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As 4-2 start shows, Texas needs more linemen depth to hold steady in tight games

Longhorns will need to remake their roster to get SEC ready, but for now, nobody will magically arrive before the Cowboys do

DALLAS — Saturday was yet another reminder of how Texas coach Steve Sarkisian needs to remake the entire roster if this program is going to start gunning for championships.

Texas needs more linemen. On which side? Both, frankly. 

Quality can be subjective, but quantity cannot. Texas needs more offensive and defensive linemen, players who can rotate in when things get hairy and shore up depth, and fewer skill position players. Just go deep and catch it? Yes, the Horns have plenty of those guys, maybe too many.

If any large, athletic humans can magically arrive before Saturday’s home game against No. 12 Oklahoma State, all the better.

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Texas defensive lineman Alfred Collins drops Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler for one of the Longhorns' two sacks in the loss to the Sooners on Saturday. Texas has come up short on the offensive and defensive lines in its two losses this season and will need to add lots of linemen to compete in the SEC.

Hyperventilate over Arch Manning all you want. But if Texas (4-2, 2-1 Big 12) can’t block for a five-star quarterback, it doesn’t matter. If the Horns can’t sack the opposing team’s quarterback, stop the run and get off the field on third downs, no offense can save them.

Texas’ inconsistent offensive line play was on full display in the second half against Oklahoma as a 21-point lead morphed into a 55-48 loss. It was OU’s biggest comeback ever in the teams' 117 meetings, and it was the first time in history that the Horns had lost after leading by 21.

Before Saturday, FBS teams were 208-2 when leading by 21 points this season, according to ESPN Stats. This was an epic Red River meltdown.

“We were losing first-and-10, and we were playing second-and-long, third-and-long football,” Sarkisian said. “That’s a hard way to operate consistently.”

Versatile offensive lineman Derek Kerstetter has moved from right tackle to left guard to make up for the loss of Denzel Okafor, who's out after season-ending surgery. Senior Tope Imade is now the line's sixth man, so to speak. But the Horns essentially must finish with Christian Jones, Kerstetter, Jake Majors, Junior Angilau and Andrej Karic. Knock on every piece of wood available.

Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler hugs Texas' Casey Thompson after the Sooners' 55-48 win Saturday at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. It was the Sooners' fourth straight win over the Longhorns dating back to the 2018 Big 12 championship game.

Quarterback Casey Thompson recently took his linemen to Vince Young Steakhouse. He needs to put them in bubble wrap and get them some DoorDash.

Against OU, this group had false starts and snap infractions in addition to protection breakdowns. Offensive line coach Kyle Flood can’t make many substitutions; the best five are on the field. Texas signed 15 linemen from 2018 to 2021. Many are still enrolled; they just need to be developed.

It helps that Thompson is mobile enough to keep plays alive. He can move around as plays develop. That’s how he completed 20 of 34 passes for 388 yards and five touchdowns, including throws of 75 yards to Xavier Worthy and 48 to Joshua Moore.

“I was just trying to avoid taking sacks,” Thompson said. “I was just trying to get myself in a position to stay in the pocket and go through my reads and see downfield. But OU did a good job of getting guys in my face, and I wasn’t able to see as well.”

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Oklahoma finished with three sacks and seven hurries. “At the end of the day, we all have to do better as a team,” Thompson said.

Running back Bijan Robinson had 137 yards on 20 carries, but it was a hard slog after halftime against a top-10 run defense. In the second half, Texas went three-and-out three times, had another turnover on downs and was outscored 35-10.

Granted, OU’s laserlike focus on Robinson allowed Thompson to make some big throws. The Horns finished with 128 yards rushing. But every coach would want to get his Heisman-caliber back going and not rely so much on the pass.

Texas running back Bijan Robinson stiff-arms an Oklahoma defender during Saturday's 55-48 loss. Robinson, who had rushed for 216 yards the week before against TCU, finished with 137 yards on 20 carries.

“They were playing the run pretty well,” Robinson said. “We just understand that we have to keep progressing on that side of the game for our offense, so we can open up so many things, like the pass.” 

Meanwhile, gauging the success of any defensive line is difficult. The stats can be misleading, because, in theory, linemen are supposed to soak up blockers so linebackers can make tackles. DeMarvion Overshown was sensational with eight tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, one fumble recovery and a blocked punt.

But week in and week out, there just hasn’t been consistent pressure from Texas’ defensive front. The Horns had only two sacks against the Sooners: Overshown’s and one from defensive lineman Alfred Collins. Texas was credited with only four hurries.

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In six games, Texas now has only 10 quarterback pressures. Either the statisticians are stingy awarding those with mobile quarterbacks or the Horns can’t get home. OU has 20 this season, for comparison.

Texas’ starting defensive tackles, Keondre Coburn and Moro Ojomo, had three tackles combined, none for losses. Graduate transfers Ray Thornton, Ovie Oghoufo and Ben Davis were active with nine tackles combined, only one for a loss. 

OU managed 662 yards and went 9-for-19 on third down. The Sooners converted three out of five times on third-and-9 or longer. Their average gain was 9.3 yards on third down.

What type of pressure does it take to beat ranked teams? Saturday night against No. 1 Alabama, Texas A&M’s defense generated four sacks, five tackles for loss and five hurries. 

Alabama also went up seven points with five minutes left, just as OU did late against Texas. But the Aggies got a 25-yard touchdown pass and then forced a three-and-out. A&M won 41-38 with a 28-yard field goal at the buzzer.

That’s not to pour salt in Texas’ wounds. The Longhorns are headed to the SEC. They’re a program that will soon be competing with the Aggies and Crimson Tide on a weekly basis.

To win in the SEC, it takes massive numbers of linemen. How did Arkansas beat Texas in week two? Mostly by dominating the line of scrimmage.

As of now, Sarkisian has seven defensive linemen committed for the 2022 recruiting class. The Horns have two offensive linemen pledged. He hinted at changing the roster makeup before the season even started.

“From a roster standpoint, we’ve got a talented team,” Sarkisian said Aug. 30. “Is it ideally built exactly how I would build it? Maybe not. But that’s OK; that’s part of taking over a program.”

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It spoke volumes about the current roster makeup when Sarkisian’s staff signed three graduate transfers on the defensive front in the first place. It was a huge flag that Texas coaches thought they needed help at that position. But the reality is grad transfers are temporary fixes. If those players were true difference makers, they’d have gone on to the NFL. 

Sarkisian has always been right about one thing: Texas has enough talent and athleticism to compete for a Big 12 championship. Look no farther than the 21-point lead against OU. 

But do they have enough talent and athleticism to hold leads, put teams away and win at closing time? That’s what the next six games are all about.

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

Saturday's game

Texas vs. No. 12 Oklahoma State, 11 a.m., Fox, 104.9