The Texas Longhorns were about to close out the game. They could feel it in their bones. As head coach Steve Sarkisian had told them before Monday’s national semifinal versus the University of Washington: “We didn’t come this far just to come this far.”
Later, as players and coaches dissected a gut punch of a 37–31 loss, they kept coming back to that feeling. How they believed they were going to write their own ending. How this season was different from all those other seasons when Texas routinely folded with games on the line.
How, with fifteen seconds remaining in Monday’s game, they were about to put the finishing touch on a game that would validate the rebirth of football on the Forty Acres. “I was just so sure we’re going to win it,” Texas wide receiver Jordan Whittington said. “But you know, sometimes stuff doesn’t go your way. . . . We felt magical, the whole time that we felt like it was already written.”
The Longhorns may have believed, but they also got beat up plenty, which is the way things go in a contest between two tested, confident, championship-caliber teams. While this defeat cost the Longhorns a berth in next week’s national championship game, it should not diminish the program’s overall comeback story.
Texas is back. In Sarkisian’s third season, he has proven that he’s the right man to lead the Longhorns, and that he has built something that will endure as the team prepares to compete against the football powers of the Southeastern Conference and in a 2024 season with Georgia, Michigan, and Texas A&M on the schedule.
The 12–2 Longhorns will exit the Big 12 next summer as conference champions in football for the first time since 2009, marking the end of a period of decline that lasted more than a decade. Texas players and coaches will take comfort in that as they recover from the sting of Monday’s defeat in New Orleans. In this one, though, they clawed to within twelve yards of victory on a night when Washington outplayed the Longhorns for long stretches of the game.
Heisman Trophy finalist Michael Penix Jr. blistered an overmatched Texas secondary for 430 passing yards and two touchdown throws without an interception against a pass defense that had been UT’s Achilles’ heel all season long. He was so precise in his offensive execution that Penix’s NFL draft stock likely soared as he led the Huskies to scores on five of their first seven possessions, beginning with a 77-yard touchdown throw to Ja’Lynn Polk.
Texas fans saw firsthand why Washington’s Rome Odunze is expected to be one of the first three wide receivers taken in this spring’s NFL draft, and why Washington’s offensive line is arguably the nation’s best. The Longhorns defensive line, dominant for much of the season, barely laid a hand on Penix.
Meanwhile, the Longhorns were flagged for ten penalties, committed two turnovers, and struggled to convert on third downs. UT’s star wide receiver, Xavier Worthy, was barely a factor, with just two catches.
Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers started slowly, completing just one of his first five passes. His final numbers—24 of 43 for 318 yards and a touchdown—were decent. But in the end, Penix still had a better game.
The Huskies opened up a 10-point lead in the third quarter, and when Grady Gross kicked a 27-yard field goal to put Washington up 37–28 with 2:40 remaining, the Longhorns were on the brink of defeat. Sarkisian later said his team’s response in this moment made him more proud than any other aspect of their performance. Texas refused to give up and wound up creating a chance to tie or win in the game’s waning seconds.
“The resiliency our team showed in that fourth quarter to have an opportunity to win the game, I think, is indicative of the character we have on this team and the men that we have in the locker room,” he said. “Those guys are fighters; they fought together. It was bleak there, but they never gave up hope. They believed, and I think that’s how you give yourself a chance in the end.”
The score was 37–31 Washington when the Texas defense stopped the Huskies and gave the Longhorns a final crack at victory with 41 seconds to play. Ewers completed a 41-yard pass to Whittington, then a 16-yarder to running back Jaydon Blue at the Washington 12-yard line with 15 seconds left on the clock.
At that point, every Longhorn believed he knew how this was going to play out. This was their chance to have a Vince Young moment. Sarkisian, a master play-caller, surely had one more trick up his sleeve. Only this time the Longhorns were reminded that other teams have dreams too, and that other teams believe they’re going to be the ones to write the ending.
Ewers completed his last pass of the evening—and possibly the last of his Longhorns career—to Blue for a loss of one yard with ten seconds remaining. He then was unable to connect on three straight throws, the last for Adonai Mitchell broken up by a Washington defender as the Huskies clinched a trip to Houston, where they’ll face Michigan for the national title on Monday. “We all went out there as a team and we fought our butt off,” Mitchell said. “We just played a great team. We didn’t capitalize the way we wanted to. We had a lot of mistakes on the field.”
Ewers offered no hint on whether he’d return to UT or head for the NFL. He has until January 16 to decide, but his backup, Arch Manning, is one of the most heralded recruits in Texas history.
