NEW ORLEANS — For the first time ever, the No. 3 Texas Longhorns are in the College Football playoffs, earning a matchup with the No. 2 Washington Huskies in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Monday thanks to a 12-1 season that included a road win over the No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide, an undefeated run through the Big 12, and a convincing conference title game win.
But as third-year head coach Steve Sarkisian likes to say, “We didn’t come this far just to come this far.
So there’s unfinished business for these Longhorns seeking the school’s first appearance in a national title game since 2009.
Standing in the way is head coach Kalen DeBoer Washington’s team and its high-flying offense led by Heisman finalist quarterback Michael Penix Jr., a deep and talented wide receiver corps, and an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best.
Texas has plenty of star power of its own with a balanced team that Sarkisian consistently praised for its versatility, including strong special teams units coached by Jeff Banks. The difference-maker might be Sarkisian as a play-caller — against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship game, he dialed up a flea flicker and numerous screens to steamroll the Cowboys and should put his players in positions to succeed, just like he did with the Crimson Tide to win a national championship days after taking the job in Austin.
With nearly a month to prepare for the game, the expectation was that both team would be close to full strength, but Texas senior running back Keilan Robinson may be limited, including on special teams.
Sourced: #Texas RB Keilan Robinson suffered a hand injury in practice this week leading up to the Sugar Bowl.— CJ Vogel (@CJVogel_TFB) January 2, 2024
He is on the field for warmups with a heavy wrap on his left hand, but there is skepticism about his usage on kickoff return tonight vs. Washington.
Senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington is the other deep man on kickoff returns for Texas with sophomore running back Savion Red and freshman wide receiver Deandre Moore Jr. listed as the backups. Red has two returns for 29 yards this season.
After missing the Big 12 Championship game with a back injury sustained against Texas Tech, senior cornerback Ryan Watts went through warmups with his teammates.
During the 11-on-11 portions, sophomore Michael Taaffe was with senior Jerrin Thompson as the first-team safety with freshman Derek Williams suspended for the first half due to a targeting penalty on the opening kickoff of the second half against Oklahoma State.
Washington won the toss and deferred to the second half, giving Texas the ball to start the game. With Robinson’s injury, sophomore running back Jaydon Blue returned the opening kickoff for the Longhorns 31 yards for an explosive start to the game. A snap infraction moved Texas backwards before its first play from scrimmage and redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinn Ewers threw incomplete on a run-pass option. Through a crease on the left side, freshman running back CJ Baxter gained 16 yards to move the chains before Ewers threw incomplete again under pressure after stepping up from the pocket. Going back to run-pass options, Ewers had his third pass batted at the line of scrimmage and his fourth pass fall incomplete on 3rd and 10.
The Huskies started their first drive at the 11-yard line with the Longhorns called for offsides on the fist play. Two runs by Dillon Johnson narrowly moved the chains before Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. had too much time in the pocket, finding wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk, who beat Texas sophomore cornerback Terrance Brooks in coverage, for a 76-yard gain to set up a short touchdown run by Johnson on the next play.
Blue started the second series at running back with an eight-yard gain before Ewers completed his first pass, a misdirection screen to Baxter that gained 31 yards. Looking for a shot play against man coverage, Ewers scrambled for 12 yards on the next play and then four yards after faking screens to both sides of the field. The momentum continued with Baxter showing off his feet when healthy on a 13-yard gain. Lining up in a Diamond formation that motioned into an Pistol offset I formation, Whittington carried for two yards to set up a five-yard touchdown run by Blue finished with some physicality.
Texas sophomore Buck end Ethan Burke started Washington’s second drive with a tackle on a pass into the flat and blew up a pin and pull for a run stuff to set up 3rd and 4 for the Huskies. Flushed from the pocket, Penix threw incomplete as the Longhorns forced a punt.
From an empty formation on first down, Texas senior right tackle Christian Jones set too deep and got beat on an inside move by Washington edge Bralen Trice for his third sack against the Longhorns. On 3rd and 14, junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy came close to picking up the first down on a screen pass, but senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington was called for holding. Ewers moved outside the pocket to hit Baxter on 3rd and 17, another successful play called back for holding, this time on Jones.
