Steve Sarkisian began his Monday press conference impressed with the way his team played for the first three quarters against TCU but called the fourth quarter out-of-character for the Texas Longhorns.
The Horned Frogs outscored Texas 20-3 in the second half, with the Longhorns needing a late third down conversion to seal the road win. Here are Sark’s thoughts from the 29-26 victory in Ft. Worth:
The season-ending injury for Jonathon Brooks: “Losing Jonathan for the season is a tough blow for us. I think the one thing that that probably stings most for us as a team is the teammate that Jonathan Brooks is. He’s a better person than he is a football player and he is a heck of a football player. He’s a great runner, he can pass protect and he’s a weapon out of the backfield catching the ball. That creates a void, but that also creates opportunity and so he’ll be missed. It creates opportunities obviously for CJ Baxter, Jaden Blue, Keilan Robinson, Savion Red, and those guys are more than than capable of doing a great job. So systematically, things will not change for us on that front. And we got a lot of faith in those guys that they’re going to perform at a high level.”
On facing Iowa State: “This is another Big 12 championship game for us. We understand we’re going to go into another hostile environment Saturday night. A very well-coached team. These guys do a great job of taking care of the ball on offense and creating turnovers. On defense, they have 15 interceptions on the year so the ball is going to play a big factor in this game. We it’s got to we’ve got to find a way to get it off of him. We got to take care of it on our end. And then we need to be efficient offensively with the number of possessions that could come out of this game. So a lot of work to do. on a Monday, but again, a lot of respect for Iowa State. And we know what’s gonna take it’s gonna take a great effort from us to try to come get a win.
When was the last time Texas played a complete four-quarter game and what will it take to get back to that?“I don’t know. I’m more focused on how are we going to improve and I don’t know if I’m ever satisfied man. To think we’re gonna go play a perfect game on Saturday night, probably not going to happen, but I’m going to keep pushing our guys and demanding of them to improve. There’s never been a game when I’ve gone in on Monday morning and didn’t have corrections to make.”
What has Sark seen out of the other RBs? “CJ [Baxter] is 100% healthy again and I’d feel really uncomfortable if this would have happened a month ago because Cedric was really struggling with his foot. We’ve injected Jaydon Blue a little bit more into the offense so I think his comfort level of playing...will be there. With Savion Red, we’ve incorporated him into our short-yardage offense so he’s carried the ball at some critical moments of some games. And naturally, the experience of Keilan of just the player he’s been over time and so we feel comfortable that we have those four guys.
What does Sark make of the pass defense giving up big yards in the last few games? “In the first half, we gave up 98 yards passing. And then in the second half, we give up 200+ yards. Did we call it as aggressively and I think there’s something to be said about that - maybe we can stay a little bit more aggressive too. We’ve got to maintain the mental intensity and focus of ‘we’re trying to be a dominant defense’. It’s not about the scoreboard. We need to stay aggressive in our play calls, we need to stay aggressive in our style of play, and we need to play a physical brand of football.”
How has Adonai Mitchell progressed over the season? “He came in ahead of the learning curve. He came from a very good system at Georiga in an NFL pro-style offense, he’s been in big games so it was very comfortable for him. I think he’s grown with his rapport with his teammates. One thing about AD - I’ve been around a lot of receivers and we have the third down in the red area in the first half and he runs a double move and Quinn just misses him and it falls incomplete and we have to kick a field goal. Well, AD is out there chest-bumping Bert for making the field goal.
“I’ve been around a lot of receivers when they don’t get the ball thrown to them, they come to the sideline and they’re upset. So I think that in itself speaks volumes about who is AD Mitchell and what he’s about.”
What makes Iowa State’s defense so tough? “I think there’s been a trend here probably over the last seven, eight years when Iowa State was really the pioneers of the three-three-stack defense and when they went to it was kind of an anomaly of what is this and naturally, teams in the big 12 gravitated towards that style of defense. And now in our conference, this is going to be our third straight week of facing that same structure of defense. Kansas State plays it, TCU plays it, and now Iowa State plays it so it’s become a little bit more of the norm. I think I think what Iowa State does is they probably play it at its most purest form. They do a nice job of disguising and tying together the intricacies within the scheme, the disguising of coverages the pressures based on formations and personalities but they know it so well. And all those players have grown up at it. They’ve had to they’ve had to go through some of the growing pains when you put something new in, they did that years ago. So you have to be very detailed. You have to be very deliberate in what you’re trying to do.”
“Our players need to understand it and then they need to understand that this isn’t just what they do. I think they do a great job of playing complementary football. They believe in running the ball, they believe in a ball control style offense and so because they make you earn it offensively, and then they possess the ball on offense, they don’t turn it over, They start to limit your possessions and so you have to be really efficient offensively and every possession you have to there’s real value in those possessions. It’s different than when you’re playing at TCU who still runs that defense, but their offense is going as fast as they can go. So you end up with 75 plays like we had the other night, and then you can live through some of that. These guys, we may get 50-55 plays Saturday night so we need to make sure that we make the most of those opportunities and make them count.”
