In the dressing room there were no stunned expressions, no red eyes and certainly no tears. There was something else at the Royal Memorial Stadium.
Hope. Optimism. And an unshakeable belief that Texas is on the right track under second-year coach Steve Sarkisian.
That was the key takeaway from Saturday’s heartbreaking 20-19 loss to No. 1 Alabama. A record-breaking viewership of 105,213 saw it firsthand. Fox’s national TV audience saw it, too. It was undeniable proof that, as Sarkisian said, “I think we’re on the up.”
Texas lost starting quarterback Quinn Ewers to a collarbone injury late in the first quarter. Its long-term status is still uncertain. But backup Hudson Card rallied the Horns and Bert Auburn gave UT the lead with a 49-yard field goal with 1:29 left.
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But Alabama quarterback Bryce Young did just enough — including what Sarkisian described as a “Houdini act” to avoid a late sack attempt by Ryan Watts — to set up the winning field goal. Will Reichard hit a 33-yarder with 10 seconds left as Bama escaped.
“Let’s call it what it is, nobody gave us a chance in this game,” Sarkisian said. “None of you (Texas media). None of the national media.”
He’s not wrong. After a 5-7 season that saw the home side start as 20-point underdogs on Saturday, many wondered if the Horns (1-1) would be blown out.
“But we believed in our dressing room that we could win this game,” said Sarkisian. “And we played like a team that believed they could win that game. And we played like a team that thought they were going to win the game.”
Alabama (2-0) didn’t exactly live up to that No. 1 ranking. The Crimson Tide had 15 penalties, one shy to tie the school record, with undisciplined and, frankly, uncharacteristic play. They also battled an unrelenting Longhorns defense all day as Jaylan Ford (10 tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss) and Anthony Cook (nine stops, two for loss) ran wild.
Was the defense trying to send a message? “Oh yeah, we made a statement,” said defensive tackle Keondre Coburn.
“I’m glad we believed in each other as a team and we had a chance,” said Coburn. “I don’t care if people don’t like us, don’t love us. But you will hear us, you will respect us, you will feel us. That’s what we’re going to try to bring every week that we come here.”
Without a busted game that saw Alabama’s Jase McClellan get away for an 81-yard touchdown run, Texas’ defensive numbers would be looking stellar.
And the reason officials denied Texas a security in the third quarter was just puzzling. T’Vondre Sweat pulled Young down on him in the end zone, but Young somehow got rid of the ball while he was practically upside down. It was an obvious security, or so it seemed.
Officials ordered targeting first, which clearly wasn’t the case. No one went near Young’s head. Then it seemed to be a flag to ruffle the passer-by. But he got fired in the end zone? “I’m not sure what the first call was,” Sarkisian said.
Ultimately, officials told the Texas coach that the pass was incomplete and that intentional grounding was unverifiable. It was just weird. Alabama got to punt, and Texas converted short field into Auburn’s 33-yard field goal. Texas took a 13-10 lead, not 15-10, going into the fourth quarter.
“It was a game changer,” said linebacker DeMarvion Overshown. “That’s part of the adversity we’ve had to go through throughout the game and we’ve responded well to that. We ended up taking them off the field anyway, and we just have to take it up to our chins and keep going.
Nothing game-changing for Texas like the loss of Ewers late in the opening quarter.
The redshirt freshman, making his second career start, acted. Ewers completed nine of 12 passes for 134 yards in the first quarter before UT hit first-and-goal at the Alabama 2. Ewers turned away from pressure from Will Anderson Jr., got rid of the ball but was driven onto the turf by Dallas Turner.
Ewers stayed on the ground and didn’t move. Trainers helped him to his feet and he went to the dressing room and returned in street clothes. “We don’t know the severity yet,” Sarkisian said. Ewers will undergo an MRI scan and the manager is likely to provide an update on Monday.
The offensive pace changed significantly when Card came into play. But then he looked weak after a tackle in the third quarter, and for a moment it looked like Texas was headed for third stringer Charles Wright. “No, I’m staying home,” Card said afterwards.
Card got the perfect chance to rewrite his narrative in the fourth quarter. The quarterback, who struggled and was benched against Arkansas last season, looked calm, cool and collected as he led Texas on late goal drive. His quick throws to Bijan Robinson and Roshon Johnson were designed to get the ball out quickly. But Card stood his ground and found Casey Cain for a 29-yard gain to build Auburn’s 49-yard boots and a 19-17 lead.
Card is likely to be the starter against UTSA next week and against Texas Tech in the Sept. 24 Big 12 opener.
“Obviously you just want to prep each week like you’re the starter because you never know,” Card said. “So I was prepared and just tried to do whatever it took to help my team win.”
Texas fans certainly did all they could. The record-breaking audience was there from start to finish. It actually started at 8 a.m. when school officials let in rowdy students three hours before kick-off. With two hours until game time, the 14,000-seat student section was packed, and UT announced that students who were late were out of luck.
The Houston 1990 game has long been considered the loudest at Royal Memorial Stadium, and we can argue what follows. This was a strong contender until the deafening silence after Reichard’s starting shot and the Bama players waiving goodbyes as they left the field.
But then something else happened. Texas fans stayed and applauded their team. They realized this was different.
As big as the game was in Alabama, there are still 10 regular season games left. This season is still young. Maybe Texas is just getting started.
“In a weird way,” Sarkisian said, “we kind of feel good about where we are on our program.”