In any anatomy of an upset, a 20-point underdog needs a number of things to go right, and the Texas Longhorns weren’t able to check enough of those boxes against the Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday in a last-second 20-19 loss.
“There were some real opportunities in the game that I didn’t feel like we really capitalized on — when you get in the red zone against a quality opponent five times and you only come come away with one touchdown, that’s pretty dramatic,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said on Monday.
But the red-zone issues weren’t the only problem for the Longhorns as Texas failed to create any turnovers against Alabama, in part because of a dropped interception by senior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison in the second quarter. And the Horns also left points on the board when sophomore wide receiver Xavier Worthy failed to come up with a touchdown catch in the end zone on the first possession for Texas.
“You have opportunities to score in the game to extend the lead and not being able to take advantage of it, I think that stung, but I was proud of the offense for taking care of the ball, not committing any turnovers,” Sarkisian said. “Not given any turnovers on the flip side. We didn’t get any turnovers and we’ve been working so hard at it in training camp that we’ve got to flip the script on that and we’ve got to continue to attack the ball and create those plays for us defensively to get some short fields.”
Let’s look at the missed opportunities for Texas, including two explosive plays by Alabama that changed the game.
The dropped touchdown catch by Xavier Worthy
Quinn Ewers showing off his arm talent early— Owen Kidd (@OKiddVT) September 10, 2022
Xavier Worthy HAS to catch this football though pic.twitter.com/qRNv9HIpu0
On 1st and 10 from the Alabama 35-yard line, Sarkisian dialed up a shot play to Worthy, who was running behind the Crimson Tide secondary. Ewers delivered a much more accurate pass than he did in similar situations against Louisiana-Monroe in the season opener, but his throw forced Worthy to dive and the standout pass catcher wasn’t able to maintain control of the football through the catch.
First failed red-zone drive
Three straight catches by junior wide receiver Jordan Whittington helped the Longhorns move the ball into the Crimson Tide red zone with a first down at the 9-yard line on the second possession for Texas.
On first down, Texas lined up with three wide receivers to the field and tried to run CG Counter to the boundary, pulling the left guard and the center. But junior center Jake Majors was unable to pick up his assignment, resulting in a hit on junior running back Bijan Robinson and disrupted timing on the block by sophomore left guard Hayden Conner, leading to a one-yard gain.
Sarkisian went empty on second down as Ewers locked in on sophomore tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders running down the seam from a flexed position in the slot. Sanders created some separation, but Ewers threw it high and behind Sanders for an incompletion.
The third-down play featured Sanders matched up against a cornerback to the boundary with Robinson in orbit motion back towards the three wide receivers to the field. Ewers tried to find Sanders, who fought through some significant contact from the Alabama defender, who ultimately was able to push Sanders out of bounds and break up the pass.
It’s the type of play that Sanders excelled converting in high school at Denton Ryan and a throw that Ewers can complete against good coverage, but if the Texas quarterback had come back to the field, he would have seen redshirt freshman wide receiver Casey Cain running wide open down the seam on a busted covered by Alabama.
81-yard touchdown run by Jase McClellan
The right guard on this play…OMG lol.— Skubie Mageza (@SkubieMageza) September 10, 2022
Emil Ekiyor Jr pancakes his man and then makes a SECOND block to bust open the lane for Jase Mcclellan. Wouldn’t be a TD without him.
Upset bids require avoiding explosive plays by the favored team and Saturday’s most explosive play was made by Alabama running back Jase McClellan directly after the failed red-zone drive by Texas.
The Alabama right guard put Texas junior defensive tackle Alfred Collins on skates laterally before pancaking Collins, which allowed the Crimson Tide offensive lineman to clip Longhorns junior middle linebacker Jaylan Ford, who was trying to scrape into the hole on the play. The clip helped McClellan find the hole and two good blocks downfield put the entire Texas defense in chase mode. Senior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown might have had a chance at the speedy McClellan, but Overshown’s initial angle wasn’t good enough and McClellan was simply too fast for anyone else to catch.
