Ultimate Sugar Bowl Preview: Texas is (almost) all the way back. Washington has no intention of letting them take the next step
Everything — and we mean everything — you need to know about the Sugar Bowl Playoff semifinal showdown between Texas (-4.5) Washington.
– – –
With the late kick on Monday night, the Sugar Bowl is officially the last semifinal game of the 4-team Playoff era before the format expands next year, making Washington and Texas the 39th and 40th teams to take the field under the original CFP banner. Very few of the previous 38 have come quite as far, quite as fast.
Let’s rewind a bit. The year: 2021. America reels from the pandemic, NFTs are a thing, and Texas is most definitely not back. In fact, the Longhorns were as far away as ever. Under first-year coach Steve Sarkisian, the ’21 ‘Horns limped to a 5-7 finish, a giant step backward following 4 straight winning seasons under Sarkisian’s doomed predecessor, Tom Herman. A year in, Sark already was feeling the heat: Herman had just been sent packing for failing to come within sniffing distance of a championship of any kind, and the results immediately got worse. The Curse of Colt McCoy lingered into its fourth head-coaching administration, with no end in sight.
Meanwhile, the situation in Seattle was deteriorating rapidly. Washington had opened the ’21 campaign with high expectations under head coach Jimmy Lake, the hand-picked successor to his former boss, Chris Petersen. But the Huskies got off to a miserable start, dropping the opener against FCS Montana, and continued downhill from there. In early November, Lake was suspended for striking a player in a sideline altercation; a week later, he was officially out after just 13 games. Washington finished 4-8, its worst record in more than a decade, having apparently blown its shot at sustaining its success under Petersen. This was the program the relatively unknown Kalen DeBoer inherited that December.
Two years later, well, here we are. Sarkisian and DeBoer have proven to be two of the shrewder hires of the past decade, and now join the short list of coaches in the Playoff era to take a team from a losing record to the Final Four in the span of a single recruiting cycle. (The others: Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell and TCU’s Sonny Dykes.)
They’ve pulled it off in parallel fashion, both building high-octane offenses around a couple of transfer-portal quarterbacks, Quinn Ewers and Michael Penix Jr., with very different backstories but very similar statistical profiles and futures ahead of them at the next level. Their paths have even crossed along the way, in last year’s Alamo Bowl. Who tuning in last December to Washington’s 27-20 win over Texas in San Antonio imagined they were watching a Playoff preview?
But only one of them can advance to the National Championship Game in Houston, and there’s plenty of urgency to take full advantage of the opportunity while it’s there for the taking. Both programs are hungry to end their respective national championship droughts — Texas hasn’t claimed a title since 2005; Washington since 1991 — and neither can be certain of when they’ll be this close to the crown again after they relocate to the high-pressure climates of the SEC and Big Ten, respectively, in 2024. The current bracket is as wide open as any in the 10-year history of the format. The ships have come in. Slightly ahead of schedule, perhaps, but not a moment too soon.
• • •
When Texas has the ball
Best players on the field
1. Washington Edge Bralen Trice (84.8 PFF | 70 QB pressures + 8.5 TFLs | 1st-team All-Pac-12)
2. Texas QB Quinn Ewers (84.9 PFF | 78.8 QBR | 21 TDs | 6 INTs)
3. Texas WR Xavier Worthy (70.7 PFF | 26 career TDs | 1st-team All-Big XII)
4. Washington LB Edefuan Ulofoshio (86.5 PFF | 83 tackles + 6 TFLs | 1st-team All-Pac-12)
5. Washington CB Jabbar Muhammad (74.8 PFF | 3 INTs + 12 PBUs | 2nd-team All-Pac-12)
6. Texas OT Kelvin Banks Jr. (76.7 PFF | 1 sack allowed | 1st-team All-Big XII)
7. Texas WR Adonai Mitchell (72.6 PFF | 813 yards + 10 TDs | 2nd-team All-Big XII)
6. Texas TE Ja’Tavion Sanders (73.4 PFF | 607 yards + 2 TDs | 1st-team All-Big XII)
9. Washington DT Tuli Letuligasenoa (80.3 PFF | 110 career tackles + 17.5 TFLs)
10. Texas OT Christian Jones (76.0 PFF | 0 sacks allowed | 47 career starts)
In the pocket
This time last year, Quinn Ewers was presenting early symptoms of a bust in the making. Texas’ most prized recruit since Vince Young himself, Ewers was ordinary in 2022, struggling with injuries and accuracy while presiding over a 6-4 record as a starter. His production landed squarely in the middle of the pack among Big 12 starters, and Texas’ scoring average as a team slightly declined from 2021 despite the presence of arguably the best player in the country, RB Bijan Robinson. With Robinson on his way out and the next big thing, Arch Manning, on his way in, the clock for Ewers to turn the corner in Year 2 was ticking loudly enough for the entire country to hear it.
