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In wild Sugar Bowl finish, Texas Longhorns fall to Washington Huskies

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 01: Elijah Jackson #25 of the Washington Huskies breaks up a pass to Adonai Mitchell #5 of the Texas Longhorns on the final play of the CFP Semifinal Allstate Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome on January 01, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – JANUARY 01: Elijah Jackson #25 of the Washington Huskies breaks up a pass to Adonai Mitchell #5 of the Texas Longhorns on the final play of the CFP Semifinal Allstate Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome on January 01, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana.Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS — It was over, and then it wasn’t. Out of nowhere came the impossible gift of extra time, and suddenly the Superdome was about to burst open again, with burnt-orange belief bouncing off the roof beside purple dread.

Hanging in midair down the right sideline, Texas wide receiver Jordan Whittington saw all of this coming. He watched a perfectly thrown deep ball from Quinn Ewers fall into his hands, and as the crowd exploded he did not express an ounce of surprise.

Of course the Longhorns were doing this.

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Of course they were going to complete the comeback.

Of course they’d finish a story that already was too crazy to be true.         

“We felt magical, the whole time,” Whittington said. “We felt like it was already written.”

That’s the thing about magic, though. It works until it doesn’t, just as fate is inevitable until a defensive back decides to intervene. And when Washington’s Elijah Jackson sealed a 37-31 Huskies’ Sugar Bowl victory by soaring into the corner of the end zone to swat away the football and Texas’ final chance, the Longhorns’ prewritten ending vanished.

So did their hopes of playing in a national championship game that once again will go on without them.

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But boy, were they close this time. Yes, they made it harder than it needed to be, just like they’d done so many times during a season in which they qualified for their first College Football Playoff despite letting game after game go down to the wire. This time, they spotted the Huskies a 13-point fourth-quarter thanks to 430 surgical passing yards from the brilliant Michael Penix Jr.

When Texas failed to recover an onside kick with just over a minute remaining, it looked for a moment like Washington would prevail without any late-game drama. But then a Huskies running back got injured, preserving as many as 35 seconds that would have run off the clock without the stoppage, and the Longhorns took possession one last time, with 50 seconds remaining to travel 70 yards and into a national-title showdown against Michigan.

“It was almost like a movie script,” Texas receiver Adonai Mitchell said.

He, as much as anyone in the Superdome on Monday, would know. The Georgia transfer had starred in such scenes before, having caught huge touchdown passes in two playoff games for the Bulldogs, and he caught another midway through the fourth quarter Monday.

On that last drive, after Ewers’ 41-yard strike to Whittington put the Longhorns in position, everyone knew Mitchell would again be a target.

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“I was looking to give my guys an opportunity to go make a play,” Ewers said.

With 10 seconds left, from the Washington 13-yard line, Ewers threw a ball that fluttered beyond Mitchell’s reach in the end zone. On the next play, he missed Jaydon Blue as time appeared to expire.

But just like 14 years ago, when officials used replay to determine that the Longhorns had one extra second in what turned into a Big 12 championship victory over Nebraska, they again got a single second put back on the clock again.

Given that chance, Ewers again lofted a fade to Mitchell in the right corner of the end zone. It was high enough for the big receiver to go grab it. Because it was floating out of bounds, it would have been a tough catch. But Jackson, the Washington defender, swooped in and made sure it wouldn’t happen.

“We didn’t score,” Mitchell said later, still sounding almost surprised by that fact. “That’s pretty much all I can say.”

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In the big picture, of course, there’s plenty more that can be said about the game and the season and the years that led up to that single play. After more than a decade of idling in mediocrity and worse, the Longhorns made unmistakable progress in 2023, and it’s safe to say they won’t wait 14 years before their next playoff appearance.

For one thing, the event expands to 12 teams next season, which means they can take a step back and still get in. For another, even in defeat Monday Texas proved it deserved its spot among the national elite.

“This wasn’t a one-hit wonder year,” Whittington said.

And if the Longhorns follow it with something better?

Next time, they won’t have to depend on magic to finish it.

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