Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Depleted roster or not, Steve Sarkisian must reverse Texas’ program slippage in November

Sark: ‘If all of us can get 1% better in whatever our capacity our responsibilities are, we’ll get over this hump’

WACO — Maybe the Longhorns tighten up in the second half. Maybe it’s indeed psychological. Maybe it’s a lack of leadership. Maybe it’s a strength and conditioning issue. Maybe they’re just not good enough.

If Casey Thompson doesn’t misfire on a deep ball to a wide-open Xavier Worthy, Texas scores midway through the second quarter against Baylor. If Joshua Moore doesn’t fumble on that drive, Texas probably gets a field goal before halftime. 

If sixth-year veteran Tope Imade doesn’t have a false start, the Horns have a manageable third-and-6 in crunch time. If Steve Sarkisian could do it over again, he’d call off the fake punt. If Marcus Washington reels in a catchable ball late, the two-minute drill keeps going.

If, if, if. If only.

Baylor 31, Texas 24:Texas suffers third straight second-half meltdown, this time to Baylor

Golden: If Texas football can't cut it in the Big 12 now, how will it ever contend in the SEC?

Texas linebackers DeMarvion Overshown and Luke Brockermeyer take down Baylor running back Trestan Ebner during Saturday's game in Waco. The Longhorns are now 4-4 overall, 2-3 in the Big 12 after the loss.

This is a bottom-line business. At Texas, did you compete for the league championship or not?

Currently, the Texas football program is going backward. How can you tell? Sarkisian’s team has more in common with Charlie Strong’s than Tom Herman’s.

The final four games must be about reversing that trend and getting ready for 2022. 

The Longhorns (4-4, 2-3 Big 12) are on a three-game losing streak, their first since Strong’s final season in 2016. In four seasons, Herman never lost a single game by more than 17 points. Sarkisian topped that in game two against Arkansas (19 points).

Texas was eliminated from Big 12 title contention before November, thanks to three straight second-half meltdowns after holding double-digit leads. And now, bowl eligibility isn’t certain with four regular-season games left, starting this week at Iowa State (5-3, 3-2).

Bohls: Texas is dealt another numbing loss, and Baylor has turned the season south

Replay: Texas awakened from its dreams of a Big 12 title in a 31-24 loss to No. 18 Baylor

The run defense ranks 114th nationally, two spots below Strong’s 2015 unit — one of the top-three worst run defenses in school history. UT ranks 94th nationally in sacks; Strong’s 2014, 2015, 2016 teams all finished in the top 15 nationally in that category.

Texas defensive back D'Shawn Jamison and linebacker Ovie Oghoufo tackle Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon during the 31-24 loss to the Bears.

Has this year’s team — with a depleted offensive and defensive line and outgunned players at other key spots — simply peaked?

“No question we can go higher,” Sarkisian said after Saturday’s 31-24 loss to Baylor. “I’ll never settle. I’ll never put a ceiling on our guys. There’s always a new level we can go do. I love that aspect of sport. We can always improve, we can strive for more and we definitely have more there. I welcome the challenge to get us there. I really feel that way.”

Sarkisian spent the last two weeks working on the team’s mental makeup after breakdowns against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. 

Why should any player’s individual execution change in the fourth quarter from the first? The scoreboard shouldn’t matter, he told players. 

“It’s psyche, right?” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said after Saturday's loss to Baylor. “It’s the mind and spirit of the competitor. We’ve got great competitors in our locker room. We want to make sure their sprit really comes out in everything that they do.”

“It’s psyche, right?” Sarkisian said. “It’s the mind and spirit of the competitor. We’ve got great competitors in our locker room. We want to make sure their sprit really comes out in everything that they do.”

But he admitted that “history can creep into your head.” The Longhorns were up 21-10 on the Bears and let it slip away in a wild fourth quarter. Sarkisian’s club has been outscored 55-10 in the fourth quarter of the last three games combined.

“They had their hands on their hips,” Baylor running back Abram Smith said. “The holes went from tiny creases to you can run a train through.”

It’s easy to criticize defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s unit. Fans see Baylor rushing for 199 yards and averaging 5.8 yards per play. But the Texas offense shouldn’t get a pass. 

UT’s receivers had some critical drops, including one where Moore dropped a pass in the end zone. “I never want to be negative,” Thompson said. “Nobody ever tries to make a mistake on purpose.”

Texas receiver Joshua Moore reacts to dropping a potential touchdown catch against Baylor at McLane Stadium on Saturday. Moore caught a touchdown earlier in the game but also lost a fumble.

Running back Bijan Robinson struggled in pass protection, leading to a critical sack. Thompson also could have kept the ball and run for first-down yardage during some key moments late, too. 

“The fact of the matter is we have to perform and execute with the guys we put on the field,” Thompson said. “I don’t think it’s impossible or high level of difficulty for us get things fixed. I think we just need to make the corrections we need to make throughout the week and translate it to the field on Saturdays.”

Sarkisian inherited a program that was close to a breakthrough. Last season, Texas lost three games by 13 points combined. The South Florida, LSU and Kansas games were all canceled because of the pandemic. The Horns finished 7-3 but could have easily won nine games, maybe 10 if the stars aligned in Death Valley.

Take quarterback Sam Ehlinger and edge rusher Joseph Ossai off that team. What’s their record now?

Sarkisian was supposed to be an upgrade. He even came with the Nick Saban seal of approval. 

On Sarkisian’s watch, the program is slipping. The last three weeks, Texas lost to Oklahoma by seven, Oklahoma State by eight and Baylor by seven — all after holding double-digit leads in the third quarter.

Baylor fans cheer during the Bears' 31-24 win over Texas on Saturday at McLane Stadium. Depending on when Texas exits the Big 12, it could have been the last time the Longhorns play at McLane for the foreseeable future.

Sarkisian can’t fix the team’s roster overnight, either. Recruiting is a painstaking process. 

Texas must win two of the next four games just to play in a forgettable mid-tier bowl. Iowa State, Kansas, West Virginia and Kansas State will all go in thinking they can win.

This is the reality Texas finds itself. 

“If all of us can get 1% better in whatever our capacity our responsibilities are, we’ll get over this hump,” Sarkisian said. “And it’ll be very gratifying when that happens. But for me, the frustration I have is for our players, because I know what they’re putting into this thing.”

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

Saturday's game

Texas at Iowa State, 6:30 p.m., FS1, 104.9