It’s safe to say that clock ain’t striking midnight. Ewers’ raw numbers this season weren’t quite gaudy enough to elevate him into the Heisman tier, partly due to a midseason shoulder injury that cost him 2 full games against BYU and Kansas State. (He was even snubbed by opposing coaches in voting for the All-Big 12 team, for whatever reason.) In the efficiency categories, though, he leveled up right on schedule, posting enormous gains in completion percentage, yards per attempt and overall passer rating, as well as in Total QBR and EPA:
The general trend is encouraging enough, and it looks even better when you zoom in on the biggest games. Texas’ 3 stiffest tests — against Alabama early, Oklahoma in October, and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 title game — all yielded stellar stat lines at a different checkpoint on the calendar. Ewers was a revelation in Tuscaloosa, bombing the Crimson Tide for 349 yards, 3 touchdowns and 6 completions of 30+ yards to 4 different receivers. He was at his best against OK State, finishing with career-highs for yards (452), touchdowns (4), Total QBR (97.1) and EPA (12.8). And even in a chaotic loss to OU, he gave the Longhorns a chance, overcoming back-to-back interceptions on his first 2 possessions to finish 31-for-37 for 346 yards in a game Texas led in the final minute. Following the rocky start, Ewers completed 26 of his last 28 passes against the Sooners, including a school-record 19 in a row.
While we’re on the subject of the Oklahoma game, the fact that Texas moved the ball so effectively in its lone defeat makes that outing worth looking at more closely for another reason: It remains Exhibit A in a season-long struggle finish drives in the red zone. This is not so much a Ewers problem as it is an ongoing issue for the offense as a whole. Altogether, the ‘Horns have converted just 49.1% of their 55 red-zone trips this year into touchdowns, among the worst rates in the country. In the loss to OU, they were 0-for-3 in that department, with 3 trips inside the 10-yard line resulting in an interception, a chip-shot field goal and a crucial goal-line stand in the 4th quarter.
Billy Bowman Jr with a big hit to force the incompletion and Kendel Dolby comes up with the INT 💥pic.twitter.com/Y7AGFYMvcb
— RanDynasty (@ran_dynasty) October 7, 2023
The good news on the red-zone front is that the offensive bonanza in the Big 12 Championship Game featured a perfect line inside the OK State 20-yard line: Texas cashed in all five of its red-zone trips, three of them via touchdown passes by Ewers. (One of which wound up in the hands of a 362-pound defensive tackle moonlighting as a goal-line tight end, but still.) That marked the first time all year the offense has converted 100% of its opportunities, and only the 4th time it exceeded 50%. Sure, red-zone conversions is a relatively small-sample size category, but it’s one that cost the Longhorns big in their only loss. Every successful trip is one step closer to solving what might be their most persistent issue.
Anyway, as far as Washington’s defense is concerned, Ewers’ most urgent issue on Monday night will be the presence of edge rusher Bralen Trice, an aspiring first-rounder whose good-not-great sack totals don’t come close to reflecting his impact. Per the film eaters at Pro Football Focus, Trice has been responsible more QB pressures than any other FBS defender each of the past 2 seasons, finishing with 70 pressures to his credit both years. (For context, the other regulars in Washington’s edge rotation, Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Voi Tunuufii and Sekai Asoau-Afoa, have accounted for 69 pressures this season combined.) Trice has also been responsible for the most individual pressures in a single game in both seasons, forcing 16 in the Huskies’ late-October win over Stanford and 18 in last year’s Apple Cup win at Washington State. After a relatively quiet September, he reemerged in Pac-12 play as a week-in, week-out terror, generating at least 5 pressures in 7 of the last 8 games.