D’Shawn Jamison’s dropped interception
The senior cornerback was excellent in the opener, providing hope that he’d turned the corner with his consistency this season. But he missed a huge opportunity to create a turnover and give Texas a short field in the second quarter.
Sophomore nose tackle Byron Murphy quickly put Alabama quarterback Bryce Young under pressure and Jamison, who was playing off coverage and reading Young’s eyes, jumped the pass, which hit him in the hands but bounced free as Jamison suffered the ankle injury that kept him out for the remainder of the game.
Had Jamison been able to come up with the interception, Texas would have had the ball around the Alabama 42-yard line with a chance to consolidate momentum after tying the game at 10-10. The Longhorns ultimately lost the field position battle over the next two drives, starting at their own 15-yard line and their own 12-yard line.
Second failed red-zone drive
Started with 1:40 remaining, the two-minute drill that redshirt sophomore quarterback Hudson Card helmed to end the first half was one of his most impressive drives of the game, highlighted an 18-yard run by Robinson, his longest of the game, and a 45-yard catch by Robinson.
With the clock running down, two pass interference penalties by Alabama ensured that Texas would have a difficult chance scoring a touchdown — the Longhorns only had one play remaining.
Card tried to find Worthy at the front of the end zone, but the coverage was strong enough that Worthy couldn’t get a foot down to secure the score. On the sprint out by Card, Worthy looked like the first read, but Sanders also had a chance to get open by running his defender into the center judge. Instead, Sanders bent his route behind the official and failed to create much separation.
The biggest issue was the inability to convert from 20 yards out on the field-goal attempt by redshirt freshman kicker Bert Auburn. For a second straight week, a poor snap by senior deep snapper Zach Edwards contributed to timing issues on the missed kick, which was ultimately blocked by Alabama edge Will Anderson following a protection breakdown that cost Texas three critical points.
Third failed red-zone drive
The safety that wasn’t did help the Longhorns start the ensuing drive with excellent field position at the Crimson Tide 39-yard line following a nine-yard return by Worthy. An undisciplined personal foul penalty on Anderson on a second-down play then gave Texas a first down at the Alabama 23-yard line.
Out of 21 personnel on first down, Texas ran slice zone to Robinson, who found a small hole on the left side of the line, broke a tackle, and eventually gained four hard-fought yards.
In 11 personnel on second down, Alabama appeared to guess the play call, overloading two defenders opposite Sanders, who was once again crossing the formation to make a block. He missed both defenders and senior running back Roschon Johnson was hit in the backfield, although he was able to break that tackle and drag several defenders for a four-yard gain.
Facing 3rd and 2, Texas debuted a look from wide receivers coach Brennan Marion’s Go-Go offense, putting two running backs to the right of Johnson in a 21 personnel Wildcat look.
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, the Crimson Tide made an excellent call with a rare defensive line game — one lineman slanted inside and the other twisted around, arriving in the hole on the zone read to meet Robinson, who was stopped for no gain to force a 33-yard field goal.
Fourth failed red-zone drive
A 20-yard scramble by Card extended a drive that featured a sack on the second play. Aided by two penalties, Texas moved the ball the Alabama 12-yard line as the third quarter ended with the Horns leading 13-10.
On first down, Sarkisian dialed up a specialty play in 21 personnel with junior running back Keilan Robinson lined up as a wingback to the boundary and Whittington coming in motion from the boundary to the field. Card faked a handoff to Bijan Robinson, then tossed it to Keilan Robinson with Whittington and Sanders as lead blockers. Whittington wasn’t able to sustain his block and that defender was eventually able to bring Robinson down by grabbing his facemask.
The play was obvious enough that Gus Johnson saw it clearly live from the press box, but the flag was never thrown and Texas missed out on a 1st and goal from the three-yard line.
