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Golden: Texas, Steve Sarkisian must find their finishing kick at Baylor (or else)

Kickoff is at 11 a.m. on ABC.

  • Texas is 4-3 overall and 2-2 in Big 12 play. Baylor is 6-1 overall and 3-1 in Big 12 play.
  • The Longhorns started the year at 4-1 before losing the last two straight.
  • The Horns owned double-digit leads in the second halves of their last two games but lost both.

Players and coaches always return from a bye week with the enthusiasm of a first-grader on Christmas morning.

There’s a freshness that envelops a locker room, kind of like that unmistakable new-car smell as you drive that 2022 Mercedes-Benz off the showroom floor. Sometimes, the plush smell can last for months. 

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Then there are the times when it dissipates after only a few days.

For Texas, that delicious fragrance was left in Fayetteville after Arkansas dominated for most of the second half of a 40-21 loss. Worse yet, the Kelley Blue Book value of Steve Sarkisian’s new sled has plummeted with a pair of late-game collapses against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

After leading Texas to three straight wins, head coach Steve Sarkisian is trying to figure out how his team can improve in the second halves of games after dropping the last two to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Texas plays at Baylor on Saturday.

The Longhorns (4-3, 2-2 Big 12), who have some must-wins coming up against Baylor and Iowa State, aren't a lemon just yet, but recent performances have been more Buick than Benz, particularly late in games.

Ever watch one of those 5,000-meter races and wonder why that one runner goes out so fast and then drops out at the midway point? That’s how it has felt with this team lately. They show good sprinter’s speed early, but there isn’t enough of a kick at the finish. To that end, Sarkisian and his staff have tried to implement a feeling of finishing in preparation for Saturday’s matchup with the No. 18 Bears.

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By my count, it’s the second consecutive crossroads game for the Horns and it’s never a good thing to have more than one in a season. A loss here and any fleeting hopes the Horns have of making it to Jerry World for the Big 12 title game will be swept aside and replaced by a survivalist’s desperation. They are talented enough to beat Baylor, but those legs haven’t held up at winning time lately.

In conversations with players this week, the enthusiasm is obvious and there doesn’t appear to be any loss of confidence. But there is this undercurrent of urgency to flip this script and morph from front-runner to closer. In other words, the Horns need to give their best Mariano Rivera imitation to get this thing headed in the right direction or deal with the reality of being near the bottom of a conference in which they were picked to finish third.

Texas running back Roschon Johnson said the Longhorns focused on finishing in practices during the bye week and leading up to Saturday's game at No. 18 Baylor. Texas has lost two straight while 6-1 Baylor is off to its best start since 2019.

Sarkisian is preaching a game-by-game approach, of course, and that makes sense given how things have gone down lately. The players would be best served to take it quarter by quarter.

And while they’re at it, they should be reminded that there are four of them in a college football game. It never hurts to be sure.

“The big focus is on finishing and not paying attention to the scoreboard and not getting too comfortable, too high or too low,” running back Roschon Johnson said. “I think that’s been the main point of emphasis because we know everybody has seen that we’re more than capable of putting up dominant performances. It’s just a matter of consistency throughout the whole game.”

The practices leading up to Baylor have been more spirited by most accounts. Cornerback Josh Thompson said more emphasis has been placed on the second half of the workouts because it’s obvious the Horns have fallen short in the third and fourth quarters.

After a two-minute break at the midway point of practice, the energy has been amped up. The idea is to raise the intensity in the latter part to try and simulate what the fourth quarter will be like at McClane Stadium, a hostile environment, depending on what scale you use.

Baylor head coach Dave Aranda looks on from the sideline during the second half of a 38-24 win over BYU on Oct. 16.  The No. 18 Bears are 6-1 and off to the best start since the 2019 team began the year 9-0.

That’s all well and good, but one wonders if a coaching staff can manufacture a finishing kick halfway through a season with a team that has fallen short in that area time and time again.

While plenty of emphasis has been placed on the mental strength that goes into putting away an opponent at winning time, the Texas defense has been visibly tired in the fourth quarters of the last two games. Opposing offensive lines from Norman and Stillwater have dominated the trenches and running backs Kennedy Brooks and Jaylen Warren took over those games late.

More:Short-handed Texas receivers to test their depth against Baylor's stout secondary

With running backs Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner leading the way, the Bears are the league’s top-ranked rushing team at 238 yards per game and 6.1 yards per carry, so this will be anything but easy.

Coaches can scream until they're blue in the face, but the ultimate challenge has to be met from within.

By the players.

“What happens when we face adversity will affect what happens to us the rest of the season,” quarterback Casey Thompson said.

If the Horns are in the right mental space, they are more than capable of rolling into Waco and reminding Baylor of the Big 12 pecking order. Or they can follow a similar script and fade late for a third straight loss and hope to make it back to the Alamo Bowl in two months.

Either way, the ride home on the team bus will be interesting.

A win will feel like a smooth Benz, floating down I-35 as if it’s dancing on air.

And a loss?

I hear those new Enclaves aren't bad.

Saturday's game

Texas at 18-Baylor, 11 a.m., ABC, 104.9