AUSTIN, Texas — When head coach Steve Sarkisian met with the media following Saturday’s 31-10 win by the then-No. 3 Texas Longhorns over the Wyoming Cowboys at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, he addressed a closer-than-expected game that nonetheless reflected some continued forward progress for his program and helped solidify some key storylines long destined to determine the success or failure of his tenure on the Forty Acres.
The finish was championship-quality and part of a promising trend
“Ultimately in the fourth quarter, to score three straight drives after the (Barryn) Sorrell sack I just thought in the end was good for us,” Sarkisian said. “I think that’s what championship teams do, they find a way to win when they’re not at their best and tonight it’s safe to say we were not at our best. But we found a way to win, we found a way to adapt, we found a way to stay composed, keep our composure, and then start playing our style, our brand of football, which I thought really shined through.”
Late in the third quarter, Wyoming went on a 17-play, 77-yard drive that took over 10 minutes off the clock — a full 16.7 percent of the entire game — with only two plays of over seven yards and a pass interference penalty. On the drive, the Cowboys converted two third downs and a fourth down to move inside the Longhorns 10-yard line.
Then junior Jack end Barryn Sorrell stepped up. Trying to go for the touchdown and a 14-10 lead, Wyoming quarterback Evan Svoboda was forced to hold the football and then scramble out of bounds for no gain under pressure from Sorrell. On 3rd and goal from the 10-yard line, Sorrell came off the edge to sack Svoboda — the only sack of the game for Texas — and hold the Cowboys to a field goal.
The defensive stand seemed to energize an offense intent on finally establishing the run with 19 rushes for 68 yards before the last play of the third quarter, a 20-yard effort by junior running back Jonathon Brooks. Two more runs by Brooks totaling 11 yards set up soft one-on-one coverage on junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy, who did the rest in scoring a 44-yard touchdown.
Further energized by the offense, Texas senior defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat powered into the backfield for a tackle for loss to open the ensuing Wyoming, which ended when senior nickel back Jahdae Barron powered through a wide receiver to make a tackle for no gain on 3rd and 3.
In control of both lines of scrimmage, the Longhorns offensive line helped Brooks set up a 3rd and 1 with two rushes before opening up a massive hole for the Texas running back, who raced for 61 yards. The football stayed on the ground with Brooks for two more runs until redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinn Ewers finished the drive with a five-yard touchdown on a zone read.
The next drive for the Cowboys only lasted two plays when Svoboda tried to hit an out-breaking route one time too may, producing a 27-yard interception return for a touchdown by senior safety Jerrin Thompson.
Those seven minutes of game time proved the decisive difference in the game and may ultimately help define the growth of this Texas program under Sarkisian.
“In the end I’d like not to have to wait until the fourth quarter, but it is a little bit comforting to know that we that we can play that way in the fourth quarter. This is back-to-back weeks of 21-point fourth quarters,” Sarkisian said.
“I think there’s a credit to our strength and conditioning program, the condition that our team is in that they can play that way in the fourth quarter. I think there’s a lot of credit to the coaches making the proper adjustments in game at halftime and in game to adjust to what’s happening in the ballgame. I think there’s a lot of credit to the players and their psyche and keeping their poise and keeping their confidence and knowing that if we just continue to execute good things will happen.”
Finishing so strong against Alabama and against Wyoming, in addition to the 21-point third quarter in the season-opening win over Rice, is reversing a critical and disturbing trend over the first two seasons under Sarkisian.
“This offseason and two offseasons ago, all I heard about was we weren’t a fourth-quarter team and that we didn’t play well in the fourth quarter, so it’s like anything in football. You guys hear me say it all the time — generally in our sport, you get what you emphasize and we’ve made a huge emphasis on our ability to finish games and play that way in the fourth quarter and I can’t pick two better back-to-back weeks in a row of us playing our best football in the fourth quarter.”
Opposing defenses are throwing everything at the Longhorns
The first half against Rice found Texas trying to adjust to a defense the Owls hadn’t played before. The first three quarters against the Cowboys found the Horns trying to adjust to a defense Wyoming hadn’t played before
“I think we have to get accustomed to something — this is now two out of the three weeks where we have gotten an absolutely different defense than they’ve put on tape and that’s a sign of being a really good team, that people are going to such lengths to play a style of defense that they would never play against anyone else, whatever length it is, and that’s when you have to trust your training and being able to block the plays regardless of the look that we get,” Sarkisian said.
Those tweaks by the coaching staff helped allow the offensive line to play more physical late in the game as the Longhorns ran for 117 of their 185 rushing yards between the fourth quarter and the final play of the third quarter. Brooks was the beneficiary, running for a career-high 164 yards on 21 carries, although he admitted to reporters after the game that he left some yards on the field by missing holes earlier in the game.
Special teams are making a difference for Texas
Under coordinator Jeff Banks, known as one of the best in the country, the Longhorns finished No. 44 last season on special teams SP+ after losing Cameron Dicker as the kicker in all three phases, needing to find a walk-on punter in preseason camp, and largely failing to produce explosive plays in the return game. Texas was, however, strong on its coverage units and capable of blocking punts.
This year, adding punter Ryan Sanborn in the offseason stabilized that position, place kicker Bert Auburn and kickoff specialist Will Stone are a year stronger and more mature, and there are promising signs on punt return.
“I thought tonight we played exceptional on special teams,” Sarkisian said on Saturday. “Xavier (Worthy) got a couple of really good returns, Sanborn’s punting the ball extremely well, and they really returned one kickoff, we tackle them inside the 20, so on that aspect of the special teams, I liked that.”
Worthy moved into the role of primary punt returner last season because Banks trusted him not to hurt field position by allowing punts to hit the ground. With Texas pressuring more punts than typical for Banks, the explosive plays were missing in 2022 as Worthy averaged 9.7 yards per return.
But there are signs the Longhorns are close to breaking through after Worthy had a 21-yard return against Rice and two strong returns on Saturday — a 20-yard effort behind strong blocking from multiple players, including freshman linebacker Liona Lefau, that set up a first-quarter field goal, and a 32-yard return in the fourth quarter behind a massive wall that nearly went for a touchdown.
Through three games, Sanborn looks improved from his four seasons at Stanford. In 2021, Sanborn averaged a career-high 43.3 yards per punt and while the sample size this year is still small, he’s at an average of 48 yards on nine punts. The situational punting from Sanborn is just as impressive, whether it was enough hang time on a 50-yard punt to force a fair catch or a 34-yard punt down at the Wyoming 4-yard line, an area where Sanford seems to excel with his nose-down punts.
On kickoff coverage, Texas currently ranks No. 14 nationally with opponents averaging 13.8 yards per turn on four returns, a number tied for 34th nationally. As Sarkisian mentioned, Wyoming only tried to return one kickoff, an 11-yard return in the first quarter that ended on a tackle by Jett Bush at the 14-yard line. After that, the Cowboys opted against returning any more kickoffs.
In this year’s SP+, the Longhorns currently rank No. 22 on special teams.