AUSTIN (KXAN) — Mathematically, the Texas Longhorns can get another shot at TCU in the Big 12 Championship Game, but the team has to turn the page quickly from a brutal 17-10 loss last Saturday and win their final two games, plus get some help from others.
However, to think about the postseason while tough opponents remain for the next two weeks isn’t Steve Sarkisian’s style. He’s thinking about how he can get his team’s mindset in the right place so they can properly prepare for the Jayhawks, who are bowl-eligible for the first time since 2008.
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Defensively, Sarkisian said Monday, the Longhorns played “at a championship level,” against TCU, and with five quarterback sacks and 14 tackles for loss — both season highs — that was certainly the case. They held the Horned Frogs to more than 200 yards less than their season average and just 17 points when they came into the game lighting up the scoreboard with 43 points per game.
Offensively, however, the Longhorns were flat-out bad. A season-low rushing total and inconsistency in the passing game were too much for even the best defensive effort to make up for. The Longhorns don’t have time to dwell on it, though. They’ve still got a shot at achieving their goal of playing for the conference championship, but the hill to climb just got steeper.
“Offensively, we just didn’t play well. If it wasn’t one guy, it was another guy,” Sarkisian said. “At times, we showed a little bit of our immaturity and youth in that we didn’t respond great when the game got hard. But fortunately for us, we get to play again Saturday in a meaningful game against a very good opponent.”
Bouncing back from the lowest offensive output for the Longhorns in the history of the program’s Big 12 Conference affiliation depends on how much more precise they need to be in their progression-based passing offense.
“It’s the combination of the two, it’s the quarterback and receivers, for the timing that needs to be on point and the ball placement needs to be where it needs to be and making the play,” Sarkisian said. “There are reads that take you through the offense, and if a guy is the primary read and has the right matchup with the coverage we’re looking for, that’s where the ball goes. If that gets taken away, it goes to the second, third, fourth or fifth read in the progression. Sometimes it’s a spot throw, sometimes you have to defeat a man in coverage.”
As highly-touted of a recruit redshirt freshman quarterback Quinn Ewers was before the season, and how well he has played previously during the season, he’s still a very young quarterback, and what that comes growing pains. The past three games have been examples of those pains to a certain degree, completing just 45% of his passes during the span, 54-for-119, with four touchdowns and four interceptions. The Longhorns also didn’t score a touchdown in the second half of any of those games.
Pinning struggles on one guy in football isn’t exactly fair, Sarkisian explained. Everybody has to do their job correctly in order for a play to gain yards, drive the ball downfield and end with points. That was made obvious by the multiple times when Ewers and the pass catchers looked out of sync against the Horned Frogs.
“There are some throws Quinn would like to have back and there were times that receivers and tight ends would like to have back where we didn’t catch it,” Sarkisian said. “In Quinn’s defense, he’s looking to where we design the plays to go, so ultimately we have to execute better in the passing game, and collectively, we need to execute better offensively.”
Junior running back Bijan Robinson, who went into the game as the conference leader in rushing yards, gained just 29 yards on 12 carries, the lowest output for him in a game he’s started. Understandably upset after the game, Robinson said they didn’t take advantage of chances when they were given to them.
“We just didn’t play good enough,” he said. “It’s the little things that got us. We just need to get back to practice and work on a lot of things. Their defense loaded the box and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for us there.”
Looking at the Jayhawks, they started the season white-hot with a 5-0 record but have since come back down to Earth a bit going 1-4 in their next five. Texas Tech thumped them 43-28 last week, but Sarkisian said the Jayhawks can run the ball well, especially if junior quarterback Jalon Daniels is able to play. He’s been out with a separated shoulder he suffered against TCU on Oct. 8, the game when the 1-4 slide began. Kansas head coach Lance Leipold said Daniels has been practicing, but Jason Bean played against the Red Raiders and threw for 270 yards with three touchdowns.
Sarkisian said the triple-option look out of a spread formation that Kansas uses can confuse some defenses, and the Jayhawks’ main ball carrier Devin Neal is a good one.
“It’s a very unique style of offense,” Sarkisian said. “Everyone talks about playing Army, Navy, Air Force and how difficult they are to defend, Kansas has a lot of those same elements and they force you to play disciplined football. Neal is a fantastic player, too.”
Texas is currently tied for third with Oklahoma State and Baylor with a 4-3 record. In order for the Longhorns to jump into the No. 2 spot and get another crack at TCU in the Big 12 title game, they have to beat Kansas — first and foremost. Then they’ll need to beat Baylor next week, and then get some help.
While the Longhorns have a tiebreaker over Kansas State, the Big 12’s No. 2 team at the moment with a 5-2 record, they don’t have one over Oklahoma State. If Texas wins out, beating both Kansas and Baylor, they’ll finish at 6-3 and have a chance to advance to the conference title game amid tiebreaker scenarios. If they are tied with Kansas State at the end of the season, Texas will advance via the 34-27 win on Nov. 5. If three teams are tied for second at the end of the year, things can get a little wacky and could potentially go to scoring differential to settle it.
Simply put, this all falls apart for Texas if they lose to either Kansas or Baylor, making the last two games of the year critical to the team’s goal of playing for the Big 12 title.