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Despite Texas’ issues closing games, Big 12 title dreams remain intact

If Texas can exorcise its major demon, the season could include a trip to Arlington. But there’s no more margin for error.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Between the bye week and back-to-back underwhelming performances, it’s been nearly a month since the Texas Longhorns have looked the part on Saturdays. Since that 49-0 shutout win over the Oklahoma Sooners, the Horns are 1-1 with the loss coming by just seven points on the road against the No. 11 Oklahoma State Cowboys. On the surface, all seems to be going as expected for Texas in Year 2 of the Steve Sarkisian era.

But the reality is, the current perception of the program isn’t quite as positive.

Why? Well, the Longhorns should have handily won both contests against Iowa State and Oklahoma State, had it not been for an all-too-familiar frustrating theme rearing its ugly head — collapses.

“The common theme is us getting a little outside of ourselves when adversity strikes late in the ball game, when the fourth quarter rolls around,” Sark said this week.

Most recently in the loss in Stillwater, the Longhorns let a 31-17 lead slip away as the Cowboys ripped off a 24-3 run, including a 14-0 stretch in the fourth quarter. The week before, Texas needed a comeback to win after letting Iowa State score 14 straight to erase a 17-7 edge while the Longhorns went more than 20 minutes of game time between scores.

So now, entering the final stretch of the season — with a Big 12 title appearance still just within reach, no less — the Longhorns look a look a bit more like the shaky team that let their 2021 season slip away.

There’s no easy fix for an issue that’s now headlined more than half of the Horns’ 10 losses under Sarkisian, but the fact that Texas let leads — often sizable ones — slip away means they played well enough to build them in the first place.

So, as the saying goes, consistency is key.

“I think the reality of it is is what we’re trying to get to is there’s got to be a level of consistency in play,” Sark said last week. “And so like this morning, for example, I go through our tape with our guys and I show them the game and you know part of it is something very simple as just, you know, effort in population of the ball defensively. I can show a clip and the first quarter or the second quarter where we’re flying to the ball, we’re getting to the ball. Then I can show a play late in the game Saturday where a ball gets completed. We’ve got a guy wrapped up and I look and we’ve got guys watching a tackle being made rather than five hats flying to the ball to help get that man on the ground.”

And so it’s about consistency in our style of play,” Sark added. “Ultimately it comes down to execution. And those are those are things that you know, a critical moments in the game, it’s about doing your job and doing your job really well and doing it with a consistent manner ... Ultimately you still have to do your job at those critical moments in the game. So those are the things we’re trying to emphasize at this point.”

That consistency — well, the lack thereof — of course, has been a concerning theme the last two seasons. It’s why Sark’s record in Austin is now just 10-10, and it’s why his Longhorns have slipped to 5-3 this season, despite leading in the fourth quarter in all three of Texas’ losses to No. 1 Alabama, Texas Tech, and No. 11 Oklahoma State.

That’s the obvious bad. That trend simply has to change or it’s going to severely limit Texas’ upside, this season and beyond.

On the other hand, letting late leads slip away in games that Texas was well-positioned to and should have won is all that separates them from 8-0 and playoff discussions. Of course, if it were that easy, Texas would be in that position, but it’s an example of the overall positive trajectory the Horns have shown this season.

“I’m not concerned about it. It’s easy to look at the record. We’ve come a long way as a program. I feel very good about where we’ve come,” Sark said of his belief in the direction of his program. “I love our style of play. I think we play hard, we play tough. Like like a lot of programs, I think we’re a work in progress. You know, couple balls bounced a certain way and our record’s different. I wouldn’t change how I feel about our program and the direction that we’re going in.”

‘So, you know, naturally for me, we have to continue to stay the course of what we’re doing and the belief in what we’re doing,” Sark added. “I don’t think we wavered a year ago, when things got hard in October, November. We won’t waver this year — we’ll stick to the plan, stick to the course. And I think we’ve got a great deal of belief in our locker room in what we do and why we do it.”

To that end, no is certainly no time to waver.

Texas currently sits in fourth place in the Big 12 at 3-2 in league play, and with a month’s worth of games remaining, quite a bit can change for the Horns.

“There’s a lot that’s going to happen in our conference,” Sark said. “We’re going to make sure we mow our lawn and take care of our own business.”

With a little luck, mowing their own lawn well can land the Longhorns right where they wanted to be from the beginning — in Arlington for the Big 12 title game. There’s next to no margin for error from here on out if that is to come to fruition — like blowing leads, for example — and the humbling reality is for Texas to be in that position, they’ll likely have to run the table.

Nevertheless, the big goal is still within reach. There lies the challenge for Sark and his staff.

“The challenge is to not focus on December 3rd, it’s to focus on this week and not get caught looking down the road, but give this week all of the attention that I deserves,” Sark said. ‘I think that’s what the best teams do. They focus on the task at hand, they focus on what’s right in front of them. I think our team is doing that really well right now.

And what’s in front of Texas is a confident No. 13-ranked Kansas State squad that’s fresh off of a 48-0 demolition over the same Oklahoma State team Texas lost to the last time out.

About those big-picture goals? If Texas takes care of K-State, they’ll surpass the Wildcats in the conference standings and climb into third place.

And from there? Well, Texas just needs to continue mowing its own lawn. There’s a lot of football left to be played, and for better or worse, what happens the next four weeks will ultimately define the season.

But entering that crucial stretch, Sark likes where his Longhorns are at.

“I feel good about our team. I think that we’ve played a lot of good football. I feel like we’ve been a little unfortunate when we haven’t been at our best, it’s got magnified to some degree and it’s hurt us. But I think that we’ve played good football. We’ve got a team that’s committed for this final month of the season, but we have to be cautious not to look down the road … But I like where our team is at.”