SAN ANTONIO — The No. 20 Texas Longhorns and the No. 12 Washington Huskies are nearing game time at the Alamodome in San Antonio for Thursday’s Alamo Bowl with a nine-win season on the line for Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian and the Longhorns.
“Well, there’s nothing like, for us, getting nine wins,” Sarkisian said on Wednesday. “Look at the last decade of Texas football; how many times has there been nine wins in a season?”
The answer, of course, is that the Horns only have two nine-win seasons since playing for the national championship following the 2009 campaign — in 2012, when a victory over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl signaled the last high point in the Mack Brown era, and in 2018, when Texas beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to cap a 10-win season. Unfortunately, the Longhorns were not back, where Sarkisian is still trying to take the program closing in on the two-year mark of his tenure.
“We’re trying to build something that is sustainable, that can withstand the test of time,” Sarkisian said. “We don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. We want to be able to build this the right way, and I think we are doing that. I think our players recognize that.
“But validity is winning, right? You are what your record says you are. That’s why I think this game is obviously very important to all of us in our organization. It’s going to take a really good effort. We’re going to have to play really well in this game to do that.”
Here are a few storylines to keep track of during the game.
Can Quinn Ewers bounce back from his late-season struggles?
For a young quarterback, perhaps it’s not surprising that Ewers thought he had it all figured out when he went 21-of-31 passing for 289 yards and four touchdowns against Oklahoma. Three interceptions and a loss to Oklahoma State followed two weeks later, bringing Ewers crashing back to earth.
During bowl preparation, Ewers refocused on the fundamentals, particularly in regards to his connection with star sophomore wide receiver Xavier Worthy.
“With X, we kind of went back to the basics, like we were talking about before,” Ewers said on Tuesday. “These bowl practices, you really just kind of get that feel back, whether it’s deep balls or just short game and stuff like that.”
Sarkisian saw improvement from Ewers in the practices leading up to the Alamo Bowl.
“I think the past couple weeks he’s probably thrown the ball and we’ve executed the passing game better than we have for the last couple months, quite frankly, and that’s encouraging because I think that a lot of that is his buy-in, his want-to, his commitment to it. Not that he wasn’t committed before, but there’s another level of commitment that you go to as a player,” Sarkisian said.
Now Ewers has to execute on the field. If he does struggle early, he may need more support for Sarkisian, who was slow to work the perimeter and provide Ewers easy passes in the TCU when his young quarterback got off to a slow start.
But if Ewers can show growth, it will be an immensely positive development for him heading into an offseason quarterback competition set to add Arch Manning, the nation’s No. 1 prospect, in the coming weeks.
A first extended look at Jonathon Brooks
Other than five carries for 33 yards against Kansas last season after Bijan Robinson went down with the elbow injury that ended his sophomore season, Brooks has only received carries at the end of blowouts, situations that provide little utility for a real evaluation of his skill set.
But with Robinson opting out of the Alamo Bowl along with Roschon Johnson, the redshirt freshman stands to receive the majority of carries against Washington to position himself for an offseason that will feature plenty of competition against No. 1 running back Cedric Baxter Jr.
“The one thing Jonathon can do, he’s a natural runner with the football in his hands, and whether it’s between the tackles, on the perimeter, he’s got great ball skills,” Sarkisian said. “So the biggest thing for us is for him just to go out and be him, not try to do more than what he’s already shown us. He’s more than capable to be a very good football player for us. Now it’s just about being in the moment and just being him and not trying to do more.”
What is Sarkisian’s preferred personnel package offensively?
For much of the season, Texas majored in 12 personnel with two tight ends on the field. But with jumbo tight end Andrej Karic’s departure for Tennessee, someone else will have to step up to fill that role if Sarkisian chooses to use it.
“The stuff we do where we add a sixth offensive lineman is something that Coach Sark and I have been doing now even prior to coming to Texas, so we’ve done that in the past, as well,” offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Kyle Flood said on Tuesday. “We’ve always trained more than one guy to be in that role, and Andrej was in that role, but Andrej is not with us now, so we’ve got a couple other guys that are ready to kind of step into that role because it’s always been a big part of our offense.”
Who that player might be is less clear — it could be freshman Cam Williams, who has largely played on special teams, or possibly DJ Campbell, who has backed up freshman Cole Hutson at guard.
Sarkisian could also turn to the more pure 12 personnel grouping he used effectively at the end of the Baylor game with sophomore tight end Gunnar Helm, a less accomplished in-line blocker than the much larger Karic who can nonetheless serve as an actual receiving threat.
Without much buzz surrounding the emergence of a third wide receiver, the possibility of a player like redshirt freshman Casey Cain or freshman Savion Red seems less likely beyond brief situational usage.
How much have the young offensive linemen grown?
The seven freshman offensive linemen received regular work in practice on the two-deep chart with Hutson and left tackle Kelvin Banks starting every game. But as well as Banks in earning freshman All-America honors, and to the extent to which Hutson mostly held his own before suffering an ankle injury against Baylor, the reps in bowl practice were still important for the two starters and the other five freshmen offensive linemen.
“This bowl prep for those freshmen has been invaluable, invaluable,” Flood said. “I’m pleased with how those guys have performed, and I’m excited for what the future brings with them.”
Depending on the health of Hutson, and perhaps even if he’s healthy, Campbell could receive more playing time after figuring into the rotation late in the season.
“The fact that we were able to stay healthy for the most part through the season created some continuity and really helped, and I think some of these younger guys starting to come along — DJ is the most obvious one that you see, but we see the other stuff in practice with Neto [Umeozulu], with Cam — I think that has allowed us to get better as the year has gone on.”
Robinson regularly covered up small mistakes by the offensive line with his ability to make defenders miss, even close to the line of scrimmage, so continued improvement from the offensive line may be necessary to afford Brooks the space to make plays by getting to the second level.