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No. 2 Washington 37, No. 3 Texas 31: Three things we learned

The Longhorns had a a shot to win it late, but couldn’t come up with one final play.

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

Thanks to a confluence of injury rules and mental mistakes from the No. 2 Washington Huskies, the No. 3 Texas Longhorns had a shot to steal the Sugar Bowl late on Monday night in New Orleans, but could not quite get over the hump. When the final second ticked off the clock and Adonai Mitchell’s hands were empty, the Longhorns’ most successful season in nearly 15 years ended one game shy of playing for a national championship.

1. Texas still needs help at the back end of the defense

For most of the year, the Longhorns defense was seen as a strength, largely thanks to the large men in the middle creating pressure and havoc in the backfield and forcing teams to be one-dimensional. That was largely the case against the Huskies, holding them to 102 yards and 3.3 yards per carry. In most contests, that is enough for Texas to sit on the passing game and put the squeeze on opponents, but playing a passing attack the caliber of Washington exposed what the defensive line had been able to paper over for weeks.

The Huskies seemingly got everything they wanted through the air against the Longhorns secondary, completing nine passes longer than 15 yards and completing 22 of their first 25 attempts. Washington quarterback Michael Penix was a well-timed Texas pass interference call from a third touchdown and the CFP passing record, a play that turned out to be a high IQ play by Terrance Brooks — sacrificing 15 yards for six points.

Part of the issue was the defensive line’s inability to pressure Penix in a meaningful way and in the event they did, he showed off his ability to reset the pocket and put the ball in perfect spots.

2. The running game is in good hands

After Jonathon Brooks’s injury, Texas had to turn to a pair of talented, but largely unproven backs to carry the ground game. Four games later, it seems that both CJ Baxter and Jaydon Blue have not only found their places in the running game, they’re poised to be a potent complimentary pair of backs regardless of what Brooks decides to do with his NFL future.

Both backs showed off their skillsets, with Baxter playing a physical brand of football and Blue flashing his acceleration and ability to make defenders miss on multiple occasions. While both players turned the ball over once, one of which came as the result of trying to move past a blocker and instead finding their derriere, those are things that can be cleaned up with coaching — which was already happening on the sideline with running backs coach Tashard Choice.

Add in another elite rusher in Jerrick Gibson and the potential return of Brooks, the Texas ground game should once again be an asset in 2024 and beyond.

3. Texas belongs, but “back” is hard to define

It’s unquestionably the most successful season since the 2009 season, winning 12 games and a conference championship en route to making the College Football Playoff, but there is clearly another level Texas needs to unlock if they want to get over that hump for the first time since 2005.

The roster seems to be built in a way that will set them up for future success, prioritizing talent in the trenches while also landing elite talent at difference-making skill positions, but the gaps are still there. Additional help on the edges to keep offenses honest and keep quarterbacks from extending plays, as well as playmaking safeties will shore up an already solid unit. Offensively, Texas has the best offensive line and running back rooms we’ve seen in Austin in years, but will have to find quick answers at wide receiver in 2024. The talent is there, but losing all of your proven production at the spot could significantly lower their ceiling heading into the SEC.