Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Don’t overcomplicate it: Texas simply needs to block, tackle, take down No. 18 Baylor

With a chance to get back into Big 12 race, Longhorns feeling better after off week; ‘We’ve got a good mindset going forward’

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian took a back-to-basics approach during the Longhorns’ bye week. If that’s the case, what exactly does this team do well? What does Sark want Texas to be known for?

Set aside Saturday’s game with No. 18 Baylor for a moment. Sarkisian went all the way back to square one.

“My opinion, football is won and lost up front,” Sarkisian said Thursday. “We’re a run-first team. We’ve got to stop the run on defense.”

When Texas runs the ball well, it has “created opportunities to take our shots down the field,” Sarkisian said. On defense, when you stop the run, it creates turnover possibilities in the passing game “because we’re making the team one-dimensional.”

“That's probably the biggest key to the drill for us,” he said, “is to maintain the identity of who we are, regardless of the scoreboard or the juncture in the ballgame.”

Texas (4-3, 2-2 Big 12) faces a seminal moment in Waco. Having had two weeks to think things over, the Horns can lean on bread-and-butter fundamentals and climb back into the Big 12 race. Or they can tense up, disappear in key moments and suffer a season-altering breakdown at McLane Stadium. Baylor (6-1, 3-1) prefers the latter, of course.

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

Bohls: Texas' Steve Sarkisian exploring ways to improve Longhorn players' mental approach

Golden: Texas, Steve Sarkisian must find their finishing kick at Baylor (or else)

Quarterback Casey Thompson, with coach Steve Sarkisian, is 3-2 as Texas' starter.

“I don't think the guys are doubting themselves,” quarterback Casey Thompson said. “Anytime you lose the game, I think that mistakes and negatives can be magnified.” In that case, it’s easy to give up when “it wasn’t good enough.” 

“But the reality of football and in life, sometimes you just have to get better,” Thompson said. “I don't think that we need to change necessarily our routine or our preparation, I just think we need to perform to execute in the moment.”

If we’re talking fundamentals when examining the Bears, start with the battle over the football itself.

Baylor nose tackle Siaki Ika will hover over Texas center Jake Majors all day long. Ika (6 feet 4, 350 pounds) played 17 games in two seasons at LSU before transferring. Majors (6-3, 310), a redshirt freshman, will be making his 10th career start.

Baylor's JT Woods tackles Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders in the Cowboys' 24-14 win Oct. 2. That is the Bears' lone loss this season.

Whoever wins the Ika-Majors battle up front is likely to give his team a massive upper hand. Texas running back Bijan Robinson is the league’s leading rusher with 924 yards. Baylor’s run defense ranks sixth in the league.

Granted, Majors can get help with double teams from guards Junior Angilau and Tope Imade. UT defensive tackle Keondre Coburn said Majors is good at getting his hands on nose tackles and working leverage. “That’s a trick to use on bigger nose guards like me,” he said. 

“I like Jake in this matchup,” Sarkisian said. “Obviously it’s a big task for him, but he has steadily improved as the year’s gone on.”

More:Short-handed Texas receivers to test their depth against Baylor's stout secondary

Now flip it around. Baylor leads the Big 12 in rushing with 239.1 yards per game. Abram Smith and Trestan Ebner like to get out wide, pushing the defensive ends to their breaking points while going sideline to sideline.

Simply put, can Texas’ edge rushers such as Ovie Oghoufo and Alfred Collins hold the edge? Can the Horns force the action back toward the middle of the field, where there’s a slew of Texas tacklers waiting? 

UT linebacker DeMarvion Overshown will have his arms wide open too, armbands and all. He’s been cleared after spending the off week going through concussion protocol.

Multiple defensive players were asked this week whether anyone’s holding teammates accountable in the locker room. “I think we hold each other accountable,” Oghoufo said. “Accountability I don’t think is our issue at all.”

Texas defensive end Ovie Oghoufo tries to bring down Rice quarterback Wiley Green on Sept. 18. Oghoufo and fellow end Alfred Collins are expected to play key roles Saturday in trying to stop Baylor's running game, which leads the Big 12.

Well, something must change. The Horns have the third-worst run defense in the Big 12, having allowed 201.3 yards per game.

Sarkisian is correct. This game is won or lost in the trenches. By now, it should be obvious that Texas needs more offensive and defensive line depth. That cannot be addressed until the offseason, though. The Horns are stuck in the here and now.

Thus, Saturday is all about the Horns’ collective mindset.

Sarkisian had the entire team watch the documentary "Free Solo" about a man’s quest to climb El Capitan, a 3,000-foot, straight-up wall in Yosemite National Park. It’s inspiring, for sure. But it’s about conquering one’s fears and finishing strong. After all, climber Alex Honnold had nowhere to fall but down.

The off week appeared to do the Longhorns some good. Those back-to-back conference losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are a thing of the past — they hope.

“Everybody’s spirits are high. Nobody’s sulking or complaining,” running back Roschon Johnson said. “We’ve got a good mindset going forward.”

This week is slightly different in that the Horns will bus to Waco, not fly. For one, it’s practical — assuming they don’t stop for hours at Buc-ee’s in Temple. All those sliced brisket sandwiches and kolaches aren’t going anywhere.

“I do think there’s something about being on a bus and being together,” Sarkisian said. “I think the camaraderie will be good for us.”

It’s fundamentally simple for Texas this week. Block the Bears on offense. Tackle them on defense. If you get a double-digit second-half lead, close out the victory. Eat afterward.

As Sark always says, just finish the drill.

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

Texas at No. 18 Baylor

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: McLane Stadium, Waco

TV: ABC

Radio: 104.9, 105.3 (Spanish), 99.3, 98.5, 1260