Here’s the final riddle of 2020 — what should one make of a No. 20 Texas Longhorns team that was down, at the count of head coach Tom Herman, 18 members of this year’s initial depth chart, including six and then eventually seven team captains, pulling off yet another bowl win against a Colorado Buffaloes team that had less than 50 available scholarship players?
It’s a difficult riddle to unravel, but as questions continue to surround Herman’s future following the absolutely tepid recent statement of support from athletics director Chris Del Conte, a few things were clear at the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio during Tuesday’s 55-23 destruction of the Buffaloes.
Herman has now won four straight bowl games at Texas, second longest streak in school history to the five wins from 2004 to 2008.
The 638 total yards for the Longhorns on offense set the school record for a bowl game.
But beyond some of those bigger-picture stats that justifiably won’t move the needle for a still-frustrated fanbase, the Alamo Bowl showcased the burgeoning youth movement for a program that will have to replace a lot of departing production, but had ample opportunities for those players to step up in the final two games.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that the young guys are the future of this program,” Herman said.
With 10 carries for 183 yards, freshman running back Bijan Robinson ended the season by breaking the school record for highest yards per carry at 8.2, surpassing the mark set by James Saxton in 1961. The two touchdown catches by Robinson tied the Texas school record for scoring receptions in a bowl game.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Casey Thompson replaced senior Sam Ehlinger in the second half due to a shoulder injury sustained by Ehlinger and threw for four touchdowns while hitting 8-for-10 passes for 170 yards in about 20 minutes of game time. Those four touchdown passes tied the school record in bowl games, matching Thompson with Major Applewhite.
An offensive line that included three freshmen opened the way for 303 rushing yards.
Freshman defensive tackle Alfred Collins made an athletic interception on a screen pass, broke up another pass, and had an early tackle for loss while multiple other young defensive players like safety Jerrin Thompson flashed potential.
After the game, junior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown was forced to admit that of the two interceptions by Texas defenders on Tuesday, including his own deep-ranging play in coverage, the play by Collins earned the nod as the best.
“I have to give it to my boy AC,” Overshown said. “That was crazy.”
Overshown himself tied for the team lead in tackles with six while adding two quarterback hurries and a half tackle for loss to his second interception of the season.
Unlike Herman, Overshown was also willing to directly address the question of how the Alamo Bowl provided a statement about why Herman and his staff should return in 2021.
“The fact that when we have fun when we go out there, we can win games, and there’s no question about that at all,” Overshown said. “I mean, 2020 was an up-and-down season, but we know what we’re capable of when we play our best.”
The younger players showed what that might look like, especially Robinson, who was historically transcendent for a second straight game.
Last 2 games for Bijan Robinson of @TexasFootball:— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) December 30, 2020
223 scrimmage yds on 12 touches
220 scrimmage yds on 12 touches
He's the only FBS running back in the last 25 years to have 2 games with 200+ scrimmage yards on 12 or fewer touches in his entire career (let alone back-to-back).
During a first half that featured Robinson scoring two touchdowns on the first drive, the discussion once again surrounded how the staff, specifically position coach Stan Drayton, manages the rotation at running back.
In its last four games, including today, Texas has scored 10 TDs on the 15 drives (67%) in which Bijan Robinson has multiple touches.— Christian Corona (@ChristianC0rona) December 30, 2020
When Bijan gets 0 or 1 touches, Texas has scored 5 TDs on its other 30 drives (17%) during its last four games. Half the TDs in twice the drives.
As the Texas offense stalled following the quick start, the lack of touches for Robinson took center stage — the Longhorns went four straight possessions without Robinson receiving a single touch and gained... zero first downs on those drives. Texas had eight total yards as Robinson was sidelined by the coaching staff. Over the final 20-plus minutes of the first half, Robinson had one touch.
Unsurprisingly, Herman resorted to what amounts as more or less his typical explanation in these recurrent situations.
“Well, a lot of it was on the offensive line,” Herman said. “And you know we went through a bit of a lull there in the second quarter just trying to jump-start some things. We’re going to rotate our backs, we’re gonna keep them fresh.”
Herman then used the word “fresh” twice more when describing plays like the 66-yard run by Robinson coming out of halftime and a touchdown run by sophomore running back Roschon Johnson in the fourth quarter that featured multiple broken tackles.
