After second half collapses, Sarkisian addresses mental struggles with Longhorns

Matthew Boncosky, Sports Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the October 19 flipbook. 

When Steve Sarkisian took over as head coach of the Texas Longhorns in January, the program he inherited came with plenty of emotional baggage.

Between a lack of success on the field over the last decade, controversies off the field and drama with previous coaching staffs, Texas football would not be fixed overnight. Regardless, in stepped Sarkisian with his hot status as Alabama’s talented offensive coordinator and his flashy “All Gas, No Brakes” slogan that excited fans and recruits.

Flash forward to mid-October, and his team is 4-3 with two conference losses. Lofty aspirations of a Big 12 championship game appearance in his first season have been tempered by two debilitating second-half collapses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

The same mental struggles that have prevented Texas from winning one-score games in recent years are rearing their ugly heads once again. It takes more than flashy hires and catchy slogans to fix fundamental problems that might not be apparent immediately in a new coach’s tenure. 

Sarkisian gave an interesting analogy on Monday to explain what he’s encountering at Texas.

“You get a gift, right, and you open up that gift and it’s a box of golf balls,” Sarkisian said. “Then you open up that box and then there’s the sleeves of the golf balls, and then you open up that sleeve, and it’s not actually that brand of the golf ball that you thought you were going to get.”

“Sometimes you have to drill down, you have to peel back the layers to find out what potential issues you have and then you address them as they present themselves.”

For Sarkisian, fixing Texas’ current mental block is the most important priority. The Longhorns have shown they have enough talent to compete with the likes of No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 8 Oklahoma State. They took 28-7 and 17-3 first-half leads against both teams, respectively. But their frustrating inability to finish the job is keeping them from taking the next step.

It’s a recurring theme that has shown itself in Texas’ wins as well. Against Texas Tech, senior quarterback Henry Colombi completed multiple chunk passes over a Texas secondary that lost focus in the second half with a big lead. Against TCU, multiple missed opportunities on offense prevented the Longhorns from shutting the door on the Horned Frogs, ultimately leading to a tight 32-27 victory.

To fix the lapses, Sarkisian draws inspiration from the most elite competitors across sports — think Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, famous for their mentally tough approaches — to showcase how underappreciated that aspect of competition is. The head coach has been communicating the importance of a sharp mental focus in order to develop that into a team-wide mentality since his first day on the Forty Acres.

After the Oklahoma State loss that saw Texas give up 220 rushing yards, junior defensive lineman Moro Ojomo stressed the importance of relying on instruction both from Sarkisian and the team’s leaders to complete a full 60 minutes without letting up.

“Coach Sark always says something about each play deserving attention, right, and sometimes in football, what can happen is that guys will have a bad play and then the next play doesn’t get the attention that it deserves,” Ojomo said. “As a team we need to work on giving every play the attention it deserves.”

But the last two weeks have served as a painful reminder to Sarkisian that he needs to dig a little deeper with the Longhorns if he hopes to finally put Texas’ recent struggles in the rear view mirror.

“This is a portion of me that I believe in,” Sarkisian said. “From a psyche standpoint, I feel like that’s really in our wheelhouse because we’ve already laid a really good foundation for that in the 10 months that we’ve been here.”