AUSTIN, Texas — “Winning is hard,” fiery linebackers coach Jeff Choate told the No. 21 Texas Longhorns after an impressive 38-18 win over the No. 23 Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns in the debut for new Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian.
But something strange happened on Saturday at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium — winning looked easy for the Longhorns, a rarity in a lost decade that featured the failure and subsequent termination of three head coaches. Sarkisian’s team showed substantial room for improvement, but it also played complementary football across the offense, defense, and special teams, flashing Sarkisian’s ability to work with defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and special teams coordinator Jeff Banks to tie together all three phases.
“Kind of the story of the game was our ability to get off the field on defense on third down and then to extend drives on third down on offense that ultimately led to scoring drives,” Sarkisian said.
After going three and out to open the game, Sarkisian’s offense quickly found a rhythm, going seven straight possessions with a chance to score — Texas scored touchdowns on five of the next six drives, a stretch marred only by senior kicker Cameron Dicker missing wide right from 45 yards. The Longhorns added another field goal before punting late in the fourth quarter with a comfortable lead. On third down, Sarkisian’s offense converted 8-of-15 attempts (53 percent), including 7-of-12 attempts through three quarters (58 percent).
Louisiana surprised the Texas offense with some defensive looks not previously put on film, but Sarkisian took a steady approach to his run-first offense, conceding some short runs early in the game in order to wear down the Ragin’ Cajuns defense.
“Control the ball, control the line of scrimmage, time of possession limiting their plays and then getting off the field on third down on defense really kind of set the stage for us to kind of get the lead and then control the ball game,” Sarkisian said.
Texas averaged five yards per attempt in the second half after the running backs managed only 3.6 yards per attempt in the opening 30 minutes.
The key moment early in the game came after Texas sophomore running back Bijan Robinson picked up 26 yards on a catch and a run before the drive appeared to stall just past midfield, when Sarkisian showed some aggressiveness on 4th and 6 from the Louisiana 45-yard line. Redshirt freshman quarterback Hudson Card rewarded his head coach’s confidence by scrambling for the first down and Robinson finished the drive with an 18-yard touchdown on a wheel route for his first score of the year and Card’s first touchdown pass on the Forty Acres.
1st of the year for 5️⃣@CFBONFOX pic.twitter.com/XNkVcjhndE— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) September 4, 2021
Sarkisian’s trust in Card paid off throughout the game, as the young quarterback finished 14-for-21 passing for 224 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions while adding a rushing touchdown.
When Card got in trouble in practice, it was because he was dropping his eyes when he felt the pocket closing, but the emphasis on maintaining vision downfield paid off for Card in his first start, as he made multiple important plays when forced to move inside or outside the pocket.
On the second touchdown drive, Card showed off his pocket presence and arm talent on the ensuing drive, escaping the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield to find junior wide receiver Jordan Whittington for a 15-yard gain on 3rd and 10 and then finding Whittington again after climbing the pocket while keeping his feet underneath him and ready to deliver the football when Whittington came open.
Texas had to overcome two holding penalties on the 14-play, 72-yard drive that took 7:45 off the clock before super senior tight end Cade Brewer caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Card, who fit the ball into a small window between two defenders. With two minutes left in the second quarter, the Horns held a 14-3 lead that eventually reached 35-12 with 12:24 remaining.
Card received plenty of help from Robinson. During the offseason, Sarkisian fielded numerous questions about how frequently the former consensus five-star prospect would touch the football. On Saturday, Robinson had the most touches of his young college career and it started early — after the first two drives, Robinson had 52 of the 69 total yards with seven touches, half of the team’s total.
By the time Texas pulled out the 20-point victory, Robinson had 20 carries for 103 yards and a touchdown and four catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. His 20 carries and four receptions were both career highs.
“I think Bijan did a great job of setting the tone,” Sarkisian said.
On a 3rd and 6 early in the second quarter, Robinson flashed his pass-catching skills, running to daylight on an inside-breaking route from the slot and turning Card’s on-time and on-target pass into a 28-yard gain. When the star running back is a reliable option lined up as a receiver on third down, the offense has a chance to do some damage.
Among the wide receivers, it was junior Jordan Whittington, the one-time running back, who provided the biggest boost to the Longhorns offense. Finally healthy after two largely lost seasons, Whittington played with fire and intensity, using the skills he refined working under running backs coach Stan Drayton to produce consistent yards after the catch.
