Two days later, Steve Sarkisian answered the questions — and there are plenty of them
Just two weeks ago, Texas football was riding high after a good win at TCU and heading into its Red River Showdown game with Oklahoma buoyed by momentum, a quarterback that was clicking and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate at running back. But losing 55-48 to the Sooners and then 32-24 last Saturday to Oklahoma State has rocked the season.
Texas (4-3, 2-2 Big 12) is sitting in a tie for fifth place in the conference right now with games remaining at Baylor, at Iowa State, vs. Kansas, at West Virginia and vs. Kansas State. That slate includes two teams currently ahead of them.
Sarkisian has been here before. It wasn't always a situation of trying to run the table at Alabama every year. In his first head coaching gig, Washington, lost three in a row in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 and dropped four straight in 2009, his first season there.
He opened his Monday press conference addressing the big-picture concerns over the team and program.
"Obviously there's a level of frustration for us all," he said. "We all get into this ultimately to win and you want to play well while doing so. What happened in the ball game, with our inability to ultimately perform in the fourth quarter, there's a couple ways to go about it: We can dwell completely on what went wrong or look at it also from the side of we played pretty good football for about two-and-a-half, three quarters against a quality, undefeated top-10 team.
"We're plenty capable to compete at a very high level, which we've done now for two straight weeks against two top-10 teams, had leads in the fourth quarter and then ultimately didn't finish those ball games. So I don't think it's about our ability to coach, I don't think it's about our ability to execute and to play because we've proven we're more than capable to do that. Now it's about our ability to sustain that, and to do it in critical moments, even after maybe there's some momentum swings in the game.
That's really been the big-picture scope of looking at it, and looking at it for the first seven weeks of the season."
Highlights from Monday's presser:
Nice try, but the questions kept coming ... and coming
Sarkisian certainly addressed the big-picture problem that has arisen after these back-to-back losses in his opening remarks. That didn't stop the pinpoint questions from coming anyway:
• Is the inability to win close games a systemic issue that, in reality, will take longer than this season to fix? "I've never been a guy that's tried to wait to address issues as they present themselves," Sarkisian said. "Sometimes you don't know maybe all the issues, and maybe some were issues in the past that we don't deal with now, or maybe some of those issues don't rear their ugly head till you get further down the road. It's like you get a gift, right, and you open it up and it's a box of golf balls. Then you open up that box and there's the sleeves of the golf balls, and then you open up that sleeve and it's not actually that brand of the golf ball that you thought you were gonna get. ... Sometimes we have different issues than maybe what were before, sometimes some of those issues never show themselves back up and sometimes they don't show up till we're a little further down the road, and that's our job as coaches to address them and continue to move forward. Nothing that we've ever done since I've gotten here has been to lay blame on what has ever happened before, none of it's ever been 'well, we'll just deal with that later' or 'he can't do this,' it's dealing with the issues as they present themselves."
• What in your past have you see works with guys from the mental part of this? "I think the mental space of the elite competitors historically is something that really separated them — in any sport, football, basketball, baseball, boxing, whatever that is. ... It's nothing necessarily new in the way that we speak to our team or the things we talk about, but there's obviously a shift in focus where OK, this is an area where we need to improve upon, so it can't be just ho-hum, let's keep moving on. We have to do the necessary things to address it, and that started this morning in our team meeting."
• Is Casey Thompson still the starter? "Yes."
• When Hudson Card struggled at Arkansas, you went in a different direction. What's different now? "I think Casey has earned a little bit more of that right, to work through some of those struggles. The week before, he throws five touchdowns against Oklahoma, he had a six-touchdown game against Texas Tech, so he's played and shown really good football to us. I think he's earned that opportunity to work his way out of this."
Does Texas still have a path to the Big 12 title game?
Sure. But unless the rest of the race goes crazy, Texas' margin of error is razor-thin, as in the Longhorns probably couldn't take a third Big 12 loss and still get to Arlington, and even then they'd need some help from other teams.
Sarkisian was asked about Texas' chances at playing for a Big 12 championship now sitting with two conference losses, and whether that preseason goal is shifting focus.
"There's a lot of football left to be played, a lot of teams need to play one another," he said. "Ultimately we have to take care of our business, and our business is the next game. We have to get ourselves into the mindset of it's one step after another, it's not just trying to get to that (Big 12 title) game. We missed the process of getting to that game, but there's a lot of football left. The one thing we can control is what we do, so that's really what the focus is on, has been on and will continue to be on and we'll see where the chips fall, we'll see what happens with some of these games with people playing one another. In the end, come Thanksgiving and we're playing right here, hopefully that game means something and giving us an opportunity to maybe get into that game. Until then, we've go to focus on cleaning up some things, focusing on what we're good at this week and then getting ready to play a really good Baylor team next week."
Sarkisian's thoughts on his rebuilt/rebuilding offensive line
Sarkisian was asked his thoughts on how the reconfigured offensive line performed — sixth-year veteran backup Tope Imade made his first career start at right guard, Derek Kerstetter moved from left guard back to right tackle, Junior Angilau was moved from right guard to left guard and Christian Jones got the start at left tackle. But even that redo had to be redone; center Jake Majors went down with an injury in the fourth quarter, and Kerstetter was shifted to his spot.
Sarkisian said the plan heading into last Saturday was to get more linemen in the rotation, particularly with Hayden Conner at right guard, and he said getting Kerstetter back to right tackle was a good thing, and he liked the competition at left tackle between Jones and Andrej Karic.
Thompson was sacked three times and the offense broke down in the third and fourth quarters. We graded the O-line with an D-minus.
"Ideally moving forward, Tope continues to gain that comfort level of playing and being a more consistent player at right guard, and we're going to monitor the situation at left tackle the next two weeks before the Baylor game," Sarkisian said.
Injuries: LB DeMarvion Overshown (concussion) probably will be OK to return, since there's two weeks before the next game. "But concussions are what they are, it's not a broken bone where you can say six weeks, they take on however it affects each individual, so we'll monitor that," Sarkisian said. And cornerback Kitan Crawford is considered day to day. ... Sarkisian was asked about whether Texas needs to get Keilan Robinson more involved. He said they'll continue to look for ways to get him more touches. ... This is an off week, but that only means there won't be a game on Saturday. The team will still practice on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Coaches will then go on the road to recruit on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The Longhorns' next game will be their fifth straight 11 a.m. kickoff, on Oct. 30 in Waco. The Bears are No. 20 this week.