The Texas Longhorns were on the verge of heading to their locker room with a 21-point halftime lead last Saturday. That’s when the latest unraveling began.
Oklahoma State safety Jason Taylor II stepped in front of UT quarterback Casey Thompson’s pass at the 15-yard line with nothing but green turf and blue skies in front of him. After intercepting the pass, Taylor sailed 85 yards down the sideline for the touchdown that cut the Longhorns’ lead to 17–10 and breathed life back into a team that UT had been having its way with. As for the Longhorns, they had no stomach for the street fight that was about to begin.
The Texas offense didn’t generate a first down over its final six possessions on Saturday, and because of that, the UT defense eventually wore down and allowed three consecutive Oklahoma State scoring drives in the fourth quarter. When it was all over, the Cowboys had won 32–24 to drop the Longhorns to a 4–3 record overall and 2–2 in the Big 12, which is good enough for fifth place. After the game, first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian could do little more than tick off the culprits: penalties, missed assignments, lack of confidence.
Welcome to University of Texas football in 2021. The Longhorns exited the national championship conversation a dozen seasons ago, and nothing has changed so far under Sarkisian, the fourth coach tasked with restoring the program. These past two weeks drove home the reality that while Sarkisian may be the leader to get things back on track on the Forty Acres, he has a long way to go.
Now, if you love the Longhorns and cling to memories of Vince Young carrying UT to the national championship sixteen years ago and believe more happy days are just around the corner, good on ya. But that’s a tough sell right now. Despite having the deepest pockets in the land, spectacularly beautiful facilities, elite recruiting classes, and a fan base that still shows up—99,916 for Oklahoma State—Texas has ranked higher than nineteenth only once in the past eleven season-ending Associated Press Top 25 polls.
Sarkisian speaks of repairing the Longhorns’ “psyche” and bolstering their ability to handle adversity. Pressed on what aspect of the UT offense troubled him most, he said: “Quite frankly, we’re all taking turns.”
“The promising part for us is we are capable to compete at a very high level, which we have been doing now for the past two weeks against two teams,” Sarkisian added. “Now it is about our ability to sustain that and to do that at the critical moments, even if maybe there are some momentum swings during the second half.”
That’s another way of saying Texas lacks mental toughness and has no idea how to win games.
“For us as a team to go where we want to go, we can’t just hold on because a few things don’t go our way,” Sarkisian said after Saturday’s loss. “We have to think that something good is right around the corner and the only way it’ll show itself is if we execute our jobs really well. Right now, we’re in a space where we get a lead, something doesn’t go our way and we harbor a little bit of the negative thoughts. And ultimately, those negative thoughts creep into cautious play, uncertainty, and ultimately errors.”
Going back to 2019, Texas has led in the fourth quarter or overtime in six of its last seven Big 12 defeats. Seven days before losing to Oklahoma State, Texas was up 21 points on Oklahoma in the first quarter, and the Longhorns still led by 18 late in the third, before blowing the lead and losing 55–48. Even worse was a 40–21 loss to Arkansas in which the Texas defense was pounded for 333 rushing yards.
The Longhorns have a bye week to refocus, but then the team goes on the road to challenge Baylor and Iowa State. Texas could be underdogs in both games. “Mentally, I feel like after these two weeks, it’s something that we need to step back, look at ourselves, and figure out what’s the problem going forward,” said defensive back Josh Thompson.
If Sarkisian eventually manages to resurrect UT football, it’s not going to happen overnight. Texas is out of the AP Top 25 this week, which is how they’ve finished seven of the last eleven seasons. During this stretch, despite the four different head coaches—Mack Brown, Charlie Strong, Tom Herman, and Sarkisian—Texas is 18–37 against ranked teams and 7–18 against the top ten.
The Longhorns haven’t won the Big 12 since 2009, and sitting in fifth place with a 2–2 record, they seem likely to extend that streak this year. And struggling in the Big 12 doesn’t bode well for the program’s success once they move to the Southeastern Conference.
But the beauty—when it’s not a curse—of Texas Longhorns football is that there’s always a reason for optimism. UT has won before and is positioned to win again. The university leads all of college sports in revenue and it continues to acquire talent. According to the recruiting site Rivals, UT’s last four incoming classes have been ranked fourth twice and fourteenth twice. Sarkisian’s crop in 2022 is ranked fifth.
Recruiting is more challenging than ever in college football, as Alabama, Ohio State, and other national programs now compete with Texas schools for in-state talent. Once upon a time, a kid might sign with Texas so his friends and family could watch his games on television, but that’s no longer a concern. At some point, as Bill Parcells famously said, you are what your record says you are. And over long stretches of time, UT’s record says the Longhorns aren’t the dominant football program the school’s administration, boosters, and lifelong fans think they should be. At the same time, though, focusing on UT’s historical underachievement unfairly ignores the great years under coaches like Darrell Royal, Mack Brown, and Fred Akers.
Rebuilding a team’s mindset might be the most difficult job for a coach, and Sarkisian has his work cut out for him with UT, where those “negative thoughts”—that sense of impending, snowballing doom when opponents gain momentum—appear to have been passed down through generations of players.
Other schools would love to have Texas’s problems. Amid all the riches and creature comforts, there’s no excuse for having underachieved this long. But if turning things around were as simple as ordering a half-dozen 8K televisions for the players’ lounge, Sarkisian would only have to snap his fingers. Unfortunately, he’s dealing with something more difficult to identify and even more difficult to repair. In this first season in Austin, that’s Sarkisian’s task.
“That’s the challenge,” Sarkisian said, “That’s that’s why we coach and do what we do and love what we do. If it was easy, everybody would do it.”