Texas must focus mentally to continue winning

Jori Epstein

Head coach Charlie Strong is excited to play Kansas State at 11 a.m. this Saturday. A 5:30 a.m. staff meeting doesn’t faze the early riser, and he loves waking the players at 6 a.m.

“I tell them, ‘Don’t come down there looking sleepy,’” Strong said. “‘Wash your face and come down there … Let’s get going and get ready to play a football game.’”

The ritual – at least for road morning games – doesn’t change much. The wake-up call follows a staff meeting. Strong walks the players around the perimeter of the hotel. Then they return inside, walk through the day’s plan, eat breakfast and get dressed to play. The walk likely doesn’t do much for the team’s physical stamina. That’s not Strong’s goal. Instead, he targets their focus. Strong knows winning the game has a cerebral aspect.

Senior center Taylor Doyle said that mental focus fuels team wins. Against Oklahoma, Doyle said, Strong preached physicality.

“He does recognize [mentality] is a big part of the game,” Doyle said. “We have to stay hungry and humble to block the outside noise.”   

Strong has preached mental focus and core values his whole career. But the principle took on additional importance in 2015. In two last-second losses that tanked the team’s record, Texas showed the skill to win each. But the team didn’t finish. Missed assignments plagued the defense. Special teams executed crazy mishaps. As a media firestorm ensued, Strong’s message was clear: Focus solely on the game and the program.

“I tell our guys all the time that you just have to have the courage just to override everything that’s being said about you,” Strong said. “You can’t ever let doubt creep into yourself. … You have to have the courage to believe in yourself where you can get things done.”

Texas mixed its rivalry motivation with that courage to upset the Sooners. The team focused on tactical victories: Disrupt Oklahoma’s rhythm. Force three-and-outs. Win at the line of scrimmage.

“Big guys beat up little guys,” Strong said.

The size doesn’t solely refer to physical distinction. The more confident, bold team often dominates at the line of scrimmage. Junior defensive tackle Paul Boyette Jr. said that requires confidence.

“I think you need to be overconfident sometimes,” Boyette Jr. said. “You can build confidence sometimes and dominate your person. The game is won mentally.”

Boyette doesn’t communicate that overconfidence in practices. He constantly reminds himself of Texas’ 2-4 record and said he keeps “working his tail off” because he owes the seniors a bowl game. Tempering the overconfidence with humility is a challenge. But Texas sees its best production when it strikes the balance.

Against Kansas State, Texas must translate the humility, confidence and motivation into physical play. The Wildcats will be hungry coming off a 55-0 shutout to Oklahoma. Texas knows the feeling from its TCU loss. The Longhorns have the skill to win this weekend. The decision will come down to their focus. Can the players wake up pumped at 6 a.m.? Can they internalize Strong’s message and the bowl game pursuit sufficiently?

Only Saturday will tell. Strong will do his part to encourage. He says that’s all he can do.

“It’s college ball – the uncertainty is always there,” Strong said. “When you go out, you’re just hoping they’re ready to play.”