Chunk passing plays continued to haunt the Texas secondary, beat on a slot fade by Germie Bernard for 29 yards and a completion over the middle to Rome Odunze for 24 yards before a 17-yard run set up a short touchdown run by Washington for a 14-7 lead.
Thanks to a tackle for loss by the Huskies on a screen pass Longhorns tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders, an incompletion on second down, and a screen pass to Whittington that didn’t pick up the necessary yardage, Texas went three and out, but got the ball back when Bernard muffed the punt and it was recovered by linebacker Mo Blackwell at the 22-yard line.
Baxter ran up the middle for nine yards and took the edge for another positive gain called back due to an illegal shift by Sanders. No matter, as Ewers hit Whittington on a run-pass option for a 17-yard gain. Lined up in the team’s jumbo package, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian called a handoff to junior defensive tackle Byron Murphy from his fullback position and Murphy converted from one yard out to tie the game at 14-14.
Washington didn’t wait to strike as Penix dropped a bomb over the shoulder of Odunze against strong coverage by Watts, beat narrowly on a 52-yard gain. Going away from the passing game, three runs by Johnson left the Huskies with a 4th and 1 with Johnson in the Wildcat and stuffed by the Longhorns for a massive turnover on downs.
Blue found a crease for 12 yards to open the Texas drive, but Ewers couldn’t hit Worthy on a go route and Blue was stopped fo a loss on second down, forcing the Horns into a 3rd and 12 where Worthy never found the football when Ewers had to throw it early thanks to heavy pressure from the Huskies.
Washington converted a pass on 3rd and 4 at the sticks on a play initially ruled a first down and then overturned on review. Trying to get the Longhorns to jump offsides, the Huskies called a timeout and then handed it off to Johnson to move the chains. On the next play, Penix was close to throwing the ball from across the line of scrimmage, but the call stood on review. Some friendly luck benefitted Washington to finish the drive as Polk caught a 29-yard touchdown that deflected into his hands in the end zone on a diving attempt to break it up by Texas freshman cornerback Manny Muhammad.
Another pass from Ewers got batted down on first down prior to Blue picking up 11 yards out of the backfield, but then dropping a nice throw on a wheel route down the sideline, potentially a lost touchdown. A completion to Sanders moved the ball across midfield and Sarkisian used his first timeout with 54 seconds remaining in the half. Two more completions to Sanders and Whittington went for short gains, but Whittington was at least able to get out of bounds. Ewers scrambled close to the marker to set up 3rd and 1 with 29 seconds remaining and again, getting inside the 10-yard line and drawing a penalty for a late hit. Baxter finished the 10-play, 72-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown run to send the game into halftime tied at 21-21.
After serving a suspension for a targeting penalty against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship game, Texas freshman safety Derek Williams came out with the first-team defense to start the second half. A rare called run for Penix picked up 12 yards before the Huskies found themselves in 3rd and 8 just across midfield, converted with an easy pass and catch to Jalen McMillan. Polk picked up 13 yards on a screen pass to move into the Texas red zone and Penix hit McMillan over the middle for a 19-yard touchdown and a 28-21 lead.
On the first offensive play of the second half for the Longhorns, Baxter fumbled trying to pick up extra yardage and the Huskies recovered. Looking to go up by two scores, Penix thew yet another dart to beat good overage, gaining 19 yards. Going conservative in the red zone again, three runs by Johnson only picked up five yards. Washington settled for a 26-yard field goal and 31-21 lead.
Two runs by Blue and a catch by wide receiver AD Mitchell, his first of the game, put Texas in a crucial 3rd and 5 that resulted in an incomplete pass on a Washington blitz that put pressure on Ewers before the play could develop. Ewers had his head bounce off the turf on the third-down incompletion and freshman quarterback Arch Manning spent some time warming up on the sidelines.
Meanwhile, Penix continued to pick up yards in the passing game in addition to a scramble that avoided a potential sack, starting the second half with 11 straight completions until a drop by a running back on a check down. The Washington offense kept churning though with a mid-line option kept by Penix for 13 yards, eventually heading into the fourth quarter facing 3rd and 5 from the Texas 18-yard line.
