The bye week wasn’t enough to fix the mental fragility of Steve Sarkisian’s team.
Attempting to fix the fragile psyche of a Texas Longhorns football program reeling from blown leads in consecutive games against highly-ranked opponents, head coach Steve Sarkisian showed his team the movie “Free Solo.”
Coming off the season’s only bye week, the motivational tactic didn’t work, as the Texas Longhorns blew another double-digit lead in another crushing loss, this time at the hands of the No. 16 Baylor Bears in Waco on Saturday, 31-24.
The Longhorns went up 21-10 in the third quarter. Then they looked down. And then they fell.
Once again, Texas struggled in the final 15 minutes, allowing 14 points and 69 of the 199 rushing yards gained by Baylor in the game. Over the last four games, the Horns have now been out-scored 55-10 in the fourth quarter, a major factor in the program’s first three-game losing streak since Charlie Strong’s final season in 2016. Only three other teams have blown fourth-quarter leads in the fourth quarter in the last five seasons.
“That’s a tough one to swallow,” Sarkisian said. “Any time you lose a game like that, with a little bit of the trend that we’ve had now for three consecutive weeks, that’s tough. It’s tough on our locker room.”
Missed opportunities in the first half, dropped passes, some bad bounces, poor luck, and an awful coaching decision with the game on the line all led to the disappointing outcome.
Texas got off to a typically strong start, scoring a touchdown after senior safety BJ Foster intercepted the second pass of the game from Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon and took a 14-10 when junior quarterback Casey Thompson hit freshman wide receiver Xavier Worthy for a 63-yard touchdown.
But over the remainder of the first half, the Longhorns failed to capitalize on key opportunities.
First, Thompson crucially let his footwork break down under some pressure on 1st and 10 from the Baylor 36-yard line with 7:00 left in the second quarter — Worthy was wide open for another touchdown after the cornerback in coverage fell down, but Thompson wasn’t able to keep the ball inbounds as he fell away on the throw.
Two plays later, Joshua Moore was on the verge of completing a 3rd and 6 conversion with a 13-yard catch, but the ball came out as he went to the ground and Baylor recovered. And so while replay wasn’t able to confirm the call on the field, there wasn’t clear video evidence to overturn it.
When junior linebacker Luke Brockermeyer intercepted a poor throw by Bohanon late in the half, Texas had a chance to extend its lead as Moore got open the end zone between the Baylor cornerback and safety. Thompson’s pass was slightly underthrown, but Moore was still able to get his hands on the ball before dropping it.
Still, the Horns were in field goal range at the Baylor 29-yard line facing 3rd and 5. But Baylor intercepted Thompson’s pass after it went off Moore’s hands, negating the opportunity to add three points to the 14-10 lead.
“I thought we had some chances to kind of open the game up. We didn’t have and we didn’t we didn’t get it,” Sarkisian said.
In the second half, junior wide receiver Marcus Washington dropped two contested passes, including one at the Baylor 23-yard line with 1:54 remaining as Texas attempted to drive for a tying touchdown. The next two throws from Thompson went incomplete, setting up three Baylor kneel downs to end the game.
On another play, the Texas offensive line wasn’t able to protect Thompson long enough for him to find Washington running wide open through the Baylor secondary.
Perhaps the most egregious mistake was made by Sarkisian himself. After a false start on super senior guard Tope Imade turned 3rd and 6 into 3rd and 11 and Washington dropped the first of those two contested passes, Sarkisian called a run-pass option fake punt for senior Cameron Dicker at the Baylor 49-yard line. Dicker only gained two yards before he was stopped.
“They feathered it and played it pretty well. He had a go call option which he took they played it well,” Sarkisian said. “You know, hindsight is 20-20. If I saw the look again I’d probably check out of it and punt the ball. But when you fake punts and you do those kinds of things, you’re rolling the dice — when they hit, they’re great when they don’t there’s a potential for a momentum swing.”
And that’s exactly what happened as Baylor only needed three plays to score a touchdown to take a 31-21 lead. The Longhorns were already in trouble when Sarkisian called the fake punt — the Bears had a 72.1-percent win probability at that time — but by the time that Abram Smith ran the ball in for a 23-yard touchdown, the win probability was up to 83.5 percent.
“You know that long run was really unfortunate because it was uncharacteristic,” Sarkisian said. “That’s not the way we had been playing and that was part of what we’ve been, what we’ve been preaching — just keep doing what you’ve been doing.”
Instead Texas missed a gap fit as sophomore safety Jerrin Thompson ran himself out of the play and Smith took advantage to secure the 21-point swing over the course of a quarter.
Some bad bounces hurt, too — Baylor fumbled the ball twice and were able to recover both, including a fumbled exchange between Bohanon and wide receiver Drew Estrada on 2nd and 9 from the Baylor 33-yard line with the Texas defense attempting to get a stop to allow the offense a chance to tie the game.
“Today, like has happened probably for about the last month, the ball kind of hasn’t bounced our way,” Sarkisian said.
But Texas didn’t need to benefit from every bounce or even receive a more favorable bounce on one or both fumbles — the Longhorns merely needed to execute better on those critical missed opportunities. The collective failure to capitalize on those chances over the last three games is the difference between a 7-1 record with three consecutive wins over ranked teams and a 4-4 record with three consecutive devastating losses.
“The sign of really good football teams is they overcome the obstacles when they present themselves and we just weren’t able to overcome them today,” Sarkisian said.
“One of these weeks, we’re going to get over this hump and when we do we’ll become a very dangerous football team. But we’ve got to get over this hump right now that we’re having a hard time getting over.”
When the margins are small in football, it is a sign that this Texas team isn’t far away from beating some of the best teams in the country — they’ve been within a play or two over the last three games. Sarkisian sees some improvement, too.
“I think we’re making some incremental progress,” Sarkisian said. “Clearly, we need to make more progress in that area to overcome and to get over this hump.”
Now Sarkisian returns to the task of securing more progress by serving as the team’s psychologist.
“Whether we have some people that are maybe tensing up in those moments, it’s our job to get all of their spirit out of them and they shouldn’t feel that way,” Sarkisian said. “But ultimately, that can creep in, history can creep into your head and that’s something we worked on this week. I thought we were better, but clearly it wasn’t good enough and so we’ve got it we got to stay the course, we’ve got to continue to work, we’ve got to put in the work, we’ve got to fight through this thing, and that’s how you do it.”
The schedule isn’t providing any favors, though — next weekend Texas travels to Ames to face an Iowa State team that entered Saturday at No. 22 in the AP Poll Top 25 after a win over Oklahoma State last week.