In order for Texas to pull off a road upset of Alabama, the Longhorns needed a few things.
They needed a good defensive performance, which they got. They needed to win at the line of scrimmage, which they did. They needed at least some running game presence, to keep Alabama’s defense honest, and they grinded one out.
But more than anything, they needed a big performance from quarterback Quinn Ewers.
Ewers, the No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2021, delivered a big-time performance in a big-time game to help No. 11 Texas beat No. 3 Alabama 34-24 for the program’s biggest win in more than a decade.
For the Longhorns to accomplish their goals — namely, winning a Big 12 championship — Ewers has to have a big year. This team has been constructed according to the vision of coach Steve Sarkisian, and central to that vision is a high-powered offense that attacks defenses at all three levels.
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Until Saturday night, there was still at least some uncertainty about whether Ewers would live up to his lofty recruiting status. There was no questioning his physical talent. The velocity at which the ball comes out of his hand is elite. He can throw darts to any part of the field.
But we had only seen flashes. In the first quarter against the Crimson Tide last season, Ewers looked the part. But he was knocked out of that game and missed the last three quarters of the 20-19 loss. When he returned from that injury in mid-October, he looked terrific in a 49-0 win over Oklahoma.
Then came a tough four-game stretch in which he completed 47.1 percent of his passes, throwing five touchdowns and four interceptions. He didn’t surpass 197 passing yards in any of those games. He may not have been 100 percent at the time, but he didn’t offer excuses. He admitted to sloppy footwork, and his lack of deep ball accuracy became a concern.
After the season, Ewers decided enough was enough. He altered his diet, cutting out snacks and Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, and dropped roughly 20 pounds. He trimmed his much-discussed mullet. He embraced a leadership role on the team.
So far, the efforts have been fruitful. He had a solid performance in Texas’ 2023-opening win over Rice, but the deep ball issues still remained. On Saturday night, they faded away. Ewers connected on a 44-yard touchdown to Xavier Worthy in the second quarter and a 39-yarder to Adonai Mitchell in the fourth.
In the short and intermediate game, he was patient and accurate, scanning the defense and refraining from poor decisions. At night’s end, his line was as good as you can ask for against Alabama: 24 of 38 passing, 349 yards and three touchdowns, impressive numbers that could have been even better if not for a handful of drops by Texas receivers.
It was the type of game we’ve all been waiting to see from Ewers, and he delivered.
From @ESPNStatsInfo: Texas’ Quinn Ewers is the first non-SEC quarterback to have 250+ pass yards and two touchdowns at Alabama since coach Nick Saban took over in 2007.
— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) September 10, 2023
Although it’s early, Saturday’s performance will put Ewers in the Heisman Trophy discussion. Texas has a clear path to the College Football Playoff if it can avoid stubbing its toe the rest of the season. The Longhorns will be favored to win every remaining game on their schedule. They can dream big now, especially if Ewers keeps playing like this.
Blue-chip quarterbacks play under a microscope. As some young passers make huge impacts early in their careers, like Tua Tagovailoa or Trevor Lawrence or Drake Maye, we wonder why others don’t develop as quickly. Those questions existed with Ewers last year, even if they were unwarranted.
It didn’t help that so much of the discourse around Ewers coming out of Southlake (Texas) Carroll High was about name, image and likeness money. Ewers graduated high school early and reclassified from the 2022 class to 2021 so that he could enroll at Ohio State and cash in on lucrative deals waiting for him, because Texas state law prevented high schoolers from signing NIL deals. He arrived in the middle of Ohio State’s 2021 camp and spent his four months there basically buried on the depth chart, save for two snaps in a blowout when he handed the ball off.
When Ewers transferred back to his home state, it was met with limited fanfare. His hairstyle was a regular talking point. He won the starting job in training camp but endured typical freshman struggles. Fair or not, that came with criticism and questions for Sarkisian about whether he considered benching him. To Sarkisian’s credit, he stuck with Ewers, confident that the young quarterback would grow and develop.
The patience paid off. So did the work he and quarterback AJ Milwee have done with Ewers. “There’s this level of confidence in Quinn that’s different,” Sarkisian said on Monday.
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Ewers looked much more polished on Saturday than he did a year ago when the Crimson Tide won 20-19 in Austin. He looked like the mature, levelheaded leader who can take Texas to places it has only dreamed of in the post-Mack Brown era.
And that maturity extended to his time in front of the microphone. After the game, ESPN reporter Holly Rowe asked him, “The whole world, the whole media, everybody is going to say something about Texas after this game. What should it be?”
It was a moment tailor-made for Ewers to echo his predecessor, former Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who famously said, “We’re baaaack” after a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia in January 2019. Ewers didn’t take the bait.
“We still have a lot of games to win,” Ewers said. “We’re still going to roll though.”
Afterward, he wandered over to the Texas fan section of Bryant-Denny Stadium and interacted with the fans, shouting, “Let’s go!” Then a fan handed him a large chain with the Longhorns logo on it. He put it on and said, “It’s time!”
After the Longhorns’ first win over an AP top-three team since 2008, it is time: to take Ewers and the Longhorns seriously. Texas can go as far as Ewers can take it, and Saturday he showed that could be a long, long way.
(Photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)