Early in the third quarter, Whittington set the tone in a 14-6 game with the type of culture play that former wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey made against Oklahoma in 2018, rumbling 41 yards through multiple Louisiana defenders on 3rd and 11 and punctuating the play with a release of energy several years in the making.
“I’m really happy for him,” Sarkisian said. “I know it’s been a long journey for Jordan to get to this point, and to come out and be healthy and play that first game the way he did is a big moment for him.”
Whittington finished with seven catches for a career-high 113 yards and his first career receiving touchdown on a screen that featured more hard running from the Cuero product after the catch. Smart, physical, and instinctive, Whittington was particularly effective on third down because of his ability to recognize coverages and find holes in zone defenses.
With the offense performing well, Sarkisian was able to get junior quarterback Casey Thompson into the game, as planned during the week. Thompson’s role was largely to maintain the lead built by Card and the first-team offense, but he was able to attempt five passes, completing four for 41 yards and a touchdown. Since neither quarterback has much experience, getting both of them playing time was a key point of emphasis entering the game and the Longhorns were able to accomplish that goal with Thompson replacing Card late in the third quarter.
Sarkisian believes that the offense will clean up some of the holding penalties along the offensive line, but the biggest area for improvement is in hitting shot plays. While Card was able to find freshman wide receiver Xavier Worthy for a 34-yard gain on a double move, Texas wasn’t able to capitalize on other opportunities, so the ability to regularly create explosive plays in the passing game remains a question mark for this group.
Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s group set the tone with a three and out early in the game, holding the Louisiana offense to six points and 125 total yards in the first half. Senior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown and junior linebacker Luke Brockermeyer were particularly productive in the first half — Overshown had eight tackles and half a sack and Brockermeyer had six tackles, combining with Overshown on the sack and adding a tackle for loss.
“DeMarvion, especially early on, you could feel his presence,” Sarkisian said.
The linebackers were so disruptive in large part because they were comfortable with a defensive scheme that took Louisiana out of offensive gameplan to run the ball to the boundary using inside zone and outside zone — the Ragin’ Cajuns had less than 40 rushing yards at halftime on less than three yards per carry and finished with 77 yards on 2.7 yards per carry. Other than a 27-yard touchdown run on third and long that Sarkisian believes the defense can clean up, Louisiana didn’t have a single run longer than 11 yards all game.
With Louisiana unable to run the ball effectively and with super senior quarterback Levi Lewis unable to generate explosive passing plays over the top of the Texas defense, Louisiana was left to settle for screens and other quick passes as the Longhorns defense rallied to the football and generally tackled well.
Overshown credited Kwiatkowski for putting the defense in positions to succeed by mixing his fronts and substituting frequently to keep players fresh as the temperature reached well over 100 degrees on Campbell-Williams Field.
“There was never a play where I felt like they had the edge on us,” Overshown said.
Louisiana finished 4-for-13 on third downs (30.8 percent), failing to convert on the money down until midway through the third quarter. Especially impressive was the work of the deep and talented Texas defensive line, which was a major factor in Louisiana going 3-for-7 on third and short, forcing three conversions on fourth down, two in Longhorns territory. Those conversions were perhaps the difference in a 20-point margin and a total blowout.
Of the 282 passing yards by Lewis, 159 of those passing yards came in the fourth quarter when the game was already well out of hand and the Longhorns continued to use the backups heavily.
The special teams units made some plays, too, with Worthy flashing on an 18-yard punt return, junior nose tackle Keondre Coburn blocking an extra point, and senior safety BJ Foster in the right position to recover an attempted onside kick spotted by Banks in the third quarter when Louisiana cut the lead to 21-12. The Ragin’ Cajuns were offsides on the play anyway, but just being prepared for the surprise onside kick was a positive sign for the Horns.
The win puts Texas in an ideal position heading into next weekend’s revival of the school’s old Southwest Conference rivalry with Arkansas in Fayetteville — the Longhorns won, but there were enough areas for the team to clean up that the staff can coach the players hard in practice this week.
“One of the concerns going into first game, I always say more teams lose these openers than teams win the game,” Sarkisian said. “And we wanted to make sure we weren’t gonna lose the game.”
Mission accomplished against an experienced, well-coached team.