and Jeff [McCulloch] playing close to the line of scrimmage. We were going to need him to be in that rotation and he came through in a big way.”
Jacquess finished the game with five tackles, but what he allowed Ossai to do was more impressive. After battling through a shoulder injury for almost the entire season, Ossai looked healthy and back in his element on the edge in earning Defensive MVP honors thanks to nine tackles, six tackles for loss, and three sacks.
Called by his head coach a future captain, Ossai showed what he could become next season if he can stay healthy.
On offense, Texas made several important decisions — Herman sent a message to his team by opting to receive the opening kickoff and then aggressively attacking down field on the first play. When studying film, the Longhorns saw that the Utes automatically called Cover 2 when facing that formation. Since Texas hadn’t used it all season, they knew what they would get.
On the first play, it produced a 34-yard gain for senior wide receiver Collin Johnson, who played for the first time since the Kansas State game in early November.
Against one of the nation’s best run defense, the Longhorns didn’t concede on the ground, either. Junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger credited the offensive line for stepping up and opening holes as he contributed 73 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
Sophomore running back Keontay Ingram and freshman running back Roschon Johnson were the beneficiaries of the strong line play — Ingram had a 49-yard touchdown run in the second half and a memorable hurdle, while Johnson used a stiff arm to break off a 20-yard run of his own on his way to averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
“We knew coming into it that they were an incredible front seven, and the offensive linemen knew they had to be physical and win their matchups and they did exactly that,” Ehlinger said. “That allowed us to open up the run game and they had to load guys up in the box and they tried to take that away and you had guys like Devin [Duvernay] and Collin and Brennan [Eagles] — the whole wide receiver room — it’s really hard for them to stop us.”
Facing one-on-one coverage from Utah cornerback Javelin Guidry, who ran a 10.13 100m in high school, Duvernay had three big catches that resulted in 92 yards and a touchdown thanks to point-perfect throws from Ehlinger, who struggled some in the first half and then hit 6-of-7 passes in the second half to win Offensive MVP honors.
The result was an offensive onslaught in the second half that included 28 points as Texas ran away with the game.
Meanwhile, the defense played as well as it has all season, especially in getting off the field on 10 of the 14 third downs that Utah faced.
“Craig Naivar and that defensive staff did an unbelievable job getting those guys ready for what they were about to face, and, you know, the entire offensive staff with some wrinkles and adjustments in order to attack some things we saw on film,” Herman said.
As a result, a program that was in apparent disarray just weeks ago after firing or reassigning both coordinators and two position coaches came together during bowl preparation to once again physically dominate a quality opponent.
“You know, this is — it would have been very easy; it would have been human nature for coaches to scatter, for players to scatter, for everybody to kind of splinter, especially knowing that the regular season was not what we had hoped going in,” Herman said.
“But I think everybody knew that, you know, we had three or four weeks to rectify some of the wrongs that happened throughout the regular season, and these guys are, again, they are competitors. They want to win and they want to be put in the best position to win, and be taught how to execute it, and then go out and do it with their hair on fire, so to speak.”
So, after Ehlinger’s confident declaration that the Longhorns were back almost exactly one year ago in New Orleans fell flat once Texas got into the 2019 season, what does a win in the Alamo Bowl mean for next season?
“I think it taught a lot of the young guys that when you play together, you play mistake-free, you have fun, and then you lock in and play mistake-free; that our talent can take us pretty far, and then once you add in mistake-free football, watch out,” Ehlinger said.
“And so I think that it’s a great — I don;’t know how to word this — but I’m not going to do this again. I’ll leave it at that.”
“Smart move,” Herman responded.