Texas struggled throughout the 2019 season. A series of injuries to running backs and defensive backs left both sides of the ball hanging on by a thread at certain points. An underwhelming season put the Longhorns in the Alamo Bowl, rather than the College Football Playoff like their rival Oklahoma, and eventually led to both coordinators being relieved of their duties before the bowl game.
“Distractions are only that if you choose to let them be,” head coach Tom Herman said. “And these guys did a great job of tuning out the noise.”
Focus was evident against No. 11 Utah. The Longhorns went into the Alamodome for the final game of the decade and dominated, 38-10. If only for a night, Texas lived up to its potential.
“We just finally put it together,” sophomore safety Caden Sterns said. “When we go out there and we play free and not timid … you saw today we (were) just out there flying around.”
The Longhorns, who were the healthiest they’d been in months, were dominant on both sides of the ball. Defensively, the 10 points speak for themselves. Offensively, each of the top three skill position players — senior wide receivers Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay and sophomore running back Keaontay Ingram — all scored touchdowns. Even the special teams got in on the action, with sophomore defensive back D’Shawn Jamison returning a punt for 71 yards in the second quarter.
In addition to an interception, Texas had fewer penalties, a higher third down conversion rate and played as close to a complete game as they had all year.
“Our talent can take us pretty far,” junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “Then once you add in mistake-free football, watch out.”
The 2019 Alamo Bowl was nearly identical to Texas' Sugar Bowl win over Georgia on Jan. 1 in that Texas was the underdog to a team left out of the playoff. The Longhorns responded in exactly the same way; they were able to out-physical one of the most physical teams in the country.
Given similar results after both bowl games, the confidence and optimism Texas gained after the Sugar Bowl resemble the characteristics shown after the Alamo Bowl.
“This was a great game,” sophomore linebacker Joseph Ossai said. “It gave the guys a lot of confidence in what we can do and what we stand for, what we can be on defense (and) how dangerous we can be on defense.”
The Longhorns dominated physically and mentally. With a quarter to go, Texas’ victory in the mental aspect was evident. Utah senior quarterback Tyler Huntley yelled toward the sideline after Texas stuffed him on a fourth down play. Junior defensive lineman Maxs Tupai later shoved Ehlinger to the ground, receiving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Later that series, another penalty was called on the Utes.
“I feel like that started showing,” Ingram said. “We’ve worked at (keeping our composure) in practice. Everything we do in the practice shows up.”
Herman and the Longhorns move to 3–0 in bowl games since Herman took over the program in 2017. Against Utah, success came from ferocious defense and the ability to run the ball.
“Tonight, (we played) one of the most physical teams in the country with the best rush defense in the country, and we found a way to rush for 231 yards,” Herman said.
For all the turmoil Texas faced this year, it ended 2019 with the best-case scenario: winning in a dominant, physical fashion in front of a sea of burnt orange, gaining momentum for the 2020 season.
“I don’t have all the answers right now on New Year’s Eve,” Herman said. “But I’m excited for the offseason to challenge these guys to understand what they’re capable of.”