How has Sark seen CJ Baxter improve this year? “Since he’s gotten here, his work ethic has been tremendous. Naturally, past protection is always probably the biggest thing for a young man making the transition from high school to college, and then from college to the NFL, the picking up pressures and blitzes and things of that nature. And that’s what probably excited me the most on that last play on third and 12. When we throw the ball at Mitchell, Cedric Baxter’s picking up a safety blitz off the weak side, and not on accident, he went and met the safety and kept a really clean pocket. So we’re seeing the growth in him of the overall player.
How was Quinn in practice on Monday? “Naturally he was a little sore but he threw today and operated and did fine I think naturally as the week’s go on. If we can continue to protect like we did the other night. He’s only going to continue to get better and get more healthy.”
“The other night in the fourth quarter when they were scoring so fast, and I felt like momentum had really slipped out of our hands. I got the ball and basically said, we’re going to run it every down. And if we get a field goal, we get a field goal. If we score we score but we’re going to slow this game down. We’re going to get momentum back on our side. And I knew how big that field goal was for us at that moment to make that thing, the two-score game that it became. And so you go in with a plan and we’re more than comfortable. If the plan needs to be that we need to throw it around. We’re more than capable our offensive line is more than capable.
“But ultimately, when the dust settles and stats and everything, man, there’s one stat that matters the most is that a W or an L? And we’re just gonna keep trying to stack W’s.”
Killer instinct needed? “How did [Kansas State] get back in the game? We gave them the ball inside our own 20-yard line twice, right? We got a punt blocked and so we gave them a short field. They were able to score quickly. In [the TCU] game, they were getting big yards in chunks and they’re able to get down the field and score.”
“We have to minimize their ability to score quickly on defense, but yet still remain aggressive. We can’t let people get comfortable.”
How can the team focus on closing games in practice? “I think that we try to have competitive practices and we try to put them in those scenarios, good on good type scenarios of making those plays, doing your job in competitive settings at critical moments.”
“I do think us having those competitive settings in practice, the sudden changes the third down competitions, the good on good team runs, the good on good seven on seven periods, allows our players to feel comfortable in those moments when we have to make the play. And like I said two weeks ago, our defense was able to make those plays on first and gold from the five to stop them for straight downs. This week, it was the offense that had to make those plays to possess the ball and not give it back to TCU. So I do think the versatility of the team shines through but I think a lot of that versatility gets built in practice.”
On what Jordan Whittington brings to the team: “It’s hard to it’s hard to quantify it. Jordan has been through a lot in his career here. From injuries to a position change to 5-7.”
“I think he came back because he wanted to be part of a championship team. He wanted to walk out of here as a champion and he plays that way now. I don’t think he is concerned or consumed with catches and so many of his his plays do not show up on a stat sheet. You can go to the touchdown run that Jonathan Brooks has at the end of the first half. Go watch him block the safety to spring Jonathon on that touchdown. And so you know as much as I’m sure he would love 50 catches at this point of the season, he’s doing so many things for the team, that in all actuality he’s creating value for himself for his future. Because NFL organizations are watching this. We’re getting a player who is going to do everything at maximum effort on special teams. On offense has got a high football IQ. He’s a great teammate, his work ethic. So in the end, I get it. The team is benefiting from who Jordan Whittington is right now. But he’s benefiting from it too. He just hasn’t seen reaped all of those rewards yet.”
What Sark would do with a $77 million buyout? “I don’t have that in my contract.”
What is happening in Sark’s profession? “This has changed because of the early signing period. Because the majority of kids now are signing with the schools that they’re going to go to in December. Universities are trying to get in front of it to remove their coach and try to find their replacement so that new coaching staff can recruit for a few weeks in December to sign the best class available for the future of the program. Do I agree with that? Not really because essentially, when you’re firing a coach at this point in the season, you’re telling that current team, ‘we’re giving up on you and all we’re worried about is the future’. And so I think that the young men in our sport, worked way too hard, 12 months of the year, to be given up on and the fact that they work so hard and they’re fighting for bowl games and things and and futures of their career to say, hey, this season’s a wash. We’re moving on to next season. That’s unfortunate to me, but I understand why it’s happening. It’s happening because of the early signing period. And I don’t know any other way around it. But I don’t have to agree with it, but it is what it is. I guess that’s that’s the best way to say it.”
Has Bert Auburn’s consistency as of late impacted any 4th down calls? “I think Bert has hit 11 in a row now from a field goal standpoint and so there’s that that gives you a sense of comfort. “
“Inside 50, we feel very comfortable with Bert. It’s been two straight years now where that guy has made really big kicks for us. at critical moments in the fourth quarter of games that have given us opportunities. I can point to the Alabama game last year here. I can point to the Texas Tech game at the end of last year to send that game to overtime. Obviously some big kicks this year. So you know, I’ve got the utmost confidence in him and his ability to make those kicks in those moments.”
On the battle to reach the Big 12 Championship: “This is the fun part, right? To be in to be in the middle of November and be in a championship race. I think that our guys have handled it well up to this point. We’ve been walking into road stadiums and understanding the environments are as hostile as anything and we still have this on our chest is still our last year in the Big 12. We understand all that. But now there are championship game implications. And I think that our players have really responded to it and we show great poise great composure, but it’s this is exciting. This is why we get to do what we do to be chasing and chasing the championship. And I know that our players are looking forward to another opportunity on Saturday night.”