FORT WORTH, Texas — A boring win in a drawn-out, four-hour game would have been chicken soup for the tortured Texas soul.
This is a program that has had so many teams with so much promise over the years, yet so many times it has driven over potholes along the Big 12 schedule that derailed quests to the College Football Playoff and beyond. Potholes like last week’s game against Kansas State or this week’s late comeback attempt by TCU. Those games probably would have been losses in years past, games used as the butt of jokes by the same people who are still desperately waiting for this year’s Texas team to spring another flat tire.
But Texas outlasted Kansas State last week, escaping with a 33-30 win in overtime.
And in Fort Worth on Saturday night, TCU turned a boring match riddled with game stoppages, timeouts and injuries into another Texas sweater. But the Longhorns, true to their new form this year, found a way to take what once looked like a blowout and leave with a narrow 29-26 win over the Horned Frogs.
What’s different this year?
“These guys believe,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said. “I would say in previous years, our first year, I don’t know if we believed. Last year, we had moments of, ‘Can we? I think we can.’ This year, I don’t think they have any doubt. We are going to win the game, it’s just a matter of how. I don’t think the guys blink when their number is called. They believe that we are going to make the play that needs to be made.”
Do you want to know what’s different about this year’s Texas team? It has a lot of good players who are actually producing.
That may sound overly simplistic, but it’s true. Sarkisian will tell you all about his program’s culture, and there’s no question how much fostering a positive and loving environment can impact a team. But when Texas steps on the field against overmatched Big 12 opponents this year, the future NFL players on its roster are stepping up and making plays in clutch moments. And because of it, the Longhorns — now 9-1 and the only team with only one loss in Big 12 play — are in pole position to win the conference for the first time since 2009. Don’t look now, but Texas also has a clear path to the College Football Playoff and, if you dare to dream, maybe even more.
Take how the TCU game ended as an example. The Longhorns dominated the first two quarters and took a 26-6 lead into halftime. The third quarter was a scoreless slogfest, then TCU came alive in the fourth. The Horned Frogs caught Texas sleeping and put up 20 points in the final quarter, including 13 straight in a span of 150 seconds late in the game. All of a sudden, the Longhorns found themselves with the ball with 3:22 remaining and the TCU crowd back into it.
Texas needed a first down or it would be forced to give TCU the ball back with a chance to tie the game or take the lead. Reporters on the sideline were joking that this could be the reveal of the real Texas, that they’ve seen how this movie ends so many times. Was this going to be the disappointing loss that knocks Texas out of the Playoff race and started up the jokes about choking and failing to live up to expectations?
Quarterback Quinn Ewers, who returned to the starting lineup after missing two weeks with a shoulder injury, dropped back on third-and-12 from Texas’ 12-yard-line and let it rip. It was a 35-yard pass to AD Mitchell, who beat single coverage and made a spectacular catch while practically lying on his back. Game over.
The incredible catch from Adonai Mitchell to seal the win for Texas! pic.twitter.com/VTazjO2oaY
— Hook’em Headlines (@HookemHeadlines) November 12, 2023
Mitchell, the Georgia transfer who has become one of the premier receivers in the sport, stepped up in a big moment and made sure TCU never touched the ball again. Fellow star receiver Xavier Worthy had 10 catches for 137 yards. Ewers completed 22-of-33 pass attempts for 317 yards and a touchdown. Running back Jonathon Brooks rushed 104 yards and two touchdowns and added 74 yards receiving. Brooks, however, left the game late with a lower-body injury and his status is unknown.
Still, this team has so many pieces that are dangerous and can win a football game.
Against Kansas State, the Longhorns won in overtime because of a defensive stand. Against TCU, the Longhorns won with offense.
What you’d like to see next from Texas is the ability to step on an opponent’s throat and not allow things to get dicey late in the fourth quarter. Texas held big leads against Kansas State and TCU and still found itself biting its nails with minutes remaining on the clock. But making it to the Big 12 Championship Game has typically been reserved for the mature teams that know how to win close games in this ultra-competitive conference. Texas has become that mature team — not the one that used to blow winnable games — and it has the talent to be dangerous on a national stage.
“Where we can improve is that killer instinct,” Sarkisian said. “That mental intensity, that focus, that tenacity that we played with in those first two quarters and to come out in the third quarter and finish a team off. … That’s where we have to improve. I’m sure other teams have other areas where they need to improve. We have to have that killer instinct to put people away when we have the chance.”
Texas is going to have more chances. There’s a lot of high-level football remaining.
The Big 12 race became more interesting when Oklahoma State got blown out by UCF and Kansas lost to Texas Tech. There’s a real chance that the Longhorns will play Oklahoma — the only team they lost to this year — in the conference championship game in Arlington in December. Texas still has some tricky games left on its regular-season schedule — at Iowa State, vs. Texas Tech — but the Longhorns have earned back our trust. We shouldn’t anticipate Texas losing either of those games. It has proven to be different this year.
And if Texas makes the Playoff for the first time? These Longhorns may be more equipped to face Georgia or Alabama or Ohio State in January. They have already beaten the Crimson Tide on the road. We know Texas has the players — it ranks No. 6 in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite. This year, its players are producing.
Texas isn’t back yet.
But it’s dangerous.
(Top photo: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)