The No. 20 Texas Longhorns are set to face the No. 12 Washington Huskies in the Valero Alamo Bowl down in San Antonio this Thursday at 8 p.m. Central. Texas has another chance to demonstrate that they are on the right track and continuing to improve. After a couple of disappointing showings this season that ultimately led to missing the road to the conference championship game, the Longhorns are being counted out. All the attention seems to be on Washington which had quite the surge in rankings in the back half of the season after the upset against Oregon. Texas is favored by 3.5 points, according to DraftKings going into this week. One caveat I will make before diving into the statistics is strength of schedule. Yes, Washington is 10-2 and Texas is 8-4; however, Texas ranks third in strength of schedule this season while the Huskies are 51st.
With running backs Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson declaring for the draft and opting out of the bowl game, the Longhorns will have to rely on their younger backs to deliver a solid rushing performance. Collectively, quarterback Quinn Ewers has had a solid starting season. He came out strong against UL-Monroe and Alabama and continued in his return against Oklahoma. There were hiccups against TCU and Oklahoma State, but ultimately, he isn’t doing any worse than Sam Ehlinger did in his first season. We all knew going in that the hype with Ewers was built around his arm power and his ceiling. Given those notes, the first table shows the advanced metrics on the season for the Horns that will be playing in the bowl game.
The usage rates and EPA statistics are listed below. EPA is the expected points added per play by an individual. It calculates the expected points based on down, distance-to-go, and field position and measures how much is gained/lost relative to that prediction per play. These metrics tend to be filtered for garbage time, so this does not take into account all plays the young running backs have been a part of this season. Along with Robinson and Johnson, I have also withdrawn quarterback Hudson Card from the table as he has entered the transfer portal and committed to Purdue.
The next table displays some comparisons in advanced metrics such as success rate, explosiveness, and havoc rate. Success rate is determined by the yards gained on a specific down, usually defined by first downs which gain 50 percent of yards needed, second downs gaining 70 percent of yards needed, and flat out third or fourth down conversions. Explosiveness measures the average EPA of plays that delivered a positive EPA (i.e. yardage gained given the play is successful). Havoc rate measures the percentage of plays resulting in TFLs, forced fumbles, interceptions or pass breakups.
The Huskies run defense ranks decently well, 35th in the nation, allowing 127 yards per game. Their best players in the run-stopping game are defensive tackle Tuli Letuligasenoa (30 tackles, 0 sacks), nickel Dominique Hampton (37, 0), and strong safety Alex Cook (77, 0). Luckily, the Longhorns are facing a team that generally has not had the best passing defense this season so far. Washington’s passing coverage ranks similar to that of Texas, as they are 91st and 90th in the nation respectively in yards allowed per game through the air. Washington’s best facet of their defense is their pass rush led by edge rushers Bralen Trice (33, 8) and Jeremiah Martin (38, 8.5), and linebacker Alphonzo Tuputala (66, 3).
The Huskies work with a heavy passing offense spearheaded by their talented quarterback Michael Penix Jr. They take advantage of short routes, waiting for one-on-one matchups to open up on the outside. Penix leads the league in deep attempts and connects on 41 percent of the throws. Below is a table outlining the usage and EPA metrics for the Huskies on the season. As of now, it seems the entire roster is available to play on Thursday.
Penix is surrounded by another talented receiver corps that seems to be the Longhorns’ recurring nightmare this season. Slot receiver Jalen McMillan leads in targets at 71 (14.6 yards per catch, eight touchdowns), and works primarily in the short field. X receiver Rome Odunze (15.5, 7) is their biggest threat as he plays at every level. Ja’Lynn Polk (17.1, 6) is used as a deep distraction to clear space for the two better receivers. And lastly, Giles Jackson (11.7, 1) is a speedster best with the ball in his hands off of sweeps and screens. Tight end Jack Westover (11.5, 1) also contributes with the fifth-most receptions for the team. Texas defense has severely struggled against these high-powered passing offenses through the season, and blown coverages from less experienced defensive backs can easily decide the outcome of the bowl game as well. The table below shows the same comparison of advanced metrics as earlier but for the opposite side of the ball.
