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The only way Texas can stop the snowballing effect of bad news is to win at Iowa State

If things go south at Jake Trice Stadium, Longhorns saddled with a losing record, uphill climb to bowl eligibility

Steve Sarkisian is learning the hard way how bad news snowballs at Texas. Coaching football is hard enough. The PR headaches make it a nightmare at times.

Instead of focusing on Saturday’s game at Iowa State, the first-year coach spent Monday morning answering questions about the Longhorns’ three-game losing streak. Does this team have a “bruised psyche” after blowing three consecutive double-digit, second-half leads?

Eventually, the coach had had enough. “If we keep talking about a bruised psyche, we’re going to get a bruised psyche, right?” he said.

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Iowa State running back Breece Hall celebrates the winning touchdown in last year's 23-20 victory at Royal-Memorial Stadium. “It’s five-star culture vs. five-star players,” he said after the game, a phrase that turned into a rallying cry in Ames.

By nightfall, social media was engulfed with a TMZ-level story about whether a Texas assistant coach’s wife allowed her pet monkey to attack a child while trick-or-treating. The only thing truly harmed in the gossipy tale was Texas’ pride.

Asked about the episode Thursday, Sarkisian termed it a personal matter. “No, not a distraction at all,” he said.

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OK, so back to focusing on the Cyclones (5-3, 3-2 Big 12), right? Well, no. 

Wednesday brought a report from Orangebloods that wide receiver Joshua Moore had a verbal altercation with Sarkisian during practice. But Moore was apparently back in team meetings that night, the website later reported. The coach said Thursday that Moore (22 receptions, 233 yards, three touchdowns) is not suspended.

Texas wide receiver Joshua Moore gets a lift from offensive lineman Jake Majors after a touchdown against Baylor last week. Moore reportedly had a verbal altercation with coach Steve Sarkisian this week.

“We believe in discipline. We believe in doing things the right way,” Sarkisian told reporters. “And when things aren’t going that way, we coach our guys.”

Another player, freshman linebacker Terrance Cooks II, put his name in the transfer portal, causing a stir in the recruiting ecosystem. Cooks, once a four-star recruit from Pearland, has played in only one game this season (Rice), even though Texas has the second-worst run defense in the Big 12.

Think it’s bad now? Lose to Iowa State, and “Monkeygate,” as one high-level UT administrator dubbed it, won’t be nearly as funny. More players will question authority, and others will look for opportunities elsewhere.

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Perceptions have a way of becoming reality around here. 

“I also recognize the level of frustration without us winning a couple of these close ballgames,” Sarkisian said. “But I can assure you that nobody’s more frustrated than we are. Nobody’s more frustrated than our players are. And that frustration comes from we know how close we are.”

"I can assure you that nobody’s more frustrated than we are," coach Steve Sarkisian said. "Nobody’s more frustrated than our players are. And that frustration comes from we know how close we are.”

If things go south at Jack Trice Stadium, Texas (4-4, 2-3 Big 12) will be saddled with a losing record with three regular-season games left. The Horns would be facing an uphill challenge just to reach bowl eligibility.

A losing record affects recruiting. Early signing day is Dec. 15, and Sarkisian wants to sign five offensive linemen. Only two have committed. In positive recruiting news, UT landed its first commitment for the 2023 class Thursday. Arlington Seguin safety Jamel Johnson, a four-star prospect, is considered one of the state’s top 30 players. 

Missing a bowl game would signal that the program is going backward. Highly touted quarterback Arch Manning, the most sought-after prize in the 2023 class, has UT on his short list. But that can change in an instant.

If year one becomes a total disaster, Sarkisian will have little margin for error going into 2022. Nobody at Texas would ever dream of firing a coach in his second year. But this is now a business where firing coaches in midseason — and just paying them to go away — is becoming the norm.

“This is where we’re going. This is where we’re headed,” Sarkisian said. “I’m not as concerned for the coaches themselves. We’re grown men; we can handle it. I’m more concerned for the players in the locker room.”

Texas’ players sound skeptical. 

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After the Oklahoma State loss, defensive tackle Moro Ojomo said Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski “get paid millions and millions of dollars to figure this out.” Then Ojomo met with reporters Monday after the Baylor loss and said: “I can’t become used to losing. It just doesn’t sting the same.”

Fellow defensive tackle Keondre Coburn said: “Coaches have solutions to what they think is the problem. Sometimes I kind of feel like I don’t really know if that’s the problem in a way.”

Texas' Keondre Coburn, pressuring Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon, says it's the players, not the coaches, who are responsible for the Longhorns' three-game losing streak.

Coburn said players are ultimately responsible.

“But things happen for a reason,” he said. “Busted plays happen for a reason. Explosive plays happen for a reason. It’s not just happening because they’re coaching better. It’s something on our side of the ball that we’re doing wrong.”

Linebacker DeMarvion Overshown also was frustrated.

“To be honest, if I knew exactly what the problem was, the coaches would know, and it would be fixed right now,” he said.

Sarkisian does not allow his assistants to speak to reporters during the season. Players face pointed questions from reporters on a weekly basis, while Kwiatkowski does not.

None of this would be an issue if Texas were winning. 

Iowa State brings two scoops of additional misery — quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall, who is now the Big 12’s leading rusher after Bijan Robinson’s slow day in Waco.

Iowa State running back Breece Hall is 15 yards shy of his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season. On Saturday he'll be paired opposite Texas' Bijan Robinson, who is only 33 yards away from his own 1,000-yard season.

Hall slammed the Horns last season after the Cyclones captured a 23-20 win in Austin. “It’s five-star culture vs. five-star players,” he said. Iowa State folks had T-shirts printed, and it became a rallying cry for Matt Campbell’s program.

Sarkisian said Hall was “Steady Eddie” for his workmanlike progress this season.

Still, Iowa State isn’t beyond reproach. Playing without the Big 12’s leading tackler, Mike Rose, the defense gave up a season-high 492 yards in a 38-31 loss to West Virginia last week. Rose is likely to play against Texas but could be a game-time decision.

The Horns need a win in the worst way imaginable. 

“It’s been a tough stretch, though,” Overshown said. “Everybody knows it’s a part of football. You’ve got to come back and work no matter what — win, lose or draw. You can’t let what happened in the past dictate what happens on Saturday. 

“Moving on is all we can do.”

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

Texas at Iowa State

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Jack Trice Stadium, Ames, Iowa

TV: FS1

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