For Texas, the Valero Alamo Bowl hung on the shoulders of a redshirt freshman quarterback. Nineteen-year-old Quinn Ewers possesses NFL arm strength but little college experience.
An up-and-down season led to questions about his future (will Arch Manning take his job next fall?), to concerns about his first bowl game. After losing the nation’s best running back, Bijan Robinson, and a standout backup, Roschon Johnson, to the allure of the NFL, how would Ewers manage without a proven running threat against Washington?
Ewers answered with a performance Thursday night that surprised, throwing for more yards (369 to 287) and with more accuracy (66 percent to 59 percent) than the nation’s leading passer, Michael Penix Jr. of the Huskies.
It wasn’t enough. Washington (11-2) defeated Texas (8-5), 27-20, in part, because the Huskies unleashed a superior running game. And because Penix delivered big when he needed to: throwing two touchdown passes, converting third down after third down, chewing up the clock in the fourth quarter and extending drives that sucked the air and life out of a pro-Texas crowd. No surprise, then, that he was named Offensive MVP and burnished his reputation: Heisman candidate for 2023.
Ewers? He arrived with an edge, a thunderous crowd of 62,370, not too many dressed in purple, cheering him on. Longhorn Nation would prefer traveling to a New Year’s Six Bowl. But the Valero Alamo Bowl is not a terrible alternative. Texas has made six appearances, winning four. It is, in effect, a “home” bowl game. But the home crowd couldn’t make up for Texas mistakes: dropped passes, missed tackles, costly penalties.
Penix arrived with a greater edge. Not only did he throw for a nation-leading 4,354 yards. He came with two 1,000-yard receivers, Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze. And not one Washington player opted out of the game. Texas had three opt out — and two of them combined for more than 2,000 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns. Without the best one-two running back punch in the nation, pressure mounted on Ewers.
“We knew we were going to have to throw the ball more,” said Texas Coach Steve Sarkisian, “and that would give us the best chance.”
Translation: Texas needed an all-time performance from Ewers. At least he could say he’d been here before. Ewers once cocked his right arm, eyed his target and threw a hard, tight spiral — right through a small hole in a football toss outside the Alamodome. The rest of that evening in 2013 is a blur. He does not recall Marcus Mariota passing and running past the Texas defense, leading the Oregon Ducks to a 30-7 victory. He does not remember Mack Brown coaching his last game on the Texas sideline. His most vivid memory from age 10 are “those little holes” in the football toss. “I was a Longhorn fan at the time,” he said. “But I had no idea I’d be where I am today.”
His grandparents had an inkling. They gave Ewers tickets to the Alamo Bowl for Christmas, hoping one day he might play in one. Nine years after that visit, Ewers fulfilled their wish. If given more time, he might have pushed the game into overtime.
For Texas, the 30th Alamo Bowl ended with laments of “if only.”
If only Xavier Worthy had not dropped a perfect strike from Ewers in the third period, a pass that would have been a sure, 61-yard touchdown. If only Terrance Brooks had made that second half interception on the sideline, giving Texas, perhaps, game-changing momentum. If only the pass rush had put more pressure on Penix, forcing at least a sack or two. If only the Longhorn defense had been able to force Washington to punt with more time left on the clock late in the fourth. If only Texas had been able to stop the Huskies on third and fourth down. …
“It was a game of missed opportunities for us,” Sarkisian said. “We just didn’t make enough plays.”
Washington made plays. Wayne Taulapapa ran 42 yards for one touchdown. Taj Davis caught a 6-yard pass for a score. Jalen McMillan grabbed an 8-yard pass for six. Peyton Henry kicked two field goals. One telling stat: Washington rushed for 158 yards, Texas for 51 — and that included Ewers’ 13-yard scramble.
And still, when the fourth quarter began, the score didn’t matter to Ewers. The 17-point deficit didn’t either. The clocking ticking away in the Alamodome … hope melting in a sea of orange … none of that fazed him. Ewers believed. He believed he could bring Texas back from the brink. Believed he could do what almost no one believed was possible. Believed he could lead the Longhorns to an improbable comeback with 13 minutes left in regulation.
Ewers led Texas on two drives that cut Washington’s lead to 7. An onside kick failed. But Texas got the ball back with less than a minute on the clock, and Ewers kept throwing. He threw long and deep and Casey Cain came down with the last pass, a completion of 49 yards to the Washington 41. And that’s where it ended.
Ewers trudged off the field, disappointed, confetti falling, Washington players celebrating around him. Those young shoulders? That rocket arm? For one night, at least, they looked strong and capable enough to carry this Texas team into a future marked with hope and uncertainty.