— The Draft Network (@TheDraftNetwork) November 19, 2023
So far, Ewers’ growth has been nurtured in more or less consistently clean pockets. He faced pressure on just 22.8% of his drop-backs this season, the 4th-lowest rate nationally among Power 5 starters. Alabama’s blue-chip pass rush barely laid a hand on him in Week 2, generating 6 pressures and zero sacks on 40 drop-backs. Oklahoma (14 pressures, 5 sacks) and Iowa State (12 pressures, 4 sacks) fared better, but not by enough to prevent him from hitting his season averages in efficiency and QBR. Ewers is not particularly elusive, and he doesn’t often need to be. But he does rely heavily on play-action, deploying it on an FBS-high 53.5% of his drop-backs, and he tends to get the ball out quickly, averaging an efficient 2.4 seconds per attempt. Opposite as disruptive a force as Trice, whatever it takes to prevent him from pinning his ears back is worth it.
Key matchup: Bralen Trice vs. Texas LT Kelvin Banks Jr. Banks has been rock solid in his first 2 years on campus, starting all 26 games on the blindside since he arrived in 2022. He’s effectively shut out opposing rushers this season, going 11 consecutive games without allowing a sack and 10 straight without allowing a QB hit, per PFF. Scouts sizing him up as a potential first-rounder in 2025 will be very interested in watching him attempt to extend those streaks opposite the most NFL-ready player on the field.
On the ground
Texas lost its leading rusher, Jonathon Brooks, to a torn ACL in Week 11, the biggest loss either team has suffered on either side of the ball. Up to that point, Brooks was one of the season’s breakout stars, racking up 1,425 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games. (Not that either cares, but for the record Sarkisian did Brooks no favors statistically by agreeing to put him in for the final kneel-down snap in the Big 12 Championship Game; that play meant Brooks has officially appeared in 11 games, dropping him from 3rd nationally in scrimmage yards per game to 7th.) If he had finished the season at that pace, he would have come within a hair’s breadth of matching Bijan Robinson’s output in 2022 and been very much in the conversation to follow Robinson as the winner of the Doak Walker Award.
Whether Brooks will necessarily be missed on Monday night is another question.
The top backup, freshman CJ Baxter, is a 6-1, 218-pound thumper who arrived to Bijan-esque hype as the No. 1 running back in the 2023 recruiting class. He has run for 603 yards on 4.6 per carry, including a 117-yard effort against Iowa State in Week 12. Brooks’ injury also made more space for sophomore burner Jaydon Blue, who brings pure track speed to the “change of pace” role. Blue led Texas’ 302-yard rushing effort against Texas Tech in Week 13 with 121 yards, most of it coming on a 69-yard dash on which he topped out at more than 22 miles per hour.
College Football’s Fastest Five of Week 13
— Reel Analytics (@RAanalytics) November 30, 2023
For context, the fastest on-field time in the NFL this season according to NextGen Stats is 22.23 MPH, by the Seattle Seahawks’ DK Metcalf. Take Internet speed metrics for what they’re worth, but the verdict stands: Dude is fast. Ditto Keilan Robinson, a diminutive Alabama transfer who has played just 65 snaps on offense but scored on 3 of them, including a 57-yard touchdown run against Oklahoma State.
On paper, Washington’s bend-but-don’t-break run defense defies easy conclusions. The conventional numbers are just kinda meh: The Huskies rank 40th nationally in run D and 77th in yards per carry allowed, but haven’t been gashed for egregious totals in any game. They’ve largely kept the lid on, allowing just 7 carries of 20+ yards with a long of 44. The efficiency metrics on the other hand, are red flags: 125th in Rushing Defense EPA, 129th in Rushing Defense Success Rate, 132nd in Defensive Line Yards. (Click on the links for more info about those metrics.) Depending on your perspective, the fact that they’re usually playing with a lead could make either set of numbers look better or worse.
Either way, the upshot is that this is an outfit willing to give up small- to medium-sized chunks on the ground in exchange for limiting explosive plays. To that end, the personnel tends to be on the lighter side — the only interior lineman who ranks among the top 11 defenders in snap counts, Voi Tunuufi, is a 6-1, 260-pound tweener who plays all along the line, sliding inside mainly on passing downs. The big guys, particularly the 6-6, 327-pound Ulumoo Ale, are enormous. But they don’t spend much time in opposing backfields, and neither do the linebackers who rely on the front to keep them clean. Instead, they’re mostly content holding the profits on the ground in check until the offense falls too far behind to keep taking them or just gets bored.
