University of Texas head football coach Steve Sarkisian pointed toward quarterback Quinn Ewers, furiously pumped his fist, then screamed joyously into the suddenly quiet Alabama night. Was this joy, relief, or an intersection of the two? Once the Longhorns had sealed the program’s most significant victory in years, the normally stoic Sarkisian seemed to release a bit of the frustration after two seasons of close losses, relentless criticism, and unfulfilled promises.
Now, as more than 100,000 fans inside Bryant–Denny Stadium went eerily silent, Sarkisian could see what he’d envisioned the moment the University of Texas hired him as head coach of its football program on January 2, 2021. Sark’s Longhorns were about to beat third-ranked Alabama 34–24 in a game he had called a benchmark for the team and an opportunity for the Longhorns to measure themselves against the storied program as well as college football’s greatest coach, Nick Saban.
Sarkisian’s team had been the tougher one on Saturday night—tougher and smarter and more talented than the Crimson Tide. He got a Heisman-level 349 yards, three touchdown passes, and no turnovers from Ewers, thanks in part to an offensive line that sealed him off from Alabama’s NFL prospect–laden defensive line.
“I know sometimes it sounds like coachspeak,” Sarkisian said, “but I believe this: you get what you emphasize in this profession. As coaches, I know sometimes, going back to year one, how ugly some of those fourth quarters were. And then we go last year where we were kind of fifty-fifty, we played decent fourth quarters, and we didn’t play great in some fourth quarters, and we lost some games. As you continue to, as a coach, put forth an emphasis in practicing things, tonight, I think it shined through with our ability to play fourth-quarter football.”
The Longhorns had not beaten a top-three team on the road in 54 years—number-one Texas with fifteen points, number-two Arkansas with fourteen, the “Game of the Century”—and back in Austin, the party was still going strong at 2:45 a.m. Sunday when the team returned. Hours later, Texas climbed from eleventh to fourth in the Associated Press Top 25, their highest ranking since losing to Alabama in the 2009 national championship game.
As for Sarkisian, his fist pump had come after the Texas offense trotted back onto the field with a ten-point lead and a little more than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. UT trailed 16–13 at the start of that quarter, but erased it with two touchdowns in a fifteen-second span for a 27–16 advantage. When Alabama answered with a quick touchdown and two-point conversation to make it 27–24, Texas had to respond again. “I’ll even say myself, my heart started racing a bit,” senior linebacker Jaylen Ford said. “We were up by three, but it felt like we were losing.”
Ewers got the game back in hand with a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 39-yard scoring pass to Adonai Mitchell. “We knew we had to score a touchdown,” Ewers said. “There was no more to it than that.”
The Texas defense then did its part to force a three-and-out Alabama punt, and with 7:08 remaining, it was the Longhorns’ game to win. UT did not give Alabama another chance, running the ball and winning the line of scrimmage. What got Sarkisian so fired up was a fourth-and-three play at the Alabama 35 with 2:09 remaining. If the Longhorns could not convert, Alabama would still be within striking distance.
Last year, Texas had failed to hold leads of 16–10 and 19–17 in a home loss to Alabama. This has been a pattern under Sarkisian. In his first two seasons, Sark’s teams had won just one more game (thirteen) than they lost (twelve). Nine of those twelve losses had been by eight points or less, meaning the Longhorns usually were a play or two from winning. And Texas had given up double-digit leads in several of those losses.
Sarkisian had promised his third season would be different—that a string of elite recruiting classes and three offseasons of building team culture and cohesiveness had positioned the program for a breakthrough. Indeed, before the game, ESPN’s Pete Thamel had reported: “Talking to NFL scouts, Texas is already in the same talent class as the top teams in the SEC. And the [Alabama] fans won’t like to hear this, but tonight Texas will have advantages in talent at quarterback, wide receiver, and . . . the defensive line. This is a crucial barometer for Texas as it enters the SEC in 2024.”
But such assessments mean little at a school that has become the master of winning the offseason hype news cycle. It was the actual football that always seemed to trip up the Longhorns, who have had four different head coaches in the last thirteen seasons and have only ranked higher than nineteenth in the AP’s season-ending poll a handful of times in those years.
Meanwhile, Alabama had won six national championships under Saban, and as ESPN’s Rece Davis said before the game, “Texas’s best season is still worse than Alabama’s worst season during that span.” Under Saban, Alabama is 103–9 in Tuscaloosa even after Saturday’s worst home loss since 2004.
In the closing moments of Texas’s win, Sarkisian was determined not to give the ball back to the Crimson Tide. With 2:09 to play, he sent Ewers to the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-three and asked him to test Alabama’s discipline by trying to draw its defense offside with the inflection of his voice. That’s what happened, and as Alabama was charged with its tenth penalty, a record under Saban, Texas got the five yards that sealed victory.
To see Texas as the team with the composure and Alabama as the squad that blinked was stunning, and, Sarkisian hopes, the beginning of a new chapter in the often tortured, occasionally glorious history of football at UT. After the game, as he told reporters how happy he was for his players, he revealed more about his personal journey than he normally does. Saban had hired him in 2016 when he was at his lowest, having been fired by USC amid struggles with alcohol.
“I owe everything to him. I would not be standing here in front of you guys without Nick Saban,” Sarkisian said. “At a moment in my life when things weren’t going great, he extended me an olive branch.”
Before last season’s game against the Crimson Tide, he’d also labeled it a measuring stick for his program, and Texas might have won that one as well if Ewers hadn’t exited with a shoulder injury in the first quarter. But the larger lesson was that there was still work to do in a season that Texas would still finish 8–5 despite the blown leads and close losses.
Ewers, once the nation’s top-ranked high school player, missed three games after the injury and was wildly inconsistent when he returned to the field. At times, he looked like the next great UT quarterback, most notably in throwing four touchdowns in a 49–0 rout of Oklahoma. But he had other games when he was so shaky that Sarkisian essentially took the game out of his hands and let star running back Bijan Robinson carry the team.
Ewers responded to last year’s shortcomings by losing weight during the offseason and even trading his trademark mullet for a more businesslike buzzcut. He also worked on his accuracy, especially on the deep throws that eluded him in 2022. In a quarterback-driven sport, plenty of Texas fans were breathlessly awaiting the debut of freshman Arch Manning, another five-star recruit and the latest heir to the family’s quarterback dynasty.
With all that background noise, Ewers was brilliant against Alabama in completing 24 of 38 throws, and while one game may not rocket him up the Heisman Trophy watch lists, it’ll put him in the conversation. He had no trouble with the deep ball, either, completing six passes of at least 31 yards, including a 44-yard scoring toss to Xavier Worthy in the second quarter and the 39-yarder to Mitchell in the fourth. In all, he led four scoring drives of at least 75 yards, three of them for touchdowns and one for a field goal. “It can be a springboard for Quinn if he can recreate the habits he showed tonight,” Sarkisian said.
After the win, there was the usual crowd of orange bloods on the field, including Governor Greg Abbott, Matthew McConaughey, and UT legend Vince Young. It had the feel of, say, a championship having been won, and keeping the team focused after such a stratospheric success will be a challenge, beginning with this Saturday’s game against Wyoming at home. But for one weekend day, at least, Texas was as good as it had been in a long time.
“It’s about time that Texas has won this type of game,” Texas offensive tackle Christian Jones said. “I remember vividly 2019, Joe Burrow, losing. Last year, losing. Just winning this game, I’m happy. I’m so happy and I know everyone in the locker room is happy.”