TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Fifteen seconds. That’s how long it took to turn Texas from an underachiever to a threat, from a program in the wilderness to a program that’s legitimately back.
With 14:05 left in the fourth quarter, Texas was down against Alabama, 16-13, behind for the first time all game. Three plays and 15 seconds later, Texas was up 20-16 and in firm control. The Longhorns would never look back, going on to win 34-24.
Alabama can attest: Texas is, most definitely, back.
A "College GameDay" appearance plus a 6 p.m. local time kickoff meant the entire town had plenty of time to throw Horns Down at anyone daring to wear orange within Tuscaloosa city limits. Downward-facing horns showed up on signs and were thrown from cars all along University Avenue. Saturday marked the first time Texas visited Alabama since 1902, and Tuscaloosa clearly wasn’t inclined to welcome the Longhorns back to town.
Texas received the ball to start the game and set the tempo early, running a no-huddle offense that had Alabama a step behind for much of the drive, and much of the first half. After Texas’ opening drive ended in a punt, Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe led his team in a drive that encompassed everything that Tide fans hoped — and feared — he would be. Faster than almost everyone on the field, he scrambled his way out of trouble and pulled off a nifty 12-yard jump-shot pass. But Alabama’s initial drive ended when Milroe hit Texas defensive back Jahdae Barron in the numbers, giving the Longhorns the ball at the Alabama 30.
On the ensuing drive, Texas cranked it up, using speed and misdirection to keep Alabama guessing and converting a fourth-down conversion well within field goal range. That drive ended with the first of two first-half Texas field goals, giving the Longhorns an early 3-0 lead.
Milroe spent the rest of the first half both inspiring and infuriating the fans in the Bryant-Denny stands. His legs got him out of trouble time and again, but he couldn’t sustain drives with his arm. And as he floundered, so did the rest of the team. A touchdown that tipped off the hands of a Texas defender was called back when an Alabama lineman strayed too far downfield. Alabama somehow managed to commit two illegal-snap penalties. Last year’s crippling Tide weakness — mental mistakes leading to crucial penalties — had resurfaced in 2023.
Longhorns QB Quinn Ewers, meanwhile, found his touch, hurling a 44-yard touchdown pass that looked like a Phil Mickelson flop shot, arcing upward and dropping straight downward into the waiting hands of Xavier Worthy. And for the first time all night, the Bryant-Denny crowd grew noticeably quiet. The teams exchanged field goals to end the first half, and Texas left the field leading 13-6.
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) September 10, 2023
It’s saying something that most of the highlights that played on Bryant-Denny’s screens to start the second half showed Milroe scrambling his way through plays that weren’t just broken, but crumbled. Milroe’s speed seemed to confuse everyone on the field but the referees, who tagged Alabama with another touchdown-nullifying penalty after a spectacular everything-out-of-nothing play. Once again Alabama had to settle for a field goal, drawing back to within four points at 13-9.
The mojo that had sustained Texas in the first half didn’t come out of the locker room to start the second. On the Longhorns’ first drive, Alabama three-and-outed Texas with the kind of intensity that comes from a serious halftime scorching. On the next Texas drive, Alabama’s defense surrendered passes of 34 and 32 yards, but managed to force Texas into a missed 42-yard field goal. And on the Longhorns’ third drive of the quarter, Alabama shook off one controversial fourth-down Texas conversion and managed to hold on the next.
The Tide offense climbed out of the ditch in the final seconds of the third quarter. Milroe slung a 49-yard touchdown pass that hit Jermaine Burton in stride and in the end zone. The field was, for the first time, clear of flags, and as the third quarter ended, Alabama had its first lead of the night at 16-13.
— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) September 10, 2023
Alabama’s touchdown shook the cobwebs out of Texas, and the Longhorns stomped down the field in a three-play, 69-second drive to retake the lead, 20-16, on a Ewers pass to AD Mitchell. The touchdown was set up by a massive 50-yard Ewers pass to, and scramble by, Ja’Tavion Sanders that had Alabama’s defense spinning on its heels.
And then, as quickly as it had come together, everything fell apart for Alabama. On the very first play after Texas’ touchdown, Milroe threw another back-breaking interception that Jerrin Thompson returned to the Alabama 5. One play later, Jonathon Brooks punched in the touchdown, and just like that, Alabama was down two possessions, 27-16.
Despite the interception, Nick Saban stuck with Milroe, and on the ensuing drive, he validated Saban’s faith by crafting a six-play, 75-yard masterclass in harnessing chaos. On the drive’s final play, Milroe fumbled the snap, then hit Amari Niblack for a 39-yard touchdown. One successful two-point conversion later, and Alabama clambered out of the grave to close to within three points, 27-24.
Texas took over with just over 11 minutes remaining in the game and the Bryant-Denny crowd fully engaged thanks to a timely playing of "Dixieland Delight." On the drive, Ewers found Jordan Whittington on a short route, and Whittington turned it into a 31-yard gain that put Texas into Alabama territory. Four plays later, Ewers hit Mitchell for a 39-yard touchdown pass that sucked the air right back out of the stadium and put the Longhorns up 34-24.