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Win over Houston showcased improved resilience, finishing ability of Texas

“Hey, three years ago we wouldn’t have gotten that dub, huh?”

NCAA Football: Texas at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

HOUSTON — As senior linebacker Jaylan Ford discussed with the media how the then-No. 8 Texas Longhorns would have lost to the Houston Cougars in previous seasons instead of holding on for Saturday’s 31-24 win at TDECU Stadium, senior defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat squeezed his massive frame into the crowded hallway.

“Big 4-1!” Sweat boomed out.

“What’s good, Sweat? You can ask by my boy Sweat. Hey, three years ago we wouldn’t have gotten that dub, huh?” Ford asked his teammate.

“We would’ve lost, man,” Sweat replied.

The team’s improved resiliency — in execution, depth, and mental and physical toughness — was a major talking point in the aftermath of the narrow victory, which came down to a 4th and 1 from the Texas 10-yard line after the previous run seemingly gained the first down but was spotted short.

“I think the spot was horrible,” said Cougars head coach Dana Holgorsen. “I think we got the first down… I don’t understand review. Every time I think something’s reviewable, I can’t get them to review it. They say they’re looking at it, but I don’t know that. Somebody’s just confirmed it’s as bad as a I think it is.”

But even though the Longhorns benefitted from the poor spot, they still had to go out and make a play on fourth down with Holgorsen planning to go for two had the Cougars scored on the drive, just as he did at the end of a win by the Mountaineers in Austin five years ago. Holgorsen even planned on running the same play, which he calls “Horns down” — an empty set running a slant to the boundary, a bubble screen to the field with a wide receiver stacked behind two blockers, and a draw for the quarterback with the best option chosen pre-snap.

Instead, Texas senior nickel back Jahdae Barron blew up the fourth-down play that attempted to pick him, breaking up the pass to create a turnover on downs and allowing the Longhorns offense to kneel out the clock.

Houston motioned wide receiver Stephon Johnson into the slot, followed by Barron in man coverage, who told the media after the game that his pre-snap recognition helped ensure he was in position to make the play.

“My coach actually told me he was going to go in motion and when I kind of saw the splits with the other receiver there by No. 2, I kind of knew what play it was,” said Barron.

While Barron’s final play showcased his toughness and determination after sitting out the first half due to an injury that limited him in practice, an interception by sophomore safety Michael Taaffe and a strip sack by Ford flashed the playmaking ability of the Texas defense in key moments.

“Having the mindset of the ball being on your mind, are we sacking the quarterback and forcing a turnover with a strip attempt,” Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said after the game. “There’s something about football IQ and football awareness — Jaylan Ford has that in his game, where he kind of finds the football because he remains calm and doesn’t get frantic. When there’s a punch attempt, he’s under control to do that.”

The finish stands in stark contrast to previous years for the Longhorns, including the start of the Sarkisian era, which featured blown second-half leads in seven of his first 10 losses, leading to an offseason premium put on finishing.

“It just showed that we’re able to finish,” Barron said of a game that featured an early 21-0 Longhorns lead. “We know how to finish at critical times and we know how to come together. When we need plays, we’ll make plays — big play by Taaffe, he made the play in the right moment for us.”

The Longhorns also received critical plays late on special teams and on offense.

With the game on the line after Houston tied it at 24-24 with 7:43 remaining, senior running back Keilan Robnson had a crucial 33-yard kickoff return to the Texas 47-yard line that gave the offense a short field.

The Cougars knew the Longhorns wanted to run the ball with backup quarterback Maalik Murphy in the game, but it didn’t matter — four of the first five plays on the drive were runs by redshirt sophomore Jonathon Brooks that totaled 30 yards, setting up a 16-yard touchdown run by freshman CJ Baxter. Murphy only had to the throw the ball once, a simple screen by senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington.

When the defense took the field again, Houston was able to move down the field thanks in part to two explosive passes, but Sarkisian cited the tackling and coverage ability of his team late in the game as a difference from years past.

“What I loved was our ability to tackle, right? Even when, maybe a year or two ago, we would be fatigued because of the lack of depth, we were still able to tackle well, and then we were still able to cover tight enough to where we could force tight throws and in the end way, we found a way to win,” said Sarkisian.

The players feel the program’s seismic shift, and so does the coach.

“I think there’s a resiliency of this group, I think there’s a togetherness of this group, I think there’s a fight on this team that is real, it’s genuine,” said Sarkisian.

After the game, Sarkisian flashed back to similar moments that ended differently for his other Texas teams. These Longhorns have now outscored opponents by 48 points this season.

“I’m happy we won and I can remember vividly being here a year ago, not in this exact stadium, but in that situation — and two years ago — and us not winning that game that went that way,” said Sarkisian. “And so I think it speaks a lot to this team’s resiliency, this team’s mental toughness, their ability to finish in the fourth quarter I thought showed up tonight.”