TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Quinn Ewers and the Texas Longhorns gave themselves an early welcome to the Southeastern Conference. And perhaps a welcome back to national title contention.
Ewers finished what he started last season, passing for 349 yards and three touchdowns to lead Texas to a 34-24 victory over Alabama on Saturday night in a huge win for a program trying to climb back to its old level of prominence nationally.
The Longhorns (2-0) delivered the biggest victory under Steve Sarkisian in a game that slipped away last season after a red-hot Ewers exited because of a first-quarter shoulder injury. He was back and with another big weapon in Adonai Mitchell. Texas is set to join Alabama & Co. in the SEC next season.
“Even when it got dicey ... I love the response and the grit and perseverance our guys showed,” said Sarkisian, a former Alabama offensive coordinator who parlayed that stint into the Texas job.
It didn't come without a fight from the Crimson Tide (1-1), which has now seen three games slip away late in the past two seasons. Alabama had its 21-game home winning streak snapped along with a 57-game regular-season binge against nonconference teams dating to Nick Saban's debut season, 2007.
“This was a test for us,” Saban said. "I told the players early in the week that this was going to be a test, that we were playing a really good team and that we would find out where we were as a team. It was a test for everybody. It was a test for the coaches, it was a test for me, it was a test for all the players.
“And we obviously didn't do very well. But it's the mid-term, it's not the final.”
Mitchell delivered big against ‘Bama — again. The Georgia transfer caught touchdown passes of 7 and 39 yards in the fourth quarter. As a freshman Mitchell’s 40-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the national championship game against the Tide gave Georgia the lead and the first of back-to-back titles.
He caught the winner against Ohio State in the semifinal as well. Then Mitchell headed to Texas and another showdown with Alabama.
Sarkisian came into the game 14-12 at Texas and with just two wins in nine tries against ranked teams. He left with a doozie of a win over his former boss. Texas fans lingered, sometimes breaking into chants of “SEC.”
Sarkisian reiterated that this game wouldn't make or break the Longhorns season, but added it's a solid “benchmark” for where they stand.
“We have a ton of respect for Alabama, and I know how well they’re coached. I know how hard they play," he said. "I think it just shows a lot about what we’re capable of. Like I said coming into this game, this game isn’t going to define our season. We have 10 regular-season games left.”
Ewers was 24-of-38 passing and tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders had five catches for 114 yards.
Alabama's Jalen Milroe delivered big plays passing and running, but also was picked off twice on bad decisions. He was 14 of 27 for 255 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
Alabama didn't grab its first lead until Milroe found Jermaine Burton — also a transfer from two-time defending national champion Georgia — in the left corner of the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown with 14 seconds left in the third quarter. That came after a fourth-down stop when Ewers couldn't control the snap under center.
That lead became a double-digit deficit again in a whirlwind 84-second span.
Ewers answered right back with a 50-yard pass and run to Sanders. Then he promptly hit Mitchell for his 7-yarder.
Jerrin Thompson stepped in front of Milroe's pass and raced 32 yards to set up Jonathon Brooks' 5-yard run. Suddenly it was Texas 27, Alabama 16.
Milroe and ‘Bama weren’t done. Milroe recovered a dropped snap and hit tight end Amari Niblack, who rambled for a 39-yard touchdown.
Milroe's two-point pass made it 27-24 with 11:08 left before Mitchell's long score put it away.
Ewers refused to wonder publicly what might have been if he hadn't been hurt last season after passing for 134 yards on the first two drives. A year later, he got to savor the victory with his parents.
“It's definitely going to be a moment I remember forever,” he said.
Texas: The Horns kept up the pressure on Milroe and delivered big plays offensively. More importantly, Texas didn't flinch on the big stage, especially in the fourth quarter on their first trip to Tuscaloosa since 1902.
Alabama: The offensive line was pushed around much of the night. Penalties proved costly. And Saban's team faces renewed questions after losing a pair of down-to-the-wire games last season.
Texas: Hosts Wyoming on Saturday.
Alabama: At South Florida on Saturday.