Washington hangs on to beat Texas in the Sugar Bowl to set up a meeting with Michigan for the national title

No. 2 Washington survived an improbable late comeback attempt to secure a 37-31 win over No. 3 Texas and a matchup with No. 1 Michigan for the national title on Jan. 8.

The Huskies (14-0) outscored the Longhorns 16-10 in the second half after the teams were tied at 21-21 at halftime. Grady Gross’ third field goal of the game with 2:44 to go gave the Huskies a two-possession lead at 37-28.

But then things got interesting. Texas got a field goal with just over a minute left to cut Washington's lead to six and the Huskies recovered the onside kick. However, Washington didn't run much time off the clock because Texas had two timeouts and running back Dillon Johnson suffered an apparent foot injury on third down.

Instead of getting the ball back with about 20 seconds to go, Texas had one last chance with 45 seconds to go because the clock stopped after Johnson's injury. The Longhorns were able to get down to the Washington 12-yard-line but Quinn Ewers' pass to AD Mitchell in the end zone fell incomplete as time expired.

Texas (12-2) couldn’t do much to stop Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. as the Heisman runner-up had one of the best passing performances in College Football Playoff history. Penix was 29-of-38 passing for 430 yards and two touchdowns as he rifled lasers all over the field. The vaunted Washington deep passing game showed up with a vengeance on Monday night and it was apparent from Washington’s fourth play of the game when Penix hit Ja’Lynn Polk for a 77-yard catch to set up the Huskies’ first TD of the night.

After the game was tied at halftime, Washington scored 10 straight points to open the third quarter thanks to a Texas fumble. Washington scored on its first drive of the half as Jalen McMillan caught a 19-yard TD pass from Penix and then Washington added a field goal less than three minutes later after Texas RB CJ Baxter fumbled on the Longhorns’ first play of the drive.

The victory is Washington's 10th consecutive win by 10 or fewer points since a 59-32 victory over Cal on Sept. 23. The Huskies have thrived in close games all season long, especially down the stretch. Following a 10-point win over USC, Washington beat Utah by seven, Oregon State by two, Washington State by three on a walk-off field goal and Oregon by three in the Pac-12 title game before Monday night’s scare.

Should Washington have taken a knee?

The strategy for Washington after recovering the onside kick seemed sensible and obvious. Since Texas had two timeouts, Washington couldn’t kneel the ball three times and end the game. The Huskies needed to get a first down.

Johnson ran the ball on first and second down and Texas called a timeout after each. The third-down run was similar to the first two plays — Johnson ran up the middle. But his foot appeared to twist awkwardly as he was tackled and he immediately screamed in pain after he was on the ground.

Since Johnson was unable to get up, the clock stopped for his injury and didn’t restart until Washington snapped the ball for its fourth-down punt.

Had Washington taken a knee on third down — or the first three downs — it would have been kicking the ball back to Texas with roughly 20 seconds to go. But thanks to college football’s clock rules, where the clock stops after an injury inside of two minutes and doesn’t restart until the next play begins, Texas had roughly 25 more seconds than it otherwise would have gotten.

In hindsight, Washington should have clearly taken a knee on its first three plays. Johnson wouldn't have been carted off the field at the end of the game and Texas' comeback attempt wouldn't have gotten so close to becoming a reality. But few coaches kneel the ball when they know they need a first down to end the game. And Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer isn't known for his conservatism. At one point in the second half, Washington threw nine straight passes with the lead.

Texas’ two second-half turnovers

Texas got its second TD of the game to tie Washington at 14-14 after Germie Bernard fumbled a Texas punt and gave the Longhorns great field position. In the second half, however, it was Texas’ turnovers that proved costly even though Washington scored just three points off the two fumbles.

The Longhorns punted on their possession after Baxter’s fumble. The possession after that, Jaydon Blue fumbled at the Washington 22 with less than 13 minutes to go.

Though Washington punted the ball right back to Texas and the Longhorns quickly scored a TD to cut Washington’s lead to six, Blue’s fumble was a huge missed opportunity. Had Texas simply gotten a field goal out of that possession — the Longhorns were well within kicker Bert Auburn’s range — Texas would have simply needed a field goal to tie the game on its final possession.

Despite fumbles from its top two healthy running backs, Texas also had great success running the ball against Washington, though it ran just 28 times as Quinn Ewers attempted 43 passes. Ewers was 24-of-43 passing for 318 yards and a TD, while Texas rushed 28 times for 180 yards and three scores.