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Analyzing the bad habit Texas has of losing 20-point leads

In three of the last four games, the Longhorns have failed to put away opponents, instead being forced to narrowly hold onto victories.

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Texas Longhorns have developed a bad habit of blowing 20-point leads over the last month.

Against Houston last month, Texas was up 21-0 in the second quarter. That same game Texas was tied in the fourth quarter 24–24 before a late touchdown by CJ Baxter took the lead and a fourth-down stop at the Longhorns 10-yard line sealed the victory.

Texas was up 27–7 against Kansas State at home two weeks ago. That game went into overtime and the Longhorns won by three, 33–30, when the Wildcats went for it in fourth down in the first overtime and couldn’t convert.

Last week, the Longhorns were up 26–6 against the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth. TCU scored 20 points in the fourth quarter and Texas won by three, 29–26, after a 32-yard reception by junior wide receiver AD Mitchell allowed the Horns to run out the clock.

Despite these second-half heroics by opposing teams, Texas has been fortunate enough to win all three of these games, but Longhorn Nation’s blood pressure can not afford for head coach Steve Sarkisian and Texas to keep winning this way.

So what’s the issue? Conservative play calling by Sarkisian? Bad halftime adjustments?

As alarming as these comebacks are, the positive to take away from this phenomena is how fast the Longhorns have been able to score and how effective the offense has been overall. Other than last week against TCU where they scored 29 points, Texas has scored 30-plus points every game this season. For a team that lost five games by a one-score margin last year, their ability to close out games this season has been an impressive improvement.

Compared to the start of the Sarkisian era, Texas has flipped the script, starting fast and finishing the close ones. The concern is that these fast starts and slow finishes could hurt the Longhorns in the coming weeks as the program tries to walk away from the Big 12 with a conference championship and potentially a college football playoff spot.

For the most part, the comebacks have been situational. Against Kansas State, turnovers by backup quarterback Maalik Murphy and and the only fumble in the career of running back Jonathon Brooks on Texas’ side of the field resulted in two easy touchdowns for the Wildcats to crawl back into the game.

Houston and TCU, however, seem edto be a change in intensity and play calling. It feels like Texas has been playing not to lose, instead of keeping their foot on the peddle.

“I was really impressed with our team in the way that we played for about three quarters,” Sarkisian said Monday. “Naturally, in the fourth quarter we didn’t play very good football and that starts with our ability to continue to motivate the players to have the right mental intensity.”

With 26 points in the first half and zero offensive touchdowns for TCU in the first three quarters, Sarkisian had a lot to be impressed with how his team started this game until the Horned Frogs were able to outscore the Longhorns 20–3 to put the game in jeopardy.

“We had really poor tackling on defense and didn’t leverage the ball very well. We couldn’t sustain drives offensively. We were giving up chunk plays defensively and they were scoring quickly. And then we didn’t operate very well on special teams,” said Sarkisian.

“We did things out of character and so we have to do a better job of keeping our mental intensity, our focus, and continuing to play the brand and style of football that got us that lead.”

These issues are all true for this Texas team, but a glaring issue for the Longhorns seems to be coaching and an inability to adapt to adjustments by the opposition.

This year Sarkisian has proven he is an elite game planner — the Longhorns have outscored each of these three opponents 64-27 in the first half. The defense forced Houston to punt on their first four drives, Kansas State to punt on their first six drives, and kept TCU out of the end zone until the fourth quarter.

On the other side of the coin he seems to struggle as a situational play caller. Sarkisian wants to be aggressive and go for it on fourth downs and try to hit big shot plays, to move the offense. For Ewers, 42.9 percent of his pass attempts have been over 10 yards in the eight games he’s played. When game planned well, these shot plays lead to big chunk plays resulting in early touchdowns. When they don’t convert, they can lead to third and long as the offense gets off schedule. Against the Horned Frogs, though, that wasn’t even the issue like it was against the Wildcats.

“One of the goals going into that game was to try to stay out of third and long, an area where we were in a ton of third and longs the previous week,” Sarkisian said. “The goal was to stay out a third and long, and to go 2-of-8 on 3rd and 1 to 3 in the game is unacceptable.”

Because of this style, managing leads isn’t necessarily in Sarkisian’s wheelhouse as he tends to vacillate from hyper-aggressiveness to conservatism trying to maintain leads — one of the biggest concerns with this game was how Texas practically abandoned the passing game in the second half. After throwing the ball 25 times in the first, the Longhorns only aired it out 10 times in the second. Granted, this could have been due to Ewers still recovering from the separated AC joint in his shoulder.

In that case, the TCU game could simply prove to be a situation where unfortunate circumstances cause another blown lead.

It’s possible to make the case that Sarkisian struggles with adjustments after his scripted openers, but to make a full assessment, it’s worth looking at the body of work over this season. He adjusted phenomenally against Wyoming in the second half, scoring 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. He adjusted well against Nick Saban and Alabama in Week Two, trading blows with the greatest college football coach of all time and winning by double digits thanks to 21 points in the fourth quarter. He maintained leads against Rice, Baylor, Kansas, and BYU just fine.

These past three blown leads have been alarming to say the least and it is easy to cast blame on play calling. In hindsight, though, the Kansas State blown lead was due to mistakes resulting in great field position and the TCU game was likely due to a recovering Quinn Ewers’ inability to throw the ball.

There is overall similarities, but no true commonalities. If anything, these blown leads highlight the poise, versatility, and maturity of this Texas team to finish games when times get tough even though this streak cannot continue, and, in my opinion, will not continue. As long as Ewers continues to regain health in this throwing shoulder this Saturday, I expect that the Longhorns will return to their dominant self.

With Iowa State’s weak pass rush, an injured offensive line, and a rookie quarterback, look for Sarkisian and the Longhorns to kick the habit of blowing leads. While Brooks will unfortunately not be in this game, if Texas has depth at any position, it’s running back. Iowa State’s one strong spot on the entire team is their defensive secondary. If Texas can limit chunk plays against a team that throws over 70 percent of its passes under nine yards or behind the line of scrimmage, and get the ball into the hands of their playmakers, they should be just fine, but it will require avoiding the type of offensive letdowns in the second half, catastrophic turnovers, and poor tackling that allowed the previous comebacks by Houston, Kansas State, and TCU.

Texas -7.5? Book it.