Key matchup: Texas C Jake Majors vs. Washington DT Tuli Letuligasenoa. Majors cracked the starting lineup at the end of his freshman season in 2020 and never left, going on to start all 38 games of Sarkisian’s tenure to date. Compared to Letuligasenoa, he’s still a newb. Now in his 6th year in Seattle, Tuli’s snap count has plummeted this season as he’s battled a lingering knee injury, but his impact when he’s on the field was undiminished: His 90.3 PFF grade against the run was the best of any Pac-12 defender, and good for the 3rd-best nationally among all Power 5 d-tackles. Washington is banking on him being on the field for more plays than he’s off, a threshold he hit in the Pac-12 Championship Game for the first time since Week 2.
Down the field
It’s been an astonishingly long time since Texas, which has had just 2 wideouts drafted in any round in the past decade, has ended a season with a receiver who could plausibly be touted as a first-round talent. It comes into Monday night with 3: Xavier Worthy, Adonai Mitchell and tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders.
Worthy, a lock to declare early for the draft, is wrapping up a prolific career as one of the most electric and most maddening receivers in the game. At his best, he’s a filthy route-runner whose speed makes him a threat from anywhere on the field at any time — in the red zone, on screens and rubs, and especially going deep, where his vertical speed might be unmatched in the college game.
No. 11 Texas finds the endzone first vs. No. 3 Alabama.
Quinn Ewers finds Xavier Worthy for the 44-yard TD reception.
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) September 10, 2023
The maddening part is just how fleeting those glimpses have often been. It’s certainly not for lack of opportunity: Worthy has come in for 100+ targets all 3 seasons on campus. He’s also struggled with consistency and drops in all 3 seasons, resulting in a middling 59% career catch rate. On deep balls, especially, the value has to be considered alongside the volume.
Per PFF, his 23 career receptions on passes of 20+ air yards have come on 93 attempts, with the misses outnumbering the hits more than 3-to-1. (So far this season he’s 5-for-20 in the deep column.) His touchdown total has also declined each year, from 12 as a freshman to 8 last year to 5 so far in 2023. But then, again, he is eminently capable of adding to that number at any given moment.
Mitchell, a portal addition from Georgia, is no stranger to this stage: He was on the receiving end of the go-ahead touchdown pass in the 4th quarter of the Bulldogs’ 2021 CFP Championship win over Alabama, as well as the go-ahead touchdown pass in the final minute of last year’s dramatic semifinal win over Ohio State. Despite his crunch-time heroics, though, at Georgia Mitchell was ultimately a role player. (Under Kirby Smart, all wideouts at Georgia are ultimately role players.) At Texas, he’s a rising star with a team-high 10 touchdowns — 7 of them coming in the red zone, where Mitchell’s 6-4 frame towers over opposing corners and has the full attention of pro scouts. Another big game on a big stage could be a lucrative one.
Sanders must be considered alongside the wideouts, because although he lines up about two-thirds of the time in a traditional inline TE role, at heart he’s a receiver in a tight end’s body. He has more receptions (93) for more yards (1,220) over the past 2 seasons than any other Power 5 tight end who isn’t Georgia star Brock Bowers, and he outpaced Bowers on a per-catch basis this year by nearly 3 yards a pop. (Sanders averaged 15.6 yards per catch, Bowers 12.8.) The owner of a legendary high school sizzle reel, Sanders is the type of size/speed specimen who’s fully capable of posterizing Power 5 defenders just as casually as he once did local teenagers.
JA'TAVION SANDERS ONE HANDED GRAB pic.twitter.com/hnncgKYaDN
— Nash (@NashTalksTexas) September 24, 2023
While we’re handing out the One-Handed Catch Awards, that arguably was not even his most impressive entry of the season. Sanders is a classic matchup nightmare in coverage — too athletic for linebackers, too big for safeties — and puts that much more pressure on secondaries already stretched thin by Worthy and Mitchell.
This group is so stacked we don’t even have time for the 4th member of the rotation, senior Jordan Whittington, a former 5-star who is 2nd on the team only to Worthy in career receptions (137) and yards (1,687). He’s still around, and still moving the sticks on a regular basis from the slot; on the vast majority of Power 5 teams he’d WR2 at worst. Moving on!
