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Why the final Sugar Bowl drive for Texas came up short

The Longhorns had four plays from inside the 15-yard line and couldn’t score the game-winning touchdown.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Texas at Washington John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

NEW ORLEANS — With the clock at the Sugar Bowl reading double zeroes, Washington Huskies cornerback Elijah Jackson had commanding position on Texas Longhorns wide receiver AD Mitchell and all the vertical necessary to make the game-winning swipe at the football delivered from Quinn Ewers to send the Huskies to a 37-31 win over the Longhorns in the Sugar Bowl on Monday to advance to next week’s national championship game.

“The resiliency our team showed in that fourth quarter to find a way to have an opportunity to win the game is indicative of the character that we have on this team and the men that we have in that locker room — those guys are fighters,” said Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian. “They fought together. As bleak as it looked there, they never gave up hope and they believed. And I think that’s how you give yourself a chance at the end.”

The game’s final play ended the comeback hopes for Texas, which trailed by 13 points after a 40-yard field goal by Washington in the early moments of the fourth quarter before narrowing the margin to a touchdown with the fifth touchdown of Mitchell’s distinguished College Football Playoffs career midway through the final quarter. In response, the Huskies mounted a massive 10-play, 65-yard drive that took 4:43 off the clock, although the Longhorns defense held in the red zone to force a field goal and preserve the possibility of an improbable win.

Thrust into desperation mode, the Texas offense only needed four plays to get into the red zone, where Ewers tried and failed twice to connect with Mitchell on second and third down, forcing the Horns to settle for a field goal.

The onside kick attempt from Texas kicker Bert Auburn failed, setting Washington up to drain out the clock by picking up a first down or nearly do so by virtue of running three plays — the only two things that couldn’t happen were an injury or a turnover.

And the aggravation of a previous injury sustained by Huskies running back Dillon Johnson was exactly what happened on a run up the middle for no gain on 3rd and 5, stopping the clock with 50 seconds remaining for an injury timeout.

The extra 15 yards tacked onto the fair catch made by Jordan Whittington on the punt for a kick-catch interference were enormously helpful as Texas started its final drive with 45 second left in the game, but not as impactful as Whittington’s high-pointed, 41-yard catch on 3rd and 10 that moved the ball to the Washington 28-yard line.

With 30 seconds left, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian had to balance to need to score a touchdown and the lack of a timeout that cut down his call sheet on anything that might end in a tackle in the field of play.

“It’s a tricky situation in that you’re out of timeouts, so we have to be very careful that we don’t complete a ball short of the goal line or pretty much the game is going to end at that point,” said Sarkisian.

On 1st and 10 from the 28-yard line, Texas ran three go routes with a post from Whittington. Ewers chose to target Mitchell matched up against Oklahoma State transfer cornerback Jabbar Muhammad, whose understanding of the time and game situation caused him to give Mitchell enough of a cushion to contest the throw in the end zone.

Needing to gain yardage, Sarkisian called a quick hitter on a wheel route to Blue that allowed Ewers to find his running back on the sideline that led Blue out of bounds for a 16-yard gain, prompting a timeout by Washington to strategize its red-zone defense.

On the first play, Ewers faked a pitch to Blue before throwing a swing pass to the sophomore that lost a yard.

“He was more of a check down on the play,” said Sarkisian. “We were looking for an opportunity for JT or J-Whit trying to create a one-on-one matchup for those guys to go high-point it. Naturally, they did a good job defending it. And Quinn did a good job of just getting the ball out to Blue with a chance in space, but had to get out of bounds.”

Down to 10 seconds, Ewers had Sanders open for a short gain, instead trying to target Mitchell in the back of the end zone. The ball sailed on Ewers thanks to some pressure the consistent ability of Washington defensive linemen to impact throwing lanes by getting their hands up.

On third down, the Huskies showed six men on the line of scrimmage, dropping two but confusing the Longhorns protection scheme enough to to get cornerback Mishael Powell free on Ewers, who threw the ball away, narrowly avoiding a sack and preserving one final second on the clock in shades of the 2009 Big 12 Championship game won by Texas.

Fate wasn’t in favor of the Horns in New Orleans, however — Sarkisian called a fade to Mitchell working against the large cushion of Jackson, raising questions about why there wasn’t a sight adjustment made by the Texas quarterback and his wide receiver with the front of the end zone undefended.

“When you’re forced to throw it into the end zone each time, it makes it difficult, especially when they’re defending the end zone,” said Sarkisian. “So we were just trying to create some matchups with some different route combinations to create some one-on-ones and to give our playmakers a chance to make a play. And we just weren’t quite able to do it. That’s the way it goes sometimes.