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Even on rough days, Texas QB Casey Thompson’s confidence grows in key moments

Thompson’s execution on 32-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Whittington was difference-maker for Longhorns

FORT WORTH — Quarterbacks don’t find their edge in 58-point wins over Rice. Or even on days when they account for six touchdowns against Texas Tech.

Confidence is hardened from prolonged exposure to a blowtorch, like the TCU defense on a jagged Saturday at Amon G. Carter Stadium. 

If Texas (4-1, 2-0 Big 12) beats Oklahoma this week, goes on to reach the conference title game and even hoist the trophy, Thompson can look back on moments like first-and-10 from the TCU 32 as major mile markers along the way.

Bijan Robinson carried the Horns in Cowtown, no doubt. But Thompson’s execution on a 32-yard touchdown throw to Jordan Whittington in the fourth quarter was a difference-maker in a 32-27 win.

“I thought all in all, Casey fought, he competed, he managed. I'm proud of him,” UT coach Steve Sarkisian said after the game. “Not every game you’re going to go out and have six touchdowns. That's not a reality. It's finding a way to win when you're a quarterback, and he was able to do it today.”

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The Longhorns are back in the national polls after dispatching the Frogs. Texas is No. 21 in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 23 in the USA Today coaches poll. Oklahoma (5-0, 2-0) is No. 6 in the AP poll, No. 5 in the coaches'.

"We have a next-play mentality,” Texas quarterback Casey Thompson said. “If it was a good play or a bad play, we just have to move on to the next one. That’s how you stay focused on the moment and the task at hand.”

ESPN is sending its College GameDay crew to the State Fair of Texas this week to chronicle the annual Red River circus. Viewers at home are likely to get heavy doses of Robinson footage, and deservedly so. He’s the nation’s second-leading rusher with 652 yards, spinning and pinballing his way into Heisman contention. 

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Statistically speaking, Saturday was not one of Thompson’s best games. He completed just 12 of 22 passes for 142 yards. He threw a deep ball into triple coverage for an easy interception. Still, he delivered when the Horns needed it. 

Leading by six early in the fourth quarter, Sarkisian showed incredible faith in Robinson by calling his number on third-and-9. Robinson sailed wide right and bullied his way for 9 yards and the first down at the TCU 32.

Texas quarterback Casey Thompson gets his ankle wrapped by a trainer before Saturday's game at TCU in Fort Worth. He improved to 3-0 as the Longhorns' starter with the 32-27 win.

Up to that point, Thompson hadn’t been special. He had missed on some throws and had seen others dropped. The passing game just wasn’t clicking.

“We have a next-play mentality,” Thompson said. “If it was a good play or a bad play, we just have to move on to the next one. That’s how you stay focused on the moment and the task at hand.”

On first down, Thompson faked a handoff to Robinson while watching two TCU defenders. He pulled the ball back and fired a strike over the middle to Whittington, who got into the second level and raced home for the score. It was textbook execution of a run-pass option play. 

Thompson said he read the outside linebacker before the snap. The defender was 

“messing around, trying to act like he was going to blitz, then he dropped back.” After the snap, Thompson said the defender came down to stop the run, and the quarterback knew Whittington would have a one-on-one situation. 

“The hardest part playing this position, there are a lot of reads and throws that, playing as a quarterback from back in the pocket where I’m looking, it’s hard to see defenders and it’s hard to see certain windows,” Thompson said. “And just being able to have that trust and confidence that I’m going to rip this ball into this spot and just know that my receiver will be in the right place. 

“I actually couldn’t see him,” Thompson said of Whittington. “I just knew where to put the ball, and he ran into it and made a good play.”

It’s a moment when quarterbacks must trust their preparation, trust the coaching.

“You don’t hit a couple deep balls, you have a couple drops, that can get you rattled, and I don't think Casey ever got rattled,” Sarkisian said. “I think he hung in there. It was a grind-it-out kind of game. When we needed those throws in the end, he was able to make them, which were big plays for us.”

As for Whittington, Robinson said, “Man, that’s just God’s gift right there for him. How he went up and grabbed it, that’s just a huge moment for our offense.”

Robinson said to know what all Whittington has gone through, mostly with injuries, “when I see him make plays like that, it just puts a smile on my face.”

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Sarkisian is clearly all-in with Thompson. Backup Hudson Card was taken off field goal holding duties against TCU. Card has played in four games, the maximum allowed to preserve an athlete’s redshirt status.

Officially, Card would still have four years of eligibility remaining if he redshirts. The 2020 season was wiped off the board, from an eligibility standpoint, because of the pandemic. The NCAA allowed all athletes to freeze their eligibility. Thus, Card could technically still be classified as a redshirt freshman in 2022. 

Obviously, should Thompson get hurt, Card would get the nod and start playing immediately. 

This offense, with Thompson at the controls, is struggling to hit deep balls. But they are moving the chains with short to intermediate passes and plenty of Robinson and the running game. 

Every play like Whittington’s touchdown catch instills confidence in what the quarterback can do and what the play-caller will call. 

Now the Horns are taking that confidence into the Cotton Bowl to face the Sooners. It’s the annual midseason measuring-stick moment for both teams in a year when the league race is still up for grabs.

“You know, there may be teams that are a little sexier and more high-flying and all that,” Sarkisian said, “but at the end of the day, we're going to make you earn it, and we're going to try to grind you out.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.

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Saturday's game

No. 23 Texas vs. No. 5 Oklahoma, 11 a.m., Cotton Bowl, ABC, 104.9