Now, as for Washington’s secondary, yes, they give up a lot yards: 263.2 per game, which ranks 123rd out of 133 FBS teams. Not ideal. But there is no worse way to judge a defense than “passing yards allowed,” a volume statistic that is very often a reflection of a good team that regularly forces opponents to throw their way out of a deficit. In fact, Washington has faced more passes than any other defense in America, and by almost every other measure the Huskies have held up fine. They’re 25th in yards per attempt allowed, 29th in pass efficiency D, and tied for 8th with 16 interceptions.
The starting linebackers, Edefuan Ulofoshio and Carson Bruener, were both among the nation’s best in coverage, posting PFF coverage grades that ranked No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, among Power 5 ‘backers with at least 200 coverage snaps. Only 2 opposing quarterbacks, Oregon’s Bo Nix and USC’s Caleb Williams, finished with a passer rating above 140.0 (roughly the FBS average), and in Nix’s case his 2 outings against Washington represented his lowest-rated games of the year. In Williams’ case, well, he’s Caleb Williams.
Only a small handful of the most elite secondaries in the country are equipped to match up against Texas’ arsenal of skill talent, and Washington’s isn’t one of them. Their tendency to give up big plays (45 completions allowed of 20+ yards) is a notable concern. But any UT fans looking at the top line number and imagining throwing against the Huskies will be shooting fish in a barrel should recalibrate.
Key matchup: Xavier Worthy vs. Washington DB Jabbar Muhammad. Muhammad, a transfer from Oklahoma State, is no stranger to Longhorns from his 3 seasons in Stillwater. In his first year as a Husky he was arguably the top cover man in the Pac-12, finishing with 3 interceptions, 12 passes broken up and one of the truly memorable individual performances of the season in Washington’s Week 12 win at Oregon State.
Jabbar Muhammad is having a career day against Oregon State. Great job reading DJ and just stepping in front of the receiver. pic.twitter.com/jLRCLu3eNp
— Ian Valentino (@NFLDraftStudy) November 19, 2023
Can he hang with Worthy? Here’s guessing the Longhorns won’t waste any time in finding out.
• • •
When Washington has the ball
Top 10 players on the field
1. Washington WR Rome Odunze (88.1 PFF grade | 1,428 yards + 13 TDs | Consensus All-American)
2. Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. (90.8 PFF | 83.4 QBR | Maxwell Award winner)
3. Texas DL T’Vondre Sweat (91.6 PFF | 8 TFLs | Outland Trophy winner)
4. Texas DL Byron Murphy II (90.8 PFF | 8 TFLs | 1st-team All-Big XII)
5. Washington OT Troy Fautanu (71.9 PFF | 1st-team All-Pac-12 | Projected 1st-round pick)
6. Washington RB Dillon Johnson (88.6 PFF | 1,113 yards + 14 TDs | 2nd-team All-Pac-12)
7. Texas LB Jaylan Ford (70.3 PFF | 91 tackles + 10.5 TFLs | 1st-team All-Big XII)
8. Washington WR Ja’Lynn Polk (75.2 PFF | 1,000 yards + 8 TDs )
9. Washington C Parker Brailsford (80.0 PFF | 1 sack allowed | 2nd-team All-Pac-12)
10. Texas CB Malik Muhammad (77.6 PFF | 0 TDs allowed | Freshman All-American)
In the pocket
When Michael Penix Jr. began his college career, in 2018, neither the transfer portal nor COVID-19 existed. Both changed his life. Where would have been otherwise? At Indiana, his enormous promise was derailed by season-ending injuries in 4 consecutive seasons, which back in the before times would have been the last anyone heard of him. Instead, he took advantage of the extra season of eligibility and loosened transfer rules to reunite with his former IU offensive coordinator, DeBoer, and a story that 4 years ago would have ended with what a shame that he never… will end with Penix at the pinnacle of the sport.
Last year, his first at Washington, Penix stayed healthy, averaged 43 attempts per game, broke the school record for passing yards and led the nation in total offense, nearly doubling the Huskies’ 2021 scoring average in the process. This year, he was merely a more efficient version of the same guy, putting the ball in the air slightly less often but improving in terms of yards per attempt, overall passer rating and Total QBR. Even with the reduced volume, he’s the first QB to lead the nation in passing yards in consecutive seasons since Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell in 2007-08.
