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Mind over matter: Texas spends off week working on its collective psyche (and Baylor, too)

Sarkisian: ‘We think we can play better than we’ve played all year, and we’ll see what happens’

Texas is at a clear crossroads. 

Is this another Texas Bowl season? Or will the Longhorns regroup and battle their way back into the Big 12 championship race?

Everything is still on the table. Nothing is guaranteed.

“All I know is that we've got five guaranteed games left,” defensive tackle Keondre Coburn said. “And why not finish with a bang and let God put our destiny in His hands?”

Whatever works, right? More like whatever it takes.

Saturday’s matchup at No. 18 Baylor (6-1, 3-1 Big 12) will represent the culmination of two weeks of armchair psychological work by Texas coach Steve Sarkisian. He’s just as baffled as fans how these Longhorns (4-3, 2-2) have blown back-to-back winnable games against top-15 opponents.

Texas running back Bijan Robinson celebrates a touchdown against Oklahoma State at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Oct. 16. The Cowboys went on to win the game, however. The Longhorns have dropped two straight games to fall to 4-3 overall.

Monday press conference: Fixing the third and fourth quarters comes down to trust, confidence

Still, Texas controls its own destiny, to a degree. There is zero margin for error, though. The Horns must win the last five remaining games — no easy feat, to be sure. Games against Baylor and Iowa State give UT a chance to climb up in the standings.

Texas also needs Oklahoma State to lose twice. Will that happen? Maybe on the road trip to West Virginia? Maybe at home to TCU? There’s also the regular-season finale against Oklahoma.

Regardless, none of that matters if the Longhorns don’t take care of their own business.

“Whatever He has for us, that's what we’re going to be following,” running back Bijan Robinson said. “I don’t know where that path may go, but we’ve got to keep working hard and then seeing where it can possibly end up.”

Sarkisian had the entire team watch Free Solo, a 2018 National Geographic documentary. The film profiles rock climber Alex Honnold on his quest to free climb the straight-up El Capitan rock formation at Yosemite National Park during June 2017.

It’s approximately 3,000 feet from base to summit. “And it was actually crazy,” edge rusher Ovie Oghoufo said, “because when he finished the video, he smiled and he didn't even look that tired.”

There’s a message in there somewhere, most likely. If Honnold didn’t finish the climb, he probably wouldn’t have a good story to tell. Same for the Horns. If they can’t finish games down the season’s homestretch, their season won’t be nearly as good. 

Right now, Texas is dangling on the side of that cliff, too.

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So many times in sports we like to define a team by one moment or one game, when in reality the story’s never really told until it’s complete, Sarkisian said. “We’ve got a lot of football ahead of us, and my opinion, a lot of really good football ahead of us. And the chips are going to fall where they may.

“We put ourselves in the position that we are for our own doing,” he added. “But we can’t really sit around and think, ‘Well, this is it. That's all we got.’”

Sarkisian said he spent the off week focused on figuring out what Texas did really well. “Let’s do more of that,” he said. “Let's take this thing one game at a time. And we'll worry about December when December comes.”

Sarkisian and UT players made available to reporters on Monday spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the team’s mental makeup and psyche. Linebacker DeMarvion Overshown (concussion) has returned to practice, by the way. And there won’t be any major changes along the offensive line against Baylor, either.

It was non-stop Q&A about why this team can’t overcome its own mental hurdles. 

Robinson said he’s been watching videos about the late Kobe Bryant on Hulu. Bryant’s killer instinct during NBA games was legendary. Robinson also got to spend time with Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott last week during a promotional appearance. Elliott, like Robinson, played for running backs coach Stan Drayton when they were at Ohio State.Zeke’s advice to Bijan? Stay the course.

“He said just keep doing what I’m doing,” Robinson said, “and keep listening to coach Drayton.”

Recruiting:Bijan Robinson advises to 'seek truths, not false information'

Texas quarterback Casey Thompson hands the ball to running back Bijan Robinson during the first half of their game against Rice on Sept. 18. The Longhorns must travel to Baylor this week and to Iowa State next week.

Quarterback Casey Thompson had a more cerebral approach to fixing Texas, as per usual. If the players focused on simply execution without looking at the scoreboard or other distractions, “I think we’ll be fine.”

“I have a saying I like to say before I go out perform on Saturdays and also in practice,” Thompson said. 

Today’s going to be a great day. 

I cannot fail. 

I can only learn and grow. 

“So if we use these games to learn and grow instead of looking at them as failures,” Thompson said, “I think that we'll be in a good spot.”

The Longhorns certainly appeared to be in good spirits during Monday’s practice at Royal-Memorial Stadium. “Seeing the energy that we have today,” Coburn said, “I can see people know what we still have and know we still have the goal.”

The closest parallel is 2018. The Horns were 6-3 in early November after back-to-back conference losses. But Texas rallied to beat Texas Tech, No. 18 Iowa State and Kansas to reach the Big 12 title game. This year, it’ll take more work.

“We’ve got some great games in front of us. Quality opponents,” Sarkisian said. “We think we can play better than we’ve played all year, and we’ll see what happens. Then at that point, then we can talk about what was the defining moment or what was the story of the season.”

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

Saturday's game

Texas at 18-Baylor, 11 a.m., ABC, 104.9