Texas, with eye on CFP, rolls to Big 12 title game

  • Dave Wilson, ESPN Staff WriterNov 25, 2023, 02:07 AM ET

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      Dave Wilson is an editor for ESPN.com since 2010. He previously worked at The Dallas Morning News, San Diego Union-Tribune and Las Vegas Sun.

AUSTIN, Texas — All year long, Texas coach Steve Sarkisian has implored his players to lean into the target that the Longhorns had on their back in their final Big 12 season before they head to the SEC next year.

On Friday night, Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium turned into one big farewell party as the Longhorns (11-1, 8-1 in conference) clinched an appearance in next Saturday’s Big 12 championship game with a 57-7 destruction of Texas Tech, a team that beat Texas a year ago in Lubbock. In doing so, the Longhorns marked their first 50-point win in a Big 12 game since 2007, and claimed their second-largest win over the Red Raiders in 73 meetings.

The No. 7 Longhorns put on a dominating defensive performance, holding Texas Tech to 198 total yards and scoring on defense and special teams. Every bounce went Texas’ way, including a ball bouncing off Red Raiders running back Tahj Brooks’ foot into the arms of linebacker Jett Bush, who returned it 43 yards for a touchdown.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Texas became the first Big 12 team with a blocked punt, a kick return touchdown and a defensive touchdown in the same game over the last 20 seasons.

“I don’t know from a College Football Playoff perspective what that looks like,” Sarkisian said when asked what he thought Friday night’s victory meant. “What I do know is we have one more game to try to go win a Big 12 Championship, and I know I’ve got a locker room full of guys that want to try to complete that aspect of the mission next week. And then what they decide to do, they decide to do.”

Sarkisian reiterated that the Longhorns made their most emphatic statement in Week 2, when they beat Alabama 34-24.

“I won’t back off the fact that I think we have the best win in the country this year,” Sarkisian said. “I think going into Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and beating them by double digits — I’ve said this before and I know we’re going into that league next year — if it were that easy, then other teams in the SEC would have done it the other 53 games that they went 52-1. So I’m proud of our guys for what we’ve accomplished up to this point to the season. We’ll see how the dust settles next week, but we’ve got to handle our business.”

This was a game that had drawn a little extra attention since last year, when Texas Tech beat the Longhorns 37-34 in Lubbock, and the Red Raiders posted a video on social media of coach Joey McGuire saying, “I told you they were gonna break, and they did. The country’s gonna find out: Everything runs through Lubbock!”

That was followed by Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark speaking to a fan group in Lubbock in the preseason, imploring McGuire to close out Texas’ Big 12 tenure with another loss.

“Coach [McGuire], I’m not going to put any pressure on you, but I’m gonna be in Austin for Thanksgiving, OK?” Yormark said then. “And you’d better take care of business like you did right here in Lubbock last year.”

Late in Friday night’s win, Texas played Yormark’s comments on the video board in the stadium, much to the delight of fans.

“I got a chance to see Brett before the game and like I said, I appreciated him coming to our game tonight,” Sarkisian said. “But man, we’ll take anything we can get to fire our guys up, and so I kind of thanked him for the video. … So to show that video to the stadium and to all of our fans, I think was just kind of all part of the celebration of it all. I know he’ll be there again next week. So hopefully we can put on one more good show for him.”

As part of the celebration, highly recruited freshman Arch Manning made his first appearance in a game for Texas, coming in late in the third quarter and playing the entire fourth quarter. Sarkisian said backup Maalik Murphy suffered an injury when he got hit on the sideline during a kickoff return earlier in the game, so Manning was next up. When he entered the game, the crowd went wild. And again on his third play, after two handoffs, when he scrambled for 5 yards.

“I’ve never seen a quarterback go into the game as a backup … when Arch went in, I mean the crowd was buzzing,” Sarkisian said. “We had to try to quiet the crowd.”

Manning, playing with the second-team offense, finished 2-of-5 passing for 30 yards and showed his athleticism with a 12-yard run. Sarkisian said there were some “things for him to build upon moving forward, but [I was] happy he was able to get in the game.”

Five of Texas’ past six games were decided by 10 points or less, so Friday night, the dominant performance felt like a collective exhale as the Longhorns clinched their first appearance in the Big 12 title game since 2018 and won 11 games for the first time since 2009.

“I think everybody just felt like finally, you know, finally we’ve gotten to a point to where we’re not all biting our nails right until the end, so it was a great celebration that way,” Sarkisian said. “We’re going to face a really good team next week, and it’s going to take a really good performance by our guys and execution and discipline and toughness to go win that game, so we’ve got to fix some things from tonight. But in the end, it was very cool to see them play probably one of their better games this year.”