“If I keep looking back at 5-7, I’m going to run right into a tree at some point.”
Steve Sarkisian’s first season on the Forty Acres quite simply wasn’t good enough.
Everyone knows that, including Sark.
But as he often notes, the windshield is larger than the review mirror for a reason — so you focus on what’s ahead. It’s an understanding Sark and his staff have spent the offseason drilling into the minds of the Texas Longhorns. And it applies beyond the laughable 5-7 record — more notably, to the numerous individual moments that mounted up into a loss, and then another, and another, and so on.
Even considering the embarrassing 40-21 blowout loss in the first notable outing of Sark’s tenure at Texas, the ultimate inability to overcome adversity time and time again didn’t really become a true issue until things seemed far more favorable for the Longhorns.
Sitting at 4-1 and ranked No. 21, Texas was flashing signs of what could have been in 2021, racing out to a 28-7 first quarter edge over the No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners — a lead that was still comfortable at halftime with Texas on top, 38-20.
The rest? Well, you know how that ended.
The following week against No. 12 Oklahoma State, a 17-13 halftime edge ended with an eight-point loss. The next time out, on the road against No. 16 Baylor, a 14-10 halftime lead finished as a 31-24 Longhorns loss, and once more the following week, after narrowly holding a 7-3 road advantage against Iowa State, Texas headed home with a 30-7 loss.
Four games, four losses, despite the Longhorns holding four halftime leads — the issue was being outscored by 75 in the second half of those games.
“Where I need to be better is making sure that our players and our staff respond better to the adversity when it presents itself in-game,” Sark said.
Of course, Texas didn’t make the necessary in-game adjustments — not nearly well enough, at least — and the troubling result was a team that not only started dropping games like pounds in a sweatsuit, but one that you could watch collapse in real time as adversity struck.
Within what often seemed like just moments, a team that looked prepared, confident, and in control early would unravel and seemingly anticipate the worst that was yet to come.
And consequently, the worst did come ... six consecutive times.
You could place blame in any number of spots as to how things went so wrong, primarily in the second half of games as Texas blew one lead after another. Sarkisian highlighted three of those reasons ahead of Texas’ season opener against Louisiana-Monroe, and they’re areas in which he thinks Texas has shown substantial growth.
“One, I think as a staff, we know each other even better than we did a year ago … I think two, as a team, when you really watch it, you can point out specific plays along the way that ultimately affected the outcome of the game … But third, I think our players are playing with a lot more confidence. Again, we haven’t faced the adversity yet, but I thought some of the errors we made in those games came from a lack of confidence; it came from uncertainty; it came from not playing with a belief in the call and in myself and in the guy next to me.”
From a lack of familiarity with the staff, to a less-than-stellar comprehension of entirely new schemes, to the players’ lack of confidence in each other, adversity was pretty easy to come by in Austin last season. The major issue for Texas, though, was that adversity mounted in a hurry and effectively became insurmountable as one bad play became two, two became an entire drive, drives became a quarter, quarters became a halves, and ultimately, halves became losses.
To that end, Sark said they’ve spent the offseason emphasizing and celebrating the little wins — the kind that add up to big wins on Saturdays. And thus far throughout the offseason, Sark has raved about his team’s mental makeup, but he also noted that the ball won’t always bounce their way — how they respond when it doesn’t will go a long way towards defining the 2022 Longhorns.
“How we respond is the key to the drill. I feel more comfortable with our team understanding that aspect of it, as opposed to hoping the ball bounces our way, and when it doesn’t, we get the ‘poor me.’”
“The reality of it is, how we respond to the adversity, the tough times, the unfortunate luck, that’s going to ultimately make up what this team is about,” Sark added. “I feel good about it, but we’ll find out when adversity strikes.”
And when adversity strikes, what’s to make the last version of the Longhorns any different than last year?
For starters, it’s quiet literally a much different team with essentially half of the roster being first-year Longhorns, which has helped elevate Texas’ overall talent level and depth.
Couple that with key starters returning at numerous spots and improved football IQ and understanding of the schemes and concepts became a talking point from Sark on down to the players. And that last part, the players, might be the most likely resolution of Texas is to avoid the kind of collapses in the face of adversity that killed their season last year. If you ask Sark, his staff, or the players, you’ll hear a common theme — this has become a player-led program in which the locker room has become really close beyond just football, which has produced increased trust in one another.
For Texas, success isn’t that simple, but as we learned last season, those are some simple but necessary ingredients if Texas is to take a much-needed step forward in 2022.
“I think our culture is at an all-time high since I’ve been here,” Sark said. “Ultimately we’ll get tested when adversity strikes. Can we keep that bond through the storms; through the rough waters?”