In a matchup between two of the most electric young running backs in college football, Texas Longhorns sophomore Bijan Robinson got the better of TCU Horned Frogs sophomore Zach Evans, starting fast and finishing strong in a 32-27 victory by the Longhorns in Fort Worth on Saturday.
The first win for Texas at Amon Carter Stadium since 2013 was keyed by Robinson, who proved himself the best player on the field in taking a career-high 35 carries for a career-high 216 yards. It was the first 200-yard performance by a Longhorns running back since D’Onta Foreman in 2015 and moved Texas to 7-0 when Robinson rushes for 100 or more yards.
After TCU used an 87-yard kickoff return to score on the opening possession, Robinson helped Texas respond, gaining 43 total yards as the Longhorns produced a field goal, and then taking the lead with a 27-yard touchdown run that featured multiple broken tackles.
Late in the game, Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian leaned heavily on Robinson in crucial situations.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Texas held a 26-20 lead facing a 3rd and 9 from the TCU 41-yard line. With the Horns struggling on third down, including 1-for-4 passing from junior quarterback Casey Thompson on the money down, Sarkisian dialed up the best play for his best player — outside zone to Robinson. The Arizona product came through, gaining nine yards to keep the drive alive.
On the next play, Thompson found junior wide receiver Jordan Whittington on a glance run-pass option for a 32-yard touchdown and a 32-20 following a failed two-point conversion.
In a notable departure from recent Texas teams, the Longhorns were able to run the ball late even when the Horned Frogs knew what was coming.
After a three and out by TCU, Robinson ran for 17 yards, 14 yards, and 17 yards. A false start penalty on redshirt freshman center Jake Majors put Texas behind the chains and Sarkisian’s gamble on 4th and goal from the TCU 1-yard line didn’t pay off when Robinson was stymied short of the goal line.
Even though the play ultimately failed, what Sarkisian communicated to his team was just as important as trying to put the game away.
“I believed in [Robinson] and I believed in our guys up front,” Sarkisian said. “Part of it was a little bit of sending a message to our team — I believe in them and whether we scored, if they stopped us, that we would get the stop on defense. Didn’t work out in our favor today, but part of it is you send subtle messages to your team that you believe in them, you can count on them.”
Even when TCU drove 99 yards and scored a touchdown to preserve some hope for the home team, Robinson helped close out the game in the four-minute drill after the Horned Frogs needed 13 plays and more than five minutes to find the end zone.
On 3rd and 6 with TCU out of timeouts, arguably the game’s most important play, Sarkisian went back to Robinson, who broke a tackle and dragged a defender before his offensive linemen arrived to help ensure he picked up the game’s most crucial first down. The next play saw Robinson gain 13 yards to ice the game.
Sarkisian said that Robinson was exhausted at the end — he likely never carried the ball 35 times in high school thanks to regular blowouts — but the running back’s toughness showed up as he sensed that the TCU defense couldn’t stop him.
“It’s fun to break a defense’s will,” Robinson said. “When you that know that defense is broken, that’s when everything starts to flow and open up.”
The toughness of Robinson and the toughness of the offensive line in helping their running back finish on the last two carries of the game are the type of culture plays that allow a team to start developing an identity.
“I think that just somewhat epitomizes our team — we’re a gritty group, we fight hard, we play hard, wasn’t exactly pretty today, but we found a way to win and I think that’s a good sign moving forward,” Sarkisian said.
The Longhorns were able to clean up some mistakes from last week despite missing senior cornerback Josh Thompson (concussion).
After Texas Tech produced multiple big passing plays over the top of the Texas defense, TCU tried to take shot plays, but Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense was able to keep everything in front of them. The longest passing play for Horned Frogs quarterback Max Duggan went 25 yards.
And Evans was largely held in check, even including his 33-yard run and a touchdown run on the opening drive that initially appeared stopped near the line of scrimmage.
“I thought the back end in general played pretty well,” Sarkisian said. “First of all we knew coming into the game, after last week’s game, they were going to try to take some shots, they were going to look for some some shots down the field to try us. And we kept the ball in front of us — the ball didn’t get over our head. I thought Darion [Dunn] and the whole group back there for the most part tackled well, a couple runs kind of spit out, but we really for the most part minimized some of the explosive plays.”
Three turnovers played a big role in the outcome, too — a fumble on a reverse by TCU, a muffed punt, and another fumble forced by senior cornerback Anthony Cook on a blitz. Texas was only able to produce nine points from those turnovers, an area for improvement as the TCU defense forced four field goals on six trips into the red zone for Sarkisian’s offense.
“We’ve got to clean up red-zone offense — it had been so good for us through the first four games,” Sarkisian said. “We just weren’t great today in the red area. Give them a lot of credit. they defended us pretty well.”
The Longhorns entered the game with 19 touchdowns on 20 trips into the red zone, including a failed fourth down in the fourth quarter against the Owls.
Penalties were an issue as well in a game that featured plenty of poor officiating. Texas was flagged for nine penalties costing the Horns 97 yards, with Sarkisian citing a celebration penalty in the end zone after Cook’s fumble recovery as the most egregious mistake by his team.
“We can’t do that — we’re not in the National Football League. We don’t get to run down to the end of the field and do that kind of stuff, so that’s an easy one to clean up,” Sarkisian said. “There’s going to be other ones that we’re gonna have to look at.”
And for a fifth straight game, the Longhorns struggled to produce big passing plays down the field, with Thompson overthrowing open receivers on several occasions.
In the end, though, the result matters more than the aesthetics of the win.
“I’d rather win ugly than lose pretty,” Sarkisian said.