More important, even when his stat line wavered over the second half of the season, Penix was reliably good when he had to be. He presided over 3 4th-quarter comebacks, rallying the Huskies in wins over Oregon and Utah in the regular season and Oregon again in the Pac-12 Championship Game. He threw 4 touchdown passes in a shootout win at Stanford, outdueled Caleb Williams in a shootout win at USC, and accounted for all 3 Husky touchdowns (2 passing, 1 rushing) in a 22-20 slog at Oregon State. The OSU trip, especially — a game Washington entered as a narrow underdog in wet, freezing conditions on the road — had all the makings of the kind of night when an undefeated team that had already survived a series of close calls sees its dream season come to an end. Penix kept it alive.
Michael Penix Jr. and Rome Odunze connect for 19 yards and a huge third down conversion.
Washington seals a hard-fought victory over Oregon State. pic.twitter.com/wU4QJSxf3N
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) November 19, 2023
Like most quarterbacks, Penix is most vulnerable under fire: Per PFF, his completion percentage plummets from 72.8% when kept clean to 43% under pressure, a particularly steep drop. Of course, turning up the heat is much easier said than done. In 2022, he was one of the best-protected quarterbacks in the country, taking just 5 sacks on 576 drop-backs. He’s been more hurried this year, going down 10 times in 485 drop-backs, but not by much.
He has a couple of all-conference tackles, Troy Fautanu and Roger Rosengarten, to thank for that. But Penix deserves credit for his own self-preservation, too, avoiding sacks on more than 90% of his drop-backs that result in pressure despite either an inability or refusal to scramble. (PFF has him down for just 6 positive-yardage scrambles on the year, a predictable consequence of multiple major knee injuries dating to high school.) He’s not afraid to put it in the first row.
Texas’ defensive line is the rare front that generates more pressure from the interior than off the edge. The top 3 defensive tackles, Byron Murphy III, T’Vondre Sweat and Alfred Collins, combined for 90 QB pressures alongside stellar marks from PFF, with Murphy (40 pressures, 6 sacks) posting the nation’s top pass-rushing grade among all interior d-linemen. Sweat, a 6-4, 362-pound behemoth who tends to be typecast as a plodding run-plugger, is anything but when he gets that weight moving in a straight line, as his grades and his opponents can attest.
I do not envy those who have to face T'Vondre Sweat and Byron Murphy…my goodness these dudes are some ballers!!! pic.twitter.com/XO2ItIExW5
— Nash (@NashTalksTexas) November 12, 2023
When not threatening life and limb, Sweat tied for 2nd nationally with 6 batted passes at the line. The primary edge rushers, Barryn Sorrell and Ethan Burke, inspire less fear, especially opposite one tackle who will definitely be playing on Sundays (Fautanu) and another who’ll have a decent shot (Rosengarten). The Longhorns have generated some extra pass-rushing juice via the linebackers, Jaylan Ford and Anthony Hill Jr., who have combined for 6 sacks and 39 pressures. Ford and Hill are both comfortable manning edge roles on passing downs, where Hill, a 5-star freshman with OLB length at 6-3/234, looks like a natural.
Key matchup: Byron Murphy and T’Vondre Sweat vs. Washington’s interior o-line. The interior line, anchored by redshirt freshman center Parker Brailsford, is not as highly regarded as the tackles, but has hardly been a liability, either. Murphy and Sweat can change that in short order.
On the ground
This section will be short, in accordance with Washington’s chances of grinding out a living between the tackles: Slim and none. The Huskies are one of the nation’s least-run-oriented attacks to begin with, and Texas’ d-line is even more ferocious against the run than it is getting after opposing passers.
No disrespect to Dillon Johnson. The Mississippi State transfer has been a pleasant surprise in Seattle, running for nearly as many yards (1,107) and more touchdowns (14) than he managed across 3 seasons in Starkville in Mike Leach’s Air Raid. He broke out in a big way against USC, ripping the Trojans for 256 yards and 4 touchdowns on 9.8 per carry, and hit triple digits in both wins over Oregon. Although the trophy went to Penix, Johnson was the rightful MVP of the Pac-12 Championship Game, where he accounted for 152 yards and 2 TDs on a workmanlike 28 carries.
