Texas’ vast collection of talent doesn’t matter if 4-3 Longhorns don’t learn how to win
Winning must be permanently hard at Texas.
Steve Sarkisian is learning the painful lesson that Charlie Strong and Tom Herman knew all too well. Texas can amass all the athleticism necessary to be competitive, but that doesn’t mean the Longhorns know how to win.
Strong’s teams made too many errors for the program to turn any corner. Herman did. Briefly.
Closing with authority, Texas ran quarterback Sam Ehlinger six straight times from the 16-yard line to put away Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Those Horns were different. But two games into 2019, Herman’s defense gave up that disastrous third-and-17 to LSU. Back to the Alamo Bowl.
If Keaontay Ingram hadn’t fumbled on the goal line against TCU in 2020, Herman probably would still be the UT coach going into 2021.
Sarkisian looked exasperated after Saturday’s 32-24 loss to Oklahoma State. The past two weeks, Texas (4-3, 2-2 Big 12) held double-digit leads in the third quarter and wound up losing. This program, chockablock with multistar talent, simply can’t close at winning time.
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It’s a complex problem with no singular answer.
“Quite frankly, we're all kind of taking turns,” Sarkisian said Saturday. “For whatever reason, we’ve had a couple different false starts, which we don't have early in the game but for some reason they rear their ugly head. We have two issues on snaps. We don't block the same play versus the same front like we blocked it earlier in the game.
“So ultimately, somewhere in there, that’s what I’m talking about, that uncertainty in our mind and the cautiousness and not executing with a level of confidence like we do early in the game.”
Sarkisian assumes the responsibility as UT’s head coach.
“Ultimately that's on me,” he said. “I've got to get that fixed and get us to a point to where we're believing in what we're doing like we're doing earlier in the ballgame.”
Texas had an 18-point lead over Oklahoma with 2 minutes, 45 seconds left in the third quarter. The Sooners outscored the Horns 25-7 in the fourth and won by a touchdown. Texas had an 11-point lead over Oklahoma State with 11:43 left in the third. The Cowboys closed with 19 unanswered points. The Horns managed just 12 total yards on their last six possessions.
Both games were winnable. But ESPN Stats rummaged around and determined that Texas hasn’t blown double-digit, third-quarter leads and lost in back-to-back fashion since October 1996.
Don’t forget Texas trailed just 16-7 in the third quarter against Arkansas in week two. That was manageable. But the Razorbacks blew it open with a 24-point barrage and won 40-21.
“It’s football. Things happen,” cornerback Josh Thompson said. “We’ve just got to go out and practice and compete. We have a lot more games left to play. Obviously, this is not the outcome we wanted the last two weeks, but just going out and competing against each other and getting better.”
To Sarkisian’s point, the Horns have made uncharacteristic mistakes the last two games, such as snap infractions and false starts, one even from standout running back Bijan Robinson. But other penalties have hurt too. Keondre Coburn’s horse collar prevented the Horns from getting off the field on third down against the Pokes.
That drive ended with an Oklahoma State field goal. Texas is averaging six penalties per game, which ranks sixth in the Big 12.
So what’s happening in the second half? Is Texas not making in-game adjustments? Is the play-calling too conservative? OSU coach Mike Gundy tried back-to-back gimmick plays to shake things up. Sarkisian, who was hired for his play-calling prowess, has avoided trickeration.
In some spots, most notably on the offensive and defensive lines, Texas simply doesn’t have enough firepower. Sarkisian can address that only through recruiting and time.
Maybe it’s just mental. That’s been an issue for years now.
“You just try to get back to doing things that you know they believe in and the things that we executed earlier in the game to give him a chance to find that groove, find that rhythm again,” Sarkisian said.
“You try to get the offensive line some confidence. You try to get the quarterback some confidence, the runner some confidence, everybody,” he added. “There's that fine line of what's the best call for the situation but also what's the best call for the players to go out and execute and get some confidence.”
Texas is off this week. It has two weeks to prepare for 6-1 Baylor, a team that just knocked off future Big 12 foe BYU on Saturday.
In case you’re wondering, the Longhorns are now looking up in the Big 12 standings. To reach the Big 12 title game, Texas now needs Oklahoma or Oklahoma State to lose three league games, since the Horns no longer have the tiebreakers over those teams.
That’s also assuming Texas runs the table with its five remaining games.
The only home games remaining are Kansas (Nov. 13) and Kansas State (Nov. 26). For the season ticket-holders who’ve seen enough this season, good luck getting full face value on the secondary market.
Those who stick around will learn whether Sarkisian’s pro-style approach of staying the course breaks through.
“I don’t think it’s about talk,” Sarkisian said. “I think we have to work on specific things to address it. So when those situations come up again, we don’t get stuck in that low and that we get ourselves back into a really clear state of mind with confidence and belief in executing what we’re capable of doing.”