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After Arkansas disaster, Steve Sarkisian learns nothing comes easy at Texas

Having dropped in the polls, Texas (1-1) must move on, regroup against winless Rice

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Standing on the sideline, Steve Sarkisian had that look Saturday night. By now, it’s become that trademark Texas new coach look.

Charlie Strong had it at Notre Dame in 2015

Tom Herman had it against Maryland in 2017. And 2018.

It’s the shell-shocked look that indicates total confusion. How is this happening? 

Saturday’s 40-21 loss to unranked Arkansas was another stark reminder how far Texas must still climb before reaching any sort of championship mountaintop. Each of the last three UT coaches came in thinking they could orchestrate a quick turnaround only to be hit with harsh reality.

Texas running back Bijan Robinson is tackled by Arkansas defensive backs Greg Brooks Jr., left, and LaDarrius Bishop during the first quarter of Saturday's 40-21 loss in Fayetteville. The loss dropped the Longhorns out of both top 25 polls completely.

Arkansas 40, No. 15 Texas 21: Hogs dominate Horns as Sark now has quarterback questions

“We’ve got to get back to the drawing board,” Sarkisian said afterward.

Pollsters certainly took notice. Texas fell out of both the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today coaches poll on Sunday. 

Texas has started 2-0 only twice since 2012. This year’s team is 1-1 after a trip to the Ozarks where the locals treated this like the Super Bowl. Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, now 5-7 in two seasons in Fayetteville, notched his first signature win. It gave the entire Razorbacks athletic department and fan base a serious jolt of optimism.

Asked if he thought about throwing the Horns Down, Pittman said, “No, I ain’t doing that. That ain’t my style. Anybody wants to do it, you can do it, but that ain’t my style.”

Everybody else in red sure did.

More:How the Texas Longhorns graded out in their 40-21 loss to Arkansas

Arkansas fans run onto the field at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium after Saturday night's 40-21 upset over previously-ranked Texas. It was the first sellout at the stadium since the 2017 season.

Sarkisian was left to answer questions about his two quarterbacks and the offensive line protection. The Horns were not only blown off the ball up front, they couldn’t run against a three-man front. The coach himself said Arkansas “borderline dared us to run the ball and we just couldn't run it enough effectively on early downs.”

Sarkisian will face more questions about why he didn’t give junior quarterback Casey Thompson at least a chance earlier in the game. Maybe the more mobile quarterback would’ve have given Texas a better chance against the Hogs’ pass rush. Maybe not.

Photos:Texas Longhorns vs. Arkansas Razorbacks football

It wasn’t that redshirt freshman Hudson Card was playing poorly, per se. Coaches routinely give a younger, inexperienced quarterback a chance to catch his breath, watch a few plays from the sideline and get his bearings. Card might have benefitted from that, given the hostile environment and 74,531 crazed fans.

Card completed eight of 15 passes for 61 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He missed on deep balls to Jordan Whittington, Xavier Worthy and Joshua Moore. But there were also times Card escaped the pocket and nobody was open downfield. It’s the receivers’ job to create separation.

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman talks with Texas' Steve Sarkisian after Saturday night's 40-21 victory. The win improved the Razorbacks to 2-0 and dropped the Longhorns to 1-1.

When Thompson came in, Texas trailed 26-7 with less than two minutes left in the third quarter. Thompson engineered a 75-yard touchdown drive and ran it in from five yards out himself. But Arkansas answered with another scoring drive. Thompson’s final touchdown drive came in mop-up time.

“It's not about just the game, it's about the work you put in throughout the week,” Sarkisian said. “I thought Hudson had a good week of work.”

Turning philosophical, Sarkisian added, “It’s easy to point the finger at the quarterback when things don’t go good, and it’s easy to point the finger at the quarterback when things are going great and praise him. At the end of the day, there are 11 guys on the field that have to perform collectively and we didn't get it done tonight.”

Bohls: Welcome to Austin, Sark, where Texas isn't quite ready for the SEC ... or the Hogs

If Sarkisian truly believes that Card is the better quarterback, then he probably has to start him this week against Rice (0-2). If not, Sarkisian risks damaging Card’s confidence. It’s feared internally that Thompson could transfer at any time should he not get adequate playing time. However, Sarkisian has said he makes decisions on what’s best for the team.

“It’s his first time in this kind of environment,” running back Bijan Robinson said of Card. “This whole game, I was just telling him just breathe. Relax. This is what we do. This is what we expected.”

Texas quarterback Casey Thompson entered the game in relief of Hudson Card with about two minutes left in the third quarter for the second straight week, and again he played the entire fourth quarter. He ran for two touchdowns against Arkansas.

None of these current Texas players had experienced anything like the environment they faced Saturday at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Texas had not played before a true road crowd that big since the USC game in 2017 in Los Angeles. 

“Even for me, I never experienced this before,” Robinson said. “So, I had to understand my situation as well as understand I had to get out of my head and help Hudson and help this offense.”

Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski has a long history of building successful defenses, same as Sarkisian has with calling plays. Maybe Saturday proves to be a one-game hiccup. 

It doesn’t change the fact Texas had no sacks and only two quarterback hurries. Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, Art’s son, has a system designed to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands in a hurry while pushing the tempo. It’s the same system that led Baylor to back-to-back Big 12 titles during Art Briles’ run in Waco.

Arkansas had 471 total yards, 333 of which came on the ground. What’s more impressive is that Arkansas rotated so many runners, the Hogs had four players with at least 50 rushing yards. 

“We never put any pressure on them to feel like they had to throw the ball,” Sarkisian said. “They were throwing the ball when they wanted to. But they were running the ball. They were leaning on us and over time runs started spitting.”

It might be hard to gauge any major adjustments this week against the Owls, usually a group of academic All-Americans who are 7-25 under coach Mike Bloomgren.

Strong once said to turn Texas around, he thought he’d “push a button.” Herman thought it’d be quicker than that, given his success at Houston. 

Sarkisian and some of his staff members are used to being at places like Alabama, where winning does come easy. At Texas, nothing is easy.

One game does not define this season, Sarkisian said. “We’ve got work to do, that's for sure.”

Saturday's game

Rice at Texas, 7 p.m., LHN, 104.9