DILLON JOHNSON IS GONE 🔥
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 5, 2023
Texas’ front seven, however, is a different animal. Once a liability, the run defense under third-year coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is the Longhorns’ biggest strength. As a team, the ‘Horns rank 3rd nationally in rushing D and 5th in yards per carry allowed. Individually, the colossal T’Vondre Sweat was PFF’s top-graded run defender in the country at any position en route to becoming Texas’ first consensus All-American on the d-line since 2014. (Yes, Texas boasted the top-graded DTs against both the run and the pass.) The same advanced metrics that reflected so poorly on Washington’s run D all reinforce Texas’ dominance.
Only 1 opposing offense has managed what might be considered a plus performance on the ground: Oklahoma, which ran for 201 yards on 4.7 per carry in its win over UT in Week 6. But that number is not quite as telling as it looks. The lion’s share of the Sooners’ output in that game came via quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who ran for 113 yards on an effective mix of designed QB runs and scrambles — an interesting precedent, for an offense with a mobile quarterback. That’s not Penix’s game, though, not by a long shot. If the Huskies find a way to keep their resident workhorse grinding with any kind of regularity, they’ll be the first.
Key matchup: Dillon Johnson vs. Texas’ safeties in space. The middle is a no-go zone, but the Longhorns aren’t as imposing on the perimeter. PFF lists all 3 of the regular safeties, Jahdae Barron, Jerrin Thompson and Michael Taaffe, with missed tackle rates north of 15%. Washington just needs enough from Johnson to keep them honest, but even getting that far might require him to force a few whiffs.
Down the field
If not for Marvin Harrison Jr., Rome Odunze would have a compelling case as the best wide receiver in college football. He might have one anyway. No Power 5 receiver has more catches (156) or yards (2,573) over the past 2 seasons, and no other receiver in 2023 achieved his stat line with quite as high a degree of difficulty.
Odunze was both the most targeted Power 5 wideout on attempts of 20+ air yards and the most productive, coming down with 20 catches for 655 yards. He also led the nation in contested catches, hauling in 17-of-24 attempts in traffic, per PFF; that was good for the top success rate on contested throws (70.8%) among players with at least 60 total targets, easily outpacing both Harrison (43.3%) and LSU’s Malik Nabers (47.6%). Week-in, week-out, no one made a habit of making the ridiculous look more routine.
ROME ODUNZE IS UNGUARDABLE
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 14, 2023
The catch radius of #Washington WR Rome Odunze stands out every week. Was on full display vs. Michigan St. Very strong hands.
This translates. pic.twitter.com/F6KjJt3e0i
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) September 18, 2023
Rome. Odunze. pic.twitter.com/XxpLfmzEnC
— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) November 19, 2023
Rome Odunze legit does this weekly. So impressive
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 25, 2023
Odunze was so good, it was almost unfair to his running mate on the outside, Ja’Lynn Polk, whose 1,000 yards and 8 touchdowns were largely overshadowed by comparison. Between Polk and Jalen McMillan, who was limited most of the year by a nagging knee injury, the “other guys” in the rotation have a combined 3,254 yards and 26 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons in their own right.
On that note, McMillan’s return to full-speed late in the season didn’t nearly as much attention as it deserved. His 9-catch, 131-yard night against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game was a significant development for the offense, and for anyone attempting to defend it. In 2022, McMillan’s production out of the slot effectively rivaled Odunze’s; this year, he was off to a fast start in September before the injury that rendered him ineffective for the next two months. (McMillan actually saw the field in 4 games in that span without recording a catch.) In his absence, the slot role was dormant for weeks at a time, save cameos by Germie Bernard and Giles Jackson. Penix could not have asked for a better gift heading into the postseason than McMillan looking like his old self.
Key matchup: Rome Odunze vs. Texas CB Ryan Watts. Watts is an Ohio State transfer in his second season in Austin, and it’s been a tough one. In October, he missed all of 2 games and most of a 3rd to injury, including the loss to Oklahoma, where he was sorely missed. In November, he was sidelined again, this time by a back injury that cost him the regular-season finale against Texas Tech and the Big 12 title game. When he has played, though, he’s been solid enough, allowing just 1 touchdown on 29 targets. More important, his 6-3 frame makes him an ideal candidate to do aerial battle with Odunze, especially in the red zone. Watts returned to practice this week in New Orleans, and assuming he gets the green light for Monday night, he’s in line for the toughest assignment on the field.
