As the Texas Longhorns prepare to play in their first-ever College Football Playoff game on Monday in New Orleans, it’ll take a complete game from Steve Sarkisian and his team if they wish to knock off the Washington Huskies in the Sugar Bowl.
Here are my three keys to winning the Sugar Bowl for Sark and the Longhorns:
1. Limit Michael Penix
Sounds easier said than done, right? How does one limit the Maxwell Award winner and Heisman runner-up? Let’s get one thing straight — Penix is going to get his. Washington’s star quarterback leads the country in passing yards and is seventh in passing attempts. But what makes the Huskies so dangerous is Penix and the offense's ability to create big plays. They rank fifth in yards per play and have generated 41 plays of 30-plus yards, third in the nation. So the key? Limit the explosive plays by Penix.
In last year's 27-20 win over Texas, Penix was largely held in check while still attempting 52 passes. But those passes came at only 5.3 yards per attempt, over three yards lower than his season average of 8.4 in 2022. Take away the opening 35-yard completion off a flea-flicker and their longest pitch and catch was just 18 yards. Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski was able to take away the deep shots and explosive plays through the air and will need to use that same blueprint in the Sugar Bowl.
The second part of this answer is generating pressure on Penix. That will also be easier said and done because Washington boasts the Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line, given to the best OL in the country.
They’ve allowed just 11 sacks this season (tied for 4th in the country) and even when pressured, Penix has the mobility to escape. Can you guess how many times Penix was sacked in last year’s Alamo Bowl? Zero.
However, the Texas defensive line is more equipped to handle Washington’s offensive line than it was last year with the improvement inside from T’Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy and the development of Ethan Burke on the outside. If they’re able to get to Penix and make him uncomfortable, it could force turnovers and change the outcome of the game.
2. Control the flow
Steve Sarkisian and the Longhorns lost by just a touchdown last year against Washington despite running 18 fewer plays (83 to 65) and having possession over 11 minutes less than them as well (35:46 to 24:14). You won’t win many games when your opponent controls the clock and runs nearly 20 more plays than you. It was Kalen DeBoer’s game plan last year and it most certainly will be it again this year — keep the Texas offense off the field and sustain long drives, even if it yields in just a field goal.
Part of Washington’s ability to drain the clock was being able to run the ball effectively (158 rushing yards) and convert third downs (11 of 20). This season, Texas is great at stopping at the run and getting the opponent off the field on third down, allowing just 2.87 yards per carry (fifth nationally) and opponents to convert third downs at 28.5 percent (second nationally). They also struggled to get the run game going with Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson opting out and Jonathon Brooks gutting through a hernia injury. Texas finished with just 51 rushing yards and averaged 2.8 yards per attempt. Yikes.
But even with Brooks suffering a season-ending injury, Cedric Baxter and Jaydon Blue have picked up the slack.
I’m cheating with my second key because it consists of about five keys, but who’s counting? If Sark can control the tempo on offense and keep Penix off the field, it’ll give the Longhorns a massive edge in the Sugar Bowl.
3. Have fun!
Just kidding — sort of. Texas needs to come out in this game and play loose. Sark has talked about wanting his team to play their style of football — fast, physical, and aggressive. You can’t do that if you’re playing tight. Think about the Longhorns' only loss this season against the Oklahoma Sooners. Did Texas look loose in that opening quarter with two Quinn Ewers interceptions? Nope. It was the Sooners who looked like they were playing with nothing to lose and were the more physical team. You could even argue that in last year's loss to the Huskies in the Alamo Bowl, the Horns looked tight with key drops and penalties.
Now think about the two biggest wins this season — on the road against Alabama and in the Big 12 Championship versus Oklahoma State. Both sides of the ball came out firing and gave Texas an early lead.
My final key for Texas to win the Sugar Bowl is to continue playing their brand of football, but to do that they’ll need to be playing loose and continue to embrace the John Wick mentality that has defined all but one game for the Longhorns this season.
Texas is a four-point favorite over Washington, according to DraftKings.
Odds/lines are subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.