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Steve Sarkisian and the Longhorns have a closing problem

Texas has led at the half in five of their nine losses. Starting strong isn’t the issue — finishing is the issue.

NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

“I told you they were gonna break and they did.”

The words of Texas Tech Red Raiders head coach Joey McGuire following Saturday’s 37-34 overtime win over the Texas Longhorns likely aren’t easily digestible to the burnt orange faithful, but until proven otherwise, they ring true.

With their latest loss, the Longhorns have fallen to 7-9 under Steve Sarkisian, and in more than half of those — five, to be exact — you could certainly say Texas broke.

Of the nine losses now to Sark’s name in Austin, his Longhorns have led at the half in five.

Five halftime leads. Five losses.

  • No. 6 Oklahoma — Led 38-20 at halftime, lost 55-48
  • No. 12 Oklahoma State — Led 17-13 at halftime, lost 32-24
  • No. 16 Baylor — Led 14-10 at halftime, lost 31-24
  • Iowa State — Led 7-3 at halftime, lost 30-7
  • Texas Tech — Led 24-14 at halftime, lost 37-34

There is something to be said of Texas’ ability to prepare and put itself in good positions early, but nobody has ever won a game at halftime. The issue is the team that often looks prepared, confident, executes its game plan, and at times, performs at an elite level coming out of the gates, is seldom the same Longhorns group that comes out of the break.

In fact, the team that comes out of the half is often a shell of the one that takes the field to begin the game. And there’s a lot that goes into that, primarily on offense.

Sometimes, as with Xavier Worthy’s kick return fumble against Oklahoma, Casey Thompson’s interception on the final drive against Oklahoma State, or Bijan Robinson’s fumble to open overtime last week, turnovers loom large. Much more often, the offense fails to adjust as the opposing defense does, and consequently, 19 of Texas’ 32 second-half drives throughout those five games have resulted in three (or four) and out.

That’s 19 (or 59 percent) of Texas’ second-half drives in those come-from-ahead defeats failing to move the chains even once.

Given those significant offensive struggles, it’s half shocking, half understandable that the Longhorns didn’t score more than 10 second-half points even once during these five games. So unsurprisingly, all of this shifts the second-half time of possession in favor of their opponents as the Longhorns defense begins to wear down and suffer its own lapses in execution.

Then, as the offensive woes ultimately snowball into defensive struggles, the fourth quarter in close contests has more or less become the Longhorns’ personal hell — they’ve been outscored 74-13 in the fourth quarters (and overtime) during these five losses.

Five halftime leads. Five collapses — Iowa State could arguably be the exception, but getting outscored 27-0 after leading at the half certainly seems to fit the description.

So, for a Texas team that’s literally been a tale of two halves, what’s to be done?

“I think it actually has to happen,” Sark said on his team developing the mindset necessary to close games. “At some point, you gain confidence from doing it, and ultimately — hopefully — we continue to put ourselves in that position because that means we’re playing pretty good football. Then, naturally, once you can do it once, twice, you gain confidence in how to go do it.”

“So, it just has to happen,” Sark reiterated. “We’ve gotta keep working at it. It’s not for lack of effort on anybody’s part, but we’ve got to continue to push towards that and get a sense for what it feels like by doing it.”

When you factor in the losses to Kansas (57-56) and West Virginia (31-23) last season, and the Alabama loss (20-19) this year, the Longhorns are an underwhelming 2-5 in one-score games since under Sark, and 0-2 this season.

Not that it’s as simple as saying they should have won each of those, but Texas put itself in positions to come out on top each and every time.

They just couldn’t close.

That’s the difference in possibly a 12-4 or 11-5 record to Sark’s name thus far, and the 7-9 he’s currently at.

Before the season, Sark said, “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.”

Thus far this season, there’s been mixed results to that end.

Against Alabama, when it made perfect sense for the Longhorns to collapse once Quinn Ewers went down in the first quarter, they fought all the way until the final seconds — they just couldn’t close. The next time out, after falling behind 17-7 to UTSA, Texas outscored the Roadrunners 34-3 the rest of the way.

But then, of course, last Saturday in Lubbock, the Longhorns largely looked like the 2021 version of themselves, completely collapsing after halftime en route to another disappointing defeat as the Red Raiders scored 20 of the final 23 points. To be sure, one collapse thus far this season isn’t an overwhelming indication that this is just what this Texas team will do going forward, but it is another concerning data point about the program’s tendencies throughout Sark’s tenure.

As of now, there’s an increasing sample size that Sark’s team has an issue with closing games and collapsing, and the more the trend continues, the more Texas’ season goals and expectations are impacted.

But for that to change, as Sark said, “it just has to happen.”