The Longhorns lined up in 12 personnel on second down in a condensed formation, but freshman left tackle Kelvin Banks was tasked with a tough block trying to come across the face of a defender lined up inside of him and wasn’t able to make the play as Robinson was tackled in the backfield for no gain.
On third down, Card checked down to Robinson in the flat, but Alabama was in a zone defense with a defender standing wide to the field on the goal line and Robinson was tackled for a one-yard gain, forcing another field goal by Texas, this time from 24 yards. Had the Longhorns been able to gain more yardage on third down, Sarkisian might have gone for it on fourth down, but trying to convert from the six-yard line was too much to ask the offense at that point with Card hobbled.
Bryce Young’s back-breaking scramble
The play that saved Bama— Redshirt Heisman (@TasteOfSport) September 12, 2022
He’s a Heisman winner for a reason - despite an all around underwhelming performance from Alabama, Bryce Young still stepped up and saved them from an upset loss to the Longhorns pic.twitter.com/Wej0F6rd9D
With Alabama on the edge of field-goal range with 35 seconds remaining and facing a 1st and 10 from the Texas 37-yard line, Longhorns defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski dialed up the perfect play call — a cornerback blitz featuring the 6’3, 206-pound Ryan Watts, normally a sure tackler. Watts came free, but Young was able to duck through the tackle and benefitted from an egregious hold by right tackle JC Latham on sophomore Jack end Barryn Sorrell, producing a 20-yard scramble that set the Crimson Tide up to win the game.
This is complete trash. Gotta call that. pic.twitter.com/9gGjVIM3xW— tilt the field (@leesuperstar375) September 10, 2022
Will Reichard did exactly that with 10 seconds remaining, hitting a field goal from 33 yards.
A sack or a holding call, on the other hand, would have put the Crimson Tide well behind the chains and in serious danger of not making it into field-goal range with only one timeout remaining.
Last season, Texas was No. 4 nationally in red-zone touchdown percentage at 74.5 percent, settling for only nine field goals in 47 trips inside the opposing 20-yard line and failing to score at all only three times all season. In the opener against Louisiana-Monroe, Texas scored five touchdowns on seven trips into the red zone, only settling for one field goal. So the Longhorns have been good in the red area throughout Sarkisian’s short tenure on the Forty Acres, but weren’t able to execute against the Crimson Tide.
“We pride ourselves on our red-zone execution and we were great at it a year ago, we were really good last week. And we spend a lot of time there because the value of those points are so important, which we kind of learned the hard way Saturday, 1-for-5 in the red area,” Sarkisian said on Monday.
“Quite frankly, that’s kind of the difference in the game, so we have to do a lot of things better down there. Our execution has to take it to another level, I’ve gotta make sure I’m calling the best stuff for us at the right times, and then it comes down to making plays and when it’s 50-50 or that tough block, man, you’ve got to be able to make it. So we’re gonna pull ourselves back into that to make sure that we’re executing the way that we’re accustomed to execute in the red area.”
Of course, the stout defensive line of Alabama made that more difficult and the secondary benefitted from the shortened field, as well as the no-call on the first throw to Sanders that featured so much contact. But while Utah State failed to score in the red zone on one trip in the opener, Alabama wasn’t elite in that area a year ago, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on 55 percent of opposing trips into the red area, tied for 38th nationally.
Combined with the dropped touchdown by Worthy, the inability of Jamison to come up with the interception, and the two big defensive mistakes, the Longhorns just didn’t make enough key plays to upset the Crimson Tide.
As Sarkisian mentioned after the game, there was plenty to be proud of across all three phases. Now comes the task of steadily getting better to accomplish the goal of playing for the Big 12 Championship in December.
“I know when I watch his tape there’s going to be a lot of things that I know we can improve upon and that’s the key to the drill in any season, especially early in the season, is that we’ve got to continue to improve individually across the board so that we can improve collectively and there’s plenty for us to work on to get better at,” Sarkisian said.