Saturday’s 37-34 overtime loss by the Texas Longhorns to the Texas Tech Red Raiders in Lubbock wasn’t just familiar because of how many times the Longhorns have disappointed since 2009, but because it represented a growing trend during Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian’s tenure — the inability to finish against opponents despite holding leads at halftime or late in the game.
Texas is 7-9 under Steve Sarkisian. They held a halftime lead in 5 of those 9 losses.— Rod Babers (@rodbabers) September 25, 2022
They held a 4th Q lead in 5 of those 9 losses.
They had double digit leads in 4 of those 9 losses. #Texas is winning the battle of gameplan & preparation but losing the battle of adjustments.
Against Texas Tech, Texas led 24-14 at halftime and then went up 31-17 in the third quarter following running back Bijan Robinson’s 40-yard touchdown run, at which point the Longhorns had a 95.8-percent win probability, according to ESPN.
But the Red Raiders scored 20 of the final 23 points in the game to pull off the statistically improbable comeback as the Longhorns defense was forced to face 60 plays in the second half as Texas Tech possessed the ball for over 19 minutes and never had to punt.
Meanwhile, the offense cratered after Robinson’s touchdown run, producing only 11 plays for 17 yards on the three drives prior to the desperate four-play, 47-yard drive with 21 seconds remaining that produced the miraculous game-tying field goal.
“Too inconsistent offensively,” Sarkisian said. “It was very big-little. We struggled to protect the quarterback and to win on first down in the second half. We had some missed opportunities in the passing game, we didn’t make catches we are accustomed to making, and ultimately, we turned the ball over twice, which we hadn’t done here the last couple of weeks. Defensively, our inability to get off the field was a real factor.”
Texas Tech ultimately ran 100 plays to only 60 plays for Texas and won the turnover battle 2-0 even though the Longhorns forced two fumbles and had a chance at an interception of turnover-prone Red Raiders quarterback Donovan Smith.
The boom-or-bust nature of Sarkisian’s offense and the inability of the defense to force turnovers or get key stops have been a constant in the blown leads for Texas since Sarkisian’s arrival.
The trend started in the Cotton Bowl last season when Texas took a 38-20 lead into halftime against Oklahoma and maintained a 41-30 advantage heading into the fourth quarter before giving up 25 points to the Sooners over the final 15 minutes, including a 52-yard touchdown pass and two touchdown runs by Kennedy Brooks as the Longhorns defense tired and wilted in the Dallas sun.
Against Oklahoma State the following week, Texas was driving up 17-3 with a possibility to extend the lead when Casey Thompson through an interception returned for a touchdown. At halftime, the margin was 17-13, extended to 24-13 on a touchdown run by Robinson. But the Cowboys scored the game’s final 19 points as the Horns went three and out four times after Robinson’s touchdown run, turned the ball over on downs, and lost any fading hopes of a comeback when Thompson threw another interception with a little less than two minutes remaining.
The following week against Baylor featured more of the same — a 14-10 halftime lead stretched to 21-10 after a touchdown run by Robinson and then the collapse as the Bears scored 21 straight points to overcome the deficit. Following the touchdown, the Longhorns offense punted and turned the ball over on downs when Sarkisian called a fake punt by Cameron Dicker on a 4th and 11. He picked up two yards. Three plays later, Baylor scored a touchdown to take a 10-point lead.
Facing Iowa State, Texas took a 7-3 lead into halftime. Then the Cyclones stormed through the Longhorns in the second half, scoring the final 27 points with the help of two explosive plays — a 49-yard touchdown run by Breece Hall and a 49-yard touchdown catch by Xavier Hutchinson on a throw from current Texas wide receiver Tarique Milton. In the second half, the Longhorns went three and out on the first three drives, punted after five plays on the fourth, Robinson fumbled on the fifth drive, the sixth drive lasted only four plays, and the final drive merely ran out of the remainder of the clock on the loss.
With an improved roster and supposedly improved team culture, those losses weren’t supposed to keep happening this season, but the coaching staff still hasn’t shown enough ability to make the right adjustments on either side of the ball as the offense tends to stall and the defense can’t get stops, including allowing 10 points to Alabama in the fourth quarter as the Crimson Tide mounted a comeback from down six points.
Until that trend line changes direction, the Horns will remain mired in mediocrity.