• • •
Special teams, injuries and other vagaries
In addition to possessing a truly remarkable head of hair, Texas kicker Bert Auburn also possesses a solid leg. After a rocky September, he was a perfect 19-for-19 on field goals in October and November, including 2-for-2 on attempts of 50+ yards. The streak ended when he missed his only attempt in the Big 12 Championship Game, from 44 yards out, but altogether his 28 made field goals on the season led the nation.
His counterpart on Monday, Washington’s Grady Gross, was not as prolific, but was typically reliable, hitting 13-of-17 attempts including the 42-yard game-winner as time expired to beat Washington State. For that, he earned the hero’s treatment from the home crowd in Husky Stadium and (more important) a scholarship from his head coach.
— Washington Football (@UW_Football) November 26, 2023
Gross did not have an attempt from 50+ yards, so his range remains unknown. But clearly he can be trusted to make a big kick when it counts.
Washington punter Jack McCallister has one job and one job only: Do not allow Xavier Worthy to touch the ball under any circumstances. Worthy led the nation in punt return yards, highlighted by a 76-yard house call against BYU that should be all any opposing punter needs to see to know to avoid giving him the chance.
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) October 28, 2023
Unofficially, Worthy had another punt return TD negated by a penalty on which he was clocked at 22.7 MPH. Don’t kick it to him!
While we’re at it, don’t kick it to Rome Odunze, either. Odunze doesn’t feature in the return game on a regular basis, but he took 1 of his 2 punt returns this season for an 83-yard touchdown against Cal, proving that he’s willing and able. Washington’s usual punt returners haven’t generated much juice, so the Longhorns should be on alert for No. 1.
Texas has blocked 2 punts, including an end-zone block against Oklahoma that UT recovered for its first touchdown of the game. The other came against Texas Tech, setting up field goal. Washington recorded a blocked field goal against Arizona State.
Both teams appear to be in good shape injury-wise, with the notable exception of Jonathon Brooks. There was some concern for Worthy’s ankle after he limped off in the Big 12 Championship Game, but he returned to practice to this week at full speed and should be his usual blistering self. The same goes for cornerback Ryan Watts, who has been practicing in New Orleans after sitting out against Oklahoma State with an injured back. Washington will be missing only one player who has contributed this season, WR Giles Jackson, who, with Jalen McMillan’s return to the lineup, has decided to follow through on his original plan to preserve his redshirt. Otherwise, both depth charts are intact. Let’s go!
• • •
The verdict …
If you subscribe to the logic of the Blue-Chip Ratio, Washington is at a distinct disadvantage in terms of baseline talent. Every national champion in the Playoff era (and most of them prior to that) has met the minimum BCR threshold, which is simply signing more 4- and 5-star recruits over the previous 4 years than 2- and 3-stars. Texas easily clears that bar; Washington doesn’t. The Huskies also fell well behind the curve in 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite, landing at No. 26 between Missouri and Michigan State. Texas comes in at No. 6, with 9 former 5-star recruits in the fold vs. Washington’s zero. In the era of online recruiting rankings, no team that resides in the Huskies’ tier has ever won it all under any format.
The one thing that method of measuring “talent” can’t account for is a player like Penix, who singlehandedly closes most of the gap. Does he look the part of a can’t-miss, blue-chip specimen? No, and he’s rarely been mistaken for one. But if you had to trust any college quarterback in 2023 to meet this particular moment, who would you rather have with the ball in his hands? Penix’s combination of experience, maturity and lethal accuracy has consistently earned that trust, which makes him very difficult to bet against.
Texas has waited a lot longer for this opportunity than anyone in Austin ever imagined they would have to, but if they’re going to seize it, their golden-boy QB must rise to the occasion himself.
Ewers, it turns out, really is the one they were waiting for. As a recruit, he was so coveted that his decision to flip his commitment from UT to Ohio State was a factor in Tom Herman losing his job 2 months later. Bringing the one who got away back to his home state was Sarkisian’s first big win as head coach, the first signal in the wake of his dismal debut on the field that maybe this time could actually be different. And lo and behold, it has been. A massively hyped Texas quarterback who panned out: What are the odds?
Monday night is the stage Ewers was recruited for. The surrounding cast is in place. He’s coming off the best performance of his young career. The window is wide open. It’s not now or never, or not literally, anyway; Ewers likely will be back for another run in 2024, and Arch Manning is waiting in the wings. But if it’s not now, the sting of a missed opportunity is only going to add more weight to the wait.
– – –
Texas 34 | • Washington 31
• • •