The No. 3 Texas Longhorns will do battle against the No. 2 Washington Huskies in the Sugar Bowl as part of the 2023 College Football Playoff. The Longhorns are known for their stout defense while the Huskies are known for their high-powered offense led by Heisman finalist quarterback Michael Penix Jr.. What can the Longhorns do to defeat Washington and reach the national championship game for the first time since 2009? Here are the keys to victory.
The Longhorns (12-1) are fresh off winning the Big-12 Championship after trumping Oklahoma State (9-4) 49-21. As Texas heads into 2024 as a member of the SEC, they look to bring a national championship to the Big-12 for the first time since it did back in 2005.
The reigning Big-12 champions are led by junior quarterback Quinn Ewers, who besides having suffered a shoulder injury and missed two consecutive games this season, had a prolific campaign as the Longhorns second-year starter. In 2023, Ewers tossed for 3,161 yards, 21 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions, respectively. Ewers ranks eighth in the country in completion percentage (.707) and tenth in passing efficiency (162.63), respectively. If the former Ohio State quarterback didn't miss two games, his volume stats likely would have been higher.
The highlight of Ewers season came against fellow College Football Playoff participant the Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa back in week 2. Texas handily defeated the Crimson Tide 34-24 and handed Nick Saban's team its first out-of-conference home loss since 2007. Ewers amassed 349 passing yards and 3 touchdowns. The Longhorns not only won that game by making big plays on offense throughout the contest, but their defensive front garnered pressure that affected the opposing offense's rushing and passing attack. Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowksi and his defense garnered 5 sacks and held premier rusher Jase McClellan to only 3.8 yards per rush and caused two interceptions from rising star quarterback Jalen Milroe.
Steve Sarkisian's squad will need to use that same blueprint against the Huskies, whose offense ranks eighth in the country in first down offense and first in passing offense (343.8 yards per game), respectively. Penix. Jr, who led the Huskies to a PAC-12 Championship win over Oregon, was firmly in front of the heisman race until the second half of the season when the Huskies struggled down the stretch.
Washington came close to defeat in games they were favorited in against teams such as Stanford (3-9), Oregon State (8-4), Washington State (5-7) and Arizona State (3-9), respectively. In those games, Washington lost the time of possession battle in each contest ( 37:33 - 22:03 vs. Oregon State, 32:42 - 27:18 vs. Washington State, 34:33 - 24:48 vs. Stanford, 37:27- 22:07 vs. Arizona State), respectively. Even though Washington went to the brink against those teams, they still found a way to win despite having the ball less. The key for Texas is to keep Penix Jr. and star wideouts Rome Odunze (1,428 reception yards, second in country) and Ja'lynn Polk (1,000 reception yards) off the field as much as possible.
The Huskies rushing attack, led by junior rusher Dillon Johnson, is solid but has been inconsistent at times, especially down the stretch. The Huskies rushing attack accumulated 14 total yards against Arizona State, averaged 3.4 yards per rush against Stanford and averaged 3.4 yards per carry versus Washington State, respectively. The Longhorns rank third in the country in rushing defense (allow 2.87 yards per rush) led by star defensive tackle T'Vondre Sweat. When Sweat isn't catching touchdown passes, he is arguably the best defensive player in the country. In 2023, Sweat accumulated 25 tackles, two sacks, eight tackles for loss, and seven quarterback hurries, respectively.
Alongside Sweat on defense is premier linebackers Jaylan Ford (91 tackles, led team) and Anthony Hill Jr (five sacks and 39 tackles), respectively. The last time Texas faced a high-powered offense that had a dynamic quarterback was against the Oklahoma Sooners on October 7th. The Sooners offense led by now-Oregon quarterback Dillon Gabriel, tossed for 285 yards and rushed for 113 yards while throwing the game-winning touchdown to win the 2023 edition of the Red River Rivalry. Gabriel led the Oklahoma offense to fourth in the country in total offense (336.4 yards per game) and individually placed fifth in passing efficiency (171.99), respectively.
Gabriel had the ability to use his legs and garner big plays in order to lead his team to victory against the Longhorns. Penix Jr, however, is a pure pocket passer with high efficiency and certainly will be leaned on heavily as they go against arguably the best defense they've faced all season. As for the Texas defense, they will arguably go up against the most talented offense they've had to defend all season.
Keys to victory for Texas against Washington
The keys to victory for Texas are simple, but the execution won't be easy. The defensive front seven absolutely have to garner pressure on Penix Jr.. The Longhorns can't afford to allow Penix to have 5-7 seconds in the pocket to operate. Secondly, Texas has to contain Johnson and the ground game. If Johnson somehow, someway produces a 256-yard performance like he did vs USC, the Longhorns will be in for a long night. If the Huskies ground game can't produce like they hope, it allows Texas to drop more defenders into pass coverage. Lastly, Texas has to keep Penix Jr. and his offensive weapons on the sideline. Ewers and the Texas offense need to produce long, but prolific drives downfield. Ewers will need to play like the guy everyone saw on the night of September 9th at Bryant-Denny Stadium if the Longhorns want to advance to the championship game in Houston.
The Huskies and Longhorns are both looking for their first victory in the final year of the four-team playoff format. Will the Washington offense get the better of Texas's high-ranked defense? Or will Sweat and company reign supreme and push Texas to the big game?