As the No. 3 Texas Longhorns gear up for the 119th Red River Rivalry, Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian believes exposure against top-25 teams this season will help them against the No. 12 Oklahoma Sooners.
“I think the beauty for us is this will be our third top-25 matchup in six games. We’ve been exposed to some high-level football now through five weeks.”
While it’s the first time since 2011 that both teams will meet at the Cotton Bowl undefeated, it’s also the first time the Longhorns enter the game with a higher ranking since 2009.
And if the Horns win on Saturday, it will be the first time obtaining back-to-back wins since 2009 as well.
But this year’s Oklahoma squad is much improved since the 49-0 beatdown in Dallas.
“Venables [has] been doing it too long, too high of a level to think they weren’t going to get that thing fixed,” Sarkisian said. “I said it last year they would and naturally they have.”
With Texas-OU week underway, here are a few highlights from Sark’s Monday press conference:
Ja’Tavion Sanders and Ryan Watts injury update: “Both are day-to-day right now. It’s going to take a minute for them to rehab and see if they’ll be able to go.” Sark expects another update on their game status on Thursday.
Kansas: Last Saturday’s 40-14 win over the Jayhawks was Texas’s best performance from start to finish. Sark once again lauded the team as being a “versatile” football team in their victory.
“It was really our best game on third and fourth down that we’ve had all year. We were 9/15 on third down plus 2/2 on fourth down.”
Defensively, there were three plays that hurt the Horns. “They had the long touchdown run - which was a great play by Catalon to knock the ball out, the ball bounces to them, poor execution on the touchdown pass that they hit and then they got us on a wide link play that hurt us but outside of that the defense played really well.”
Sark mentioned three aspects he wants to work on this week: drilling down on red zone execution, minimizing explosive plays on defense, and cleaning up the missed field goals.
No change at kicker: Sark has no plans of benching Bert Auburn after two missed field goals against Kansas. Two high snaps (one against Baylor and one against KU) caused timing issues with Auburn and Sark wants to get back to the basics starting with the snap, hold, and protection. “He’s too good he’s been doing it for two years for us now. It’s just getting him back into his comfort zone and...he kicked the ball well today.”
Embracing the hate: “This a great rivalry...there’s a lot of crossover on both rosters of players that have played against each other in high school.”
Dylan Gabriel: “Gabriel’s playing at a very high level and they’ve got an explosive unit. We know we’re going to get the best version of him.”
Revamped Oklahoma defense: “Their defense is playing a really high level right now. The multiplicity of what they do is very challenging.”
Sark mentioned the defense is playing on the same “accord and working well together.” He also noted that Venables has rolled out different defenses depending on the game this season which will make it difficult to prepare for.
Vince Ewers?: For the third straight game, Ewers ran for at least one touchdown and put together a career-high 40 rushing yards against Kansas.
“We’re not a running quarterback team. We don’t run design quarterback runs but we do rely on the quarterback to use his legs at opportune times. Most notably third down and in the red [zone] area and I think Quinn is starting to excel at that. He’s used his newfound conditioning and speed to be an advantage for him and for us.”
AD Mitchell: “We were looking for a guy that can make plays on 50-50 tight balls that had a really good range of catch radius and we were looking for a guy with experience. I didn’t want to roll the dice on if he could handle playing in this environment. He kind of checked all the boxes.”
On establishing physicality Saturday: “That’s kind of a prerequisite. If we’re gonna play good football in any game, we have to play physical.
Sign of trust: Sark says the sign of trust within the program can be found in the training, coaching, teammates, the play calls...the reality of the execution we’re playing. The team is not blowing coverages like they have in the previous season - the offensive line protection has been pretty clean - runners trusting the offensive line and the blocking scheme.
Keeping players from entering the portal: Sark said he tries to be a hands-on coach (players coach) and have a good connection with his players. Wants players to feel like “I’m at a place where people care about me.” He added, “We’ve created a culture that the guys want to be a part of. I don’t have to talk to someone to stay at our program or commit to our program.”
Best team in the country? “That’s for you guys to answer,” Sark said with a chuckle. When pressed about how it feels to be asked that question after a 5-7 season in 2021, Sark said “I don’t know. It’s flattering to some degree. I think our players have earned the respect of some who feel that way. There’s a lot of football left. Our goal is to be in Arlington. The opinions of others don’t matter, winning does.”
Malik Agbo: Versatile skillset. We’ve always had a lineman in that 12-personnel role. I’m hopeful we can start to do even more.
Will the team's maturity help on Saturday?: “I have a bunch of guys in that locker room that were there on the sideline when we lost a 20-something point lead two years ago. And then a bunch of guys in that locker room that won a big game last year so they’ve felt the lowest of lows and the highest of highs.”
“This game is not about what happens in the first quarter, it’s going to be about how we play for four quarters...and I think our veteran leadership understands that.
11 a.m. kick? No problem: “I love early kick-offs. For our guys, they are excited about it. It doesn’t really change our preparation for us.”
Rotation of the defensive line: “I think it’s been huge. We’ve gone through the first half of games where we’ve played 30 guys and sometimes you don’t feel the effect of that rotation in the first half but naturally, you look at some of the fourth quarters we’ve been having now in the way we’ve been finishing some of these games. I do think it’s paying dividends. I think we’re more fresh physically, we’re more fresh mentally, and the guys are buying into the idea of let’s rotate our guys through so that when my number is called I’m gonna go empty the tank. I don’t have to try and save any of my energy because the next guy is going to come in and I’m going to trust him that he’s going to do his job well.”