Steve Sarkisian: Texas vs. Oklahoma a real Red River opportunity to take football program's pulse
Back in July, the preseason picks for the Big 12 championship game were Oklahoma and Iowa State, with Texas lumped into that next tier of contenders along with Oklahoma State and maybe Kansas State.
Five weeks into the season, it's looking like Saturday's annual Red River rivalry game at the Cotton Bowl, like 2018, could end up being a preview of a Texas-Oklahoma rematch in Arlington in December.
The Sooners are 5-0, but have really had only one easy win. So far the Sooners have edged Tulane 40-35, blew out Western Carolina 76-0, survived Nebraska 23-16, survived West Virginia 16-13 and held off K-State 37-31. Quarterback Spencer Rattler has gone from one of the leading preseason contenders for the Heisman Trophy to falling back on those lists.
Highlights from Steve Sarkisian's weekly press conference Monday morning ahead of Saturday's game:
Casey Thompson vs. Oklahoma, Part I
Thompson, who starred at Southmoore High in Oklahoma City and is the son of former Sooners star quarterback Charles Thompson, notably signed with the Longhorns back in 2018. This will be his first shot at OU as Texas' starter.
In a week of interesting storylines, this will certainly be one of the biggest. But Sarkisian said his quarterback, who's now 3-0 as a starter, will be just fine. In fact, he said, the fact that Thompson is even still here "speaks volumes to his own personality."
"He chose to go where he thought was best for him, and I think a lot of times in recruiting, there's a lot of narratives that come in with ties to universities for whatever reason and different things, but ultimately young men need to choose what's best for them," Sarkisian said. "They're the ones that got to get up at 5 in the morning and work out and run and practice and do all the things, so I always say you should go where you want to go. Because inevitably adversity's gonna strike, not every day's gonna be great and you gotta look yourself in the mirror and tell yourself, 'I chose to go here, I'm gonna persevere and get through' because the problem comes in when you way I didn't even really want to be here, I went here because of so and so — that's when the portal starts looking really exciting.
"So I think with Casey and his example: he chose to come to the University of Texas, he wanted to be a Longhorn, through the adversity, through being the backup, through not being named the starter, through that perseverance I think he was able to get through that because this was his choice in wanting to come here."
It's a big game for the rest of them, too
"Distractions are not just for Casey, they're gonna be for everybody, right?" Sarkisian added. "When you think about it, hey we're back in the Top 25, we're on a three-game winning streak, Bijan's a Heisman contender now, it's the biggest game of the year, family tickets — there's all this stuff going on, and I think it's going to be critical for our players — staff included — we've got to quiet the noise and we need to stay focused on the task at hand. We're very diligent in our approach to that and that started this morning and will continue to be that way. It's one thing to talk about it, it's another to be about it. That's going to be one of the bigger challenges this week to ensure that we play well Saturday."
Later, Sarkisian provided a pretty telling answer. He was asked by Ed Clements if this is the week where he reaches out to former players like a Ted Koy or a Vince Young or a Blake Gideon (who's on the coaching staff) to talk to the new players and coaches about just how important this game and week is.
Sarkisian's answer, basically, was "meh."
"I get to see Ted every day, he comes to practice every day so I'm good on Ted," Sarkisian responded, smiling, "and I get to see Blake every day too and I talk to Vince at least once a week, so I'm good there. Honestly, our guys know the importance of this thing. They get it. They know. Everybody loves to bring in the guys to come talk to the team at the biggest games, I always feel like maybe you should bring them in on the games where maybe we're not as motivated."
It was a good point.
Still, this IS Texas vs. Oklahoma ...
That doesn't mean that Sarkisian doesn't understand the importance of Texas-Oklahoma. Regardless of the records, rankings and conference consequences, this particular matchup has become one of the metrics on how UT coaches are judged. He gets that.
"I'm fired up for the game," he said. "I love the pomp and pageantry of college football, I love the history, I love the nostalgia. To think this is the 117th time these two schools are meeting — that's a crazy number, you know? So from that aspect of it, the State Fair, all that stuff, I'm looking forward to it. We put in so much work during the week so that we can enjoy the experience on game day. That's really kind of our approach as an organization — but probably that's my approach, so I make everybody else buy into my approach.
"So I'm looking forward to it: I think it's a great atmosphere, great event, great game and I think at the end of the day, the peripheral puts measuring sticks on us of where we are. For us, our process is our process and we have to wire in and respect every opponent we play and make sure we're putting our best foot forward, and ultimately week in and week out we see where we're at. Are we making incremental gains to get better? I think when you take over a program, you always want those the big leaps and bounds and growth and all those things, but for me, the positive has been I really believe we're making incremental progress as a program in a lot of different phases, whether that's mental toughness, whether that's physical toughness, whether that's style of play, whether that's recruiting, there's a lot that goes into it. But in the end, when you're playing the team that over recent history has won the conference, well here's an opportunity to basically see where are we at this point? We look forward to the challenge ... and we're gonna find out, we're gonna see where we're at."
→ Injury updates: Cornerback Josh Thompson, who was ruled out a couple of hours before the TCU game, is "good to go" for Saturday. But starting right guard Denzel Okafor, who left with a lower leg injury in the first quarter, will have season-ending surgery next week. "I really liked where he was at from a leadership standpoint and thought he'd been playing better week in and week out, so we'll move forward without him," Sarkisian said.
→ Is Hudson Card heading toward a redshirt? He has played in four games — the maximum number allowed to preserve a player's redshirt status — but didn't get into the TCU game and for the first time this season didn't serve as the holder for kicks, either.
Not necessarily, Sark said.
"The only reason that Zach (Edwards) was holder was Dicker just felt more comfortable, and that seemed to work out OK — 4-for-4 on field goals, that was the reason. Nothing in my mind right now is that we are redshirting Hudson Card. Our mind is we are continually preparing him to play, I expect him to play this year. That was not the reason he did not hold."
→ The lightest moment: Our own Kirk Bohls asked, "I wanted to ask you about your big-game approach, what you may have learned from coach Saban and your games at USC and Washington against UCLA, Notre Dame, Oregon, those kind of things. And do you choose to be more aggressive or conservative and avoid turnovers?"
"You want my game plan, Kirk?" Sarkisian answered, to much laughter in the room.
Texas is back in the Top 25 this week, No. 21 in the AP poll and No. 23 in the coaches'. Oklahoma is No. 6 and No. 5. Saturday's kickoff is at 11 a.m. in Dallas. It's another ABC game. The Sooners are favored by three points.