Rotating those backs even when it helps contribute to long periods of offensive stagnation is “kind of what we do,” according to Herman.
While that’s demonstrably the case in regards to the often-frustrating running back rotation, Herman’s subsequent claim that no running back would have made a difference in the second-quarter results is belied by, well, the things that demonstrably happen when Robinson touches the football.
At least Robinson displayed his trademark maturity in the post-game press conference when he was asked about his lack of touches following his fast start.
“Coach Yurcich and Coach Herman have a specific game plan that they’re trying to follow throughout the game,” Robinson said. “They might see something that a lot of us can’t see and it might not involve using the running game, but I just try to do as much as I can do. I don’t complain about not getting the touches or anything, I just try to work as hard as I can.”
As the season progressed, that meant working smarter on the field as Robinson progressed.
“Stan Drayton has done an excellent job grooming him for these moments late in the year. I’ve said it ad nauseum and I’ll repeat it again — when a true freshman comes in in the summertime, especially in summer... it’s going to take some time for the speed of the game to slow down and for him to understand different fronts, different line movements, blocking schemes, the whole nine.
“Just the evolution of where he was from training camp until now is, night and day, man, I don’t think he’s hit a ceiling. Yet he would be the first to tell you that he’s still got a lot of work to do, but really, really proud of the way that he has continued to improve and practice and show us, in practice, each and every week that level of improvement.”
For Thompson, he’s now spent close to three years without the opportunity to display his own level of improvement outside of practice. When he got the chance against Colorado, he was prepared mentally — as he first started warming up before halftime, Thompson used positive self talk to ensure that he felt comfortable in the moment as soon as he stepped on the field.
“I’ve been preparing every week and every day as if I’m gonna be the starter,” Thompson said. “To me it doesn’t matter if I’m the first string, second string, third string, or even my freshman year when I was redshirted, so that’s how I approach every day and going into this game that’s how I approached it.”
On Robinson’s 66-yard touchdown run to open the second half, Thompson felt sure that the freshman running back was going to score, but when he didn’t, he decided to trust his reads and let his instincts take over. On the next play, his first throw of the game, Thompson found redshirt sophomore wide receiver Joshua Moore over the middle for a 13-yard touchdown.
During Thompson’s second possession, he was forced to reset his feet in the pocket under pressure on a 3rd and 6, kept his balance, and lofted a perfect touch pass to senior tight end Cade Brewer for 21 yards.
1 throw and I’m sold on— Will Blackmon (@WillBlackmon) December 30, 2020
Casey Thompson pic.twitter.com/5QxSVG5vIv
It was the type of throw that Texas quarterbacks, including Ehlinger, haven’t made often over the last decade. Three plays later, Thompson once again found Moore over the middle for a touchdown, this time from 25 yards.
For his fourth touchdown pass, Thompson hit speedy freshman Kelvontay Dixon for a 73-yard score that featured Thompson’s ability to let it rip down the field and find a young player who was recruited specifically the way that he can take the top off a defense.
Casey Thompson just entered the 2021 Heisman Race— Coolbet Canada (@CoolbetCanada) December 30, 2020
That’s Thompson’s FOURTH TD & Texas is ROLLING! Longhorns(-7) lead 48-22
Over 67 ✅
Once again, it’s the type of throw, made in rhythm and with confidence, that Ehlinger has struggled to make this season and throughout his career.
“I didn’t think that I’d go in the game obviously and be that efficient,” Thompson said. “But when you just take one play at a time and you look up at the scoreboard and you don’t worry about stats... I was just focused on winning the game and just being in the moment.”
For a team that often played tight in important moments this season and never really seemed to lose itself in the game until there were opts outs and nothing on the line, Thompson’s performance was a microcosm for the way that young and inexperienced players had a freeness and effectiveness on the field.
So perhaps the answer to the riddle is that even if a win against a depleted team of questionable quality may not matter in terms of the overall narrative for Herman’s tenure, all the strong performances by young players showed a glimpse into their own potential bright futures that may eventually add up to a bright future for Longhorns football.
Whether the plaudits go to the recruiting by Herman and his staff or for what looked like improved development late in the season under the revamped staff, it adds up to the same thing — if nothing else, it looks like the kids are alright.