Washington’s offensive line has been resilient with one of the lowest sack rates this season, and holding defensive lines to only five percent havoc rates. This amplifies their passing ability, giving plenty of time to Penix to read his options and make plays. Run blocking is not their strength, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be given how dynamic their passing game is. When they do decide to run, Wayne Taulapapa is their more elusive back who is dangerous in the open field, and Cam Davis is their designated power back.
Direct comparisons have limitations in their information given the vast difference in opponents Texas and Washington have played this year. To get a better understanding, I updated a visual I used after the TCU game to get a glimpse at the distribution of Texas expectation versus performance. This graph considers any sort of relativity as well. It evaluates the EPA for the rushing and passing games for both offense and defense of all opponents Texas has played this season. I then calculated the differences in these EPA values from the average that opponent has put up on the season versus how they performed versus Texas.
Bars reaching towards the bottom means Texas was one of their tougher opponents or this team didn’t really bring their best. Vice versa, bars pointing upwards indicate the Longhorns being surprised, and these opponents overperforming compared to their expectations. Note*: The UTSA game is not included as ESPN did not publish play-by-play data for that game.
There are two notable consistencies from this graph. First the rushing offense (in orange) of Texas opponents constantly hits a wall when playing the Longhorns. This is evident of the improved defensive line with nose tackles Byron Murphy (21 tackles, 1 sack) and Keondre Coburn (25, 2.5), defensive tackles Moro Ojomo (31, 3) and T’Vondre Sweat (28, 0), and edge rusher Barryn Sorrell (41, 5.5). Linebacker DeMarvion Overshown (95, 4) has opted out of the bowl game in preparation for the draft, but Jaylan Ford (109, 2) will continue to deliver with his All Big-12 defensive performance.
The other trend is the passing defense (in blue) which goes to show that most teams Texas has played have had a tough time covering the likes of Worthy, Whittington, and Sanders. Oklahoma State, TCU and Kansas are the only opponents that were able to play above their averages when it came to pass coverage. This could prove to be a game changer against the Huskies who are notably below average in when it comes to passing defense.
I have constructed the same graph for Washington’s opponents this season as well which is displayed below. Note*: This graph does not include their game against Portland State as the play-by-play data is not available.
The first trend to observe is the passing offense (in red). Positive red bars indicate that opponents have a better time throwing the ball against Washington than they do all season which again gives some ample space for Ewers to step up. On the other hand, the passing defense (in blue) exhibits that almost every team (except Arizona State) struggled against the Huskies’ receiving corps. What is more interesting, is the transformation of the rushing defense (in green). Opponents seemed to be running the ball well against Washington through the first half the season, but found difficulty towards the end. Washington’s schedule has been tougher in more recent games, too. This information paired with some fresh running backs for Texas could allow the Huskies to stop the run early on and prevent the Longhorns from gaining any momentum.
Ultimately, I think each team’s success in the passing game early on will be indicative of the result of the game. Both teams have talented receivers that will be able to manipulate weak coverages. Thus, the X factors will come down to the line battle. The Huskies have one of the best offensive lines but it is difficult to say how many defensive lines they have faced that provide as much pressure as Texas does. On top of that, we would like to think that our running back room is talented enough that we do not need to worry about Bijan’s departure, but it could be a rude awakening seeing the Huskies’ recent trends in run-stopping.
As a sneak peek to the season recap, I wanted to evaluate Sarkisian’s second year relative to the Big 12 landscape. The conference championship contained Baylor and Oklahoma State last year and TCU and Kansas State this year. Thus, it was important to see how other teams also transformed season to season to understand if Sark is objectively improving. Going off purely success rate, for now, the graph below visualizes how each Big 12 team has changed.
If the record didn’t convince you yet, Texas did indeed improve on both sides of the ball and is second only to Kansas when it comes to the magnitude of their improvement. Kansas came out to a strong start and had one of their better seasons. Many offenses dropped off this season, including Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, and Iowa State. This might go to show that Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian’s offense is thriving at a time when the conference dropped off as a whole. Finally, TCU’s offense carried the same success rate as last year while tightening their defense