The Texas defense came up with a big stop after a false-start penalty on Washington and a rare incompletion by Penix, who had some pressure in his face. The Huskies extended the lead to 34-21 with a 40-yard field goal.
For a second straight kickoff in the second half, Robinson struggled to secure the ball cleanly with his hard cast, costing the Longhorns yardage and putting them at risk of a turnover. Desperately needing to move the ball and score points, the Texas offense turned to Sanders, who gained 23 yards on consecutive receptions. Blue picked up 35 yards on a check down, but fumbled at the end of the run and Washington recovered, a ruling made on replay.
Penix drew a pass-interference penalty on Brooks trying to hit Polk open down the field, a reasonable tradeoff for the Longhorns in desperation mode. Looking to put Texas away, Washington tried a flea flicker on the next play, but the Horns had it covered well. Another incompletion set up 3rd and 10, a tackle for loss made by senior linebacker Jaylan Ford after Texas again held up in the secondary.
The officiating crew wasn’t any help for the Longhorns when Worthy was thrown down well out of bounds on the punt return. A short run and a false-start penalty didn’t help Texas, either, though a hitch route completed to Mitchell went for a promising 15-yard gain, but Ewers took a sack on a play-action pass looking for a shot play, the second sack of the game for Trice. To get into third and manageable, Ewers connected with Baxter for eight yards. On a huge play for the Horns, Worthy caught a slot fade down the sideline for 38 yards into the red zone, where jumbo tight end Malik Agbo, a converted offensive lineman, caught a six-yard pass, the first of his career. A nice move by Blue on the perimeter moved the chains and the ball down to the 3-yard line. Opting against a run on 2nd and goal, Ewers threw a fade to Mitchell, who extended his streak of catching touchdowns in College Football Playoff games to five, cutting the Washington lead to 34-28.
A blitz by Texas on first down forced a check down for a loss by Washington, but a completion on second down produced a 3rd and 2 converted in a hole in the zone coverage with the clock starting to factor against the Longhorns. More crucially, McMillan took a screen and picked up 14 yards across midfield. In a back-breaking play, Penix dropped a beautiful throw over the shoulder of Odunze on a patented slot fade for 32 yards to push Texas to the brink again. Two runs by the Huskies produced a net gain of zero yards and the Longhorns used their first timeout on 3rd and 10 from the 10-yard line. Blitzing Penix didn’t produce a sack, but it did force an incompletion and a 27-yard field goal with 2:40 remaining.
Ewers picked up 11 yard with a pass to Mitchell, scrambled for 13 yards, and escaped the pocket to his left, throwing across his body to Sanders for 20 yards. Another scramble by Ewers picked up eight yards with 10 yards added for defensive holding and a completion to junior tight end Gunnar Helm went for six yards. Going back to the fade route to Mitchell didn’t work a second time, setting up 3rd and 4, a deflected pass to send the field-goal unit on the field needing points and an onside kick. Junior kick Bert Auburn converted the first end from 25 yards.
Auburn’s onside kick failed as Washington recovered, leaving Texas with two timeouts with the second called at 1:02 with the Huskies needing to convert a 3rd and 5, which not only failed, but resulted in an injury to Johnson to stop the clock, costing Washington 30 seconds.
Kick-catch interference on the Huskies helped the Horns to 15 extra yards. Two incompletions didn’t burn much clock, but left Texas in a 3rd and 10 with 38 seconds remaining, a huge completion from Ewers to Whittington for 41 yards. Ewers couldn’t connect with Mitchell in the end zone with 20 seconds left and the Huskies opted for a timeout. A throw to the sideline caught by Blue picked up 16 yards to the 12-yard line and took only five seconds, standing on review prior to Washington taking its final timeout. Blue lost a yard on a catch and Ewers had to throw the ball away on second down, leaving five seconds left on the clock. Under quick pressure, Ewers threw the ball away on third down, too, hitting out of bounds with one second left. Ewers went back to Mitchell on a fade, but it was well covered and the ball fell incomplete, sending the Longhorns to a 37-31 defeat.