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Steve Sarkisian reflects on missed opportunities in close Texas losses

The 8-4 regular-season record doesn’t register as a disappointment for the Longhorns in a vacuum, but the way they lost those games does fit that descriptor.

Syndication: USA TODAY Bryan Terry / USA TODAY NETWORK

On Saturday, the Texas Longhorns coaches and players found themselves in the same position as fans with a Big 12 Championship game berth on the line — sitting at home, at a friend’s house, or out somewhere watching the game. It was the Kansas State Wildcats against the Kansas Jayhawks with Kansas State advancing to Arlington with a win and it was completely out of the hands of everyone in the Texas football program.

“Mixed emotions of hard to watch somebody else, hard to root as a fan,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “You never want to put your fate in somebody else’s hands — you want to control your own fate and we didn’t do that.”

The helplessness was likely a stark feeling for Sarkisian, his coaches, and his players as Kansas State used an early turnover, a long touchdown pass, a safety, and a short touchdown to take a 23-7 lead in the first quarter, affording the Wildcats a win probability of close to 97 percent, according to ESPN.

And while the Jayhawks battled back in the rivalry game to make it a 10-point contest early in the fourth quarter, Kansas just didn’t have enough juice to pull off the comeback, ultimately falling by 20 points on a cold, rainy evening in Manhattan.

The comfortable margin by the end of the game afforded Sarkisian plenty of time to reflect on the reasons for Texas missing out on opportunities to control its own postseason destiny, exacerbated no doubt by his self-styled notion of ranking as his own harshest critic.

“Hard to think back — you think about other games that, man, we shouldn’t be in this position. I think it was a lesson learned for us,” Sarkisian said.

“Inevitably, we got put in that position, but we did it to ourselves and we have to acknowledge that, we have to recognize that, and we have to accept that responsibility. So moving forward as a program, we need to ensure that we don’t put our fate in somebody else’s hands. That’s the biggest thing I came out of Saturday night with when that game was done — we don’t want to be in that position again and to do that. We’ve got to handle our business in September and October and then into November.”

And the Longhorns came ever so close to doing so, losing by one point at home to the Crimson Tide in September on a late field goal, losing in overtime on the road against Texas Tech in a game that featured a post-game win probability of over 98 percent for Texas, losing by seven points on the road against an Oklahoma State team with a hurt quarterback, and then by seven points in a poor home performance against TCU.

All told, only 22 points stood between Texas and the possibility of undefeated season, although that’s certainly an unreasonable expectation given the team’s weaknesses. At the same time, all it takes some seasons are a few plays made compared to a few plays not made to become a team of destiny.

Just look at TCU under first-year head coach Sonny Dykes — the Horned Frogs have five wins by seven points or fewer, including a three-point overtime win over the Cowboys and a two-point, last-second win over the Bears.

For Texas, the plays opponents made and the Longhorns did not will remain indelible throughout the offseason and beyond.

The 81-yard touchdown run by Alabama’s Jase McClellan that featured defensive lineman Alfred Collins getting pancaked into scraping linebacker Jaylan Ford, not yet in midseason form. The missed corner blitz by Ryan Watts late in the game as quarterback Bryce Young eluded him and scrambled into field-goal range.

The fumble by Bijan Robinson on the first play of overtime against Texas Tech.

The 41-yard touchdown reception by Oklahoma State wide receiver Bryson Green with the game tied late in the fourth quarter during which two Texas defenders failed to rally to the football because they thought Green was wrapped up.

The roughing the kicker penalty on Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown in the fourth quarter when the TCU punter kicked out his plant leg to make contact with Overshown’s helmet. The subsequent 31-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Quentin Johnston when Texas defensive backs busted a zone coverage.

But a focus on the individual plays can obscure some of the larger issues that contributed to those losses, including areas where Sarkisian and the rest of the coaching staff could put their players in a better position to succeed.

In the losses to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, Sarkisian was unable to scheme up effective running plays in the second half, leaving the defense exposed as Texas failed to play complementary football.

“I wish I would have found a way to run the football better in the second half in those two games to try to control the game a little bit more to where our defense wasn’t playing so many snaps, because I think the accumulation of the snaps they had to play in those two games caught up to us to where missed tackles became a factor in those games at some really critical moments defensively,” Sarkisian said.

“I wish we could have controlled it a little bit more offensively in the second half to minimize some of the snaps they had to play and maybe we make a couple of those tackles that change the outcome of the game.”

Against Texas Tech, Texas was able to produce 67 rushing yards in the third quarter on 7.4 yards per carry, but only ran the ball five times in the fourth quarter for 13 yards as the Red Raiders controlled the ball for over 11 of the final 15 minutes, running 26 plays. Overall, Texas Tech ran 60 total plays in the second half to only 27 for Texas, producing a nearly two-to-one disparity in time of possession.

In Stillwater, the Longhorns ran for 161 rushing yards in the first half thanks to a 41-yard touchdown run by Robinson and a 52-yard touchdown run by Roschon Johnson. In the second half, however, Oklahoma State set the edge better on the gap scheme runs by Texas, particularly Counter, holding the Horns to 43 yards on 15 carries (2.9 yards per carry) as Sarkisian stuck with running plays that weren’t working and Ewers ended up attempting 25 passes despite the fact that Oklahoma State didn’t lead between the 12-minute mark of the first quarter and the 3:09 mark of the fourth quarter.

With No. 4 TCU in Austin along with College GameDay and a host of recruits, Texas had a second chance to secure a hugely important victory with the eyes of the college football world on the Forty Acres.

Instead, the Longhorns fell flat on their faces as Ewers missed his first eight passes, a stretch culminating with an interception, and the running game never got going as Robinson only received 12 carries for 29 yards with the Horned Frogs never coming aggressively downhill and daring Ewers to hit plays over the top. He never did, despite ample opportunities.

“Against TCU, I just wish we would have played better,” Sarkisian said. “Quite frankly, I wish I’d done a better job of preparing ourselves to play, whether it was a psyche thing, whether it was just an execution thing, we just didn’t play very good in that game and that’s disappointing. I would have liked us to play good football and see what would have happened and we just didn’t play great offensive football that day.”

Sarkisian deserves some of the blame as Texas never tested the perimeter with jet sweeps and the Longhorns head coach remained stubborn trying to take shot plays until late in the game when Texas finally found some success and rhythm by working the perimeter passing game.

Defensively, individual execution broke down at critical times on the Johnston touchdown catch and a 75-yard touchdown run by Kendre Miller when linebacker Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey took false steps inside and out of his gap that left him unable to make the crucial tackle. Then, facing a critical 3rd and 4 late in the game, nickel back Jahdae Barron was too soft in giving up inside leverage on a slant by Johnston and wasn’t able to break up the pass on a play that called for better technique and much more aggressiveness.

Assessing the season as a whole and looking forward, Texas did make improvements in playing complementary that helped the Longhorns pull out close victories against the Cyclones, Wildcats, and Bears.

“Hopefully, we’re better moving forward, which I think we were in the second half of the season,” Sarkisian said. “I think it showed up in the Iowa State game. I think it showed up just this past weekend against Baylor where we were able to run the ball and minimize some of the snaps of defensive play.”

Sarkisian said those close losses don’t keep him up at night, but he does believe those defeats will serve as motivation for continued improvement heading into his third season on the Forty Acres.