Regardless, fans shouldn’t worry about Texas sliding back into mediocrity next season. Sarkisian’s 2024 recruiting class is rated the second-best in the country by Rivals.com, and there’s more talent coming via the NCAA transfer portal.
In the weeks leading up to the Washington game, Sarkisian revealed more of himself than he had previously. He spoke of his dismissal from Southern California for issues related to alcohol in 2015. He thanked Alabama’s Nick Saban for adding him to his staff and, in doing so, resurrecting his career and putting him on a path to Austin. But that was only a small part of what Saban did for him.
The Alabama coach requires his coaches to undergo thorough physicals, and it was in one of those in 2020 that doctors detected a life-threatening heart aneurysm caused by a leaky valve. “One of our physicians . . . called me and said, ‘We’ve got a problem,’ ” Jeff Allen, Alabama’s associate athletic director for sports medicine, told ESPN. “Never had we seen something this dire, or this critical, that had to be managed, and managed immediately.”
Sarkisian was told he had what doctors call a widow-maker. Loreal Sarkisian said her husband would have had a 5 percent chance of living if his aorta had ruptured. “He would’ve dropped dead,” she told ESPN. “It was just a matter of time.”
Sarkisian, who now has a twelve-inch scar down the middle of his chest, recalled having to relearn how to walk and talk. “Anytime I talk about my journey, my career,” he said, “I would not be here without Nick Saban.”
When Sarkisian interviewed for the Texas job in 2019, he pointed out that the team had more wide receivers than offensive linemen on scholarship. This, he told his future bosses, was nuts. “He understood that our roster had to change,” athletic director Chris Del Conte told 247Sports. “He pointed out we had eight offensive linemen on the roster and eighteen wide receivers. He’s like, ‘Guys, this is not constructed right, but here’s the plan.’ ”
Great football teams are dominant in three areas: offensive line, defensive line, and quarterback. This may have been Sarkisian’s way of warning Texas administrators that the reconstruction of UT football would not be accomplished overnight, and certainly not without some pain. In that way, he provided a backdrop for teams that would go 5–7 and 8–5 in his first two seasons as head coach.
Behind the scenes during those shaky 2021 and ’22 campaigns, as fans and reporters questioned whether Sarkisian was on his way to becoming another failed Texas coach, the culture around the team was changing, and quickly. “You’ve heard him talk about it recently, but he came in with a multiyear plan to build the program—and its culture—and took the route of doing it perhaps more slowly, but in a more lasting way,” Texas president Jay Hartzell told 247Sports. “We were supportive of that and saw the signs of progress, even in the five–seven first year.”
Del Conte told the Athletic: “He was beyond prepared for the moment, beyond prepared for the job. Everything he said in our interviews has come to fruition in terms of how he was going to build out his program.”
Sarkisian’s 2022 and 2023 recruiting classes were ranked fifth and third nationally, according to Rivals.com. He worked the transfer portal brilliantly, snagging Ewers and Mitchell there, among other key contributors to the Longhorns’ success.
The coach also built the Longhorns internally, initiating meetings in which players shared stories about where they’d come from to build trust. Sarkisian spoke passionately about the team spirit he was working to build. “That’s how you really get to know the guy next to you and build a loving bond,” he said. “I asked them to be vulnerable, and I would go first.”
The Longhorns lost just one regular-season game this season, to Oklahoma, 34–30, in week six. To refocus the Longhorns on their greater goals, Sarkisian had a message ready to greet the Texas players two days later at the team’s Monday morning meeting. It read: “BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME!!!!” Texas won seven in a row after that, culminating in a 49–21 rout of Oklahoma State in the Big 12 championship game.
Meanwhile, Ewers got better and better, throwing ten touchdown passes in his last five games leading into the semifinal. Worthy and Mitchell became a game-breaking wide receiver duo. Even when star running back Jonathon Brooks suffered a season-ending knee injury in week ten against TCU, freshman CJ Baxter and sophomore Jaydon Blue filled in nicely. T’Vondre Sweat anchored one of the country’s best defensive lines.
Texas can expect to face a tougher road to a one-loss season next year in the SEC, but with the College Football Playoff expanding to a twelve-team format in 2024, the Longhorns might not need to be almost perfect to play their way into the national semifinals.
“It’s tough, especially losing a close game like this,” Ewers said after Monday’s game. “Even though you take a step back and you look back at the entire season, I’m proud of the way we attacked each week. For us to have the opportunity to even play here, I know the whole team is beyond grateful for this opportunity we had.”