AUSTIN, Texas — When Texas went into the locker room leading Kansas by only six points at halftime, the Longhorns could have let their frustration get the best of them.
In the first two quarters, they moved the ball with relative ease, more than doubled the Jayhawks in offensive yardage and by most metrics controlled the game, but the scoreboard didn’t reflect that.
Texas coach Steve Sarkisian told his team to “trust the plan.” There was no panic.
Then the No. 3 Longhorns did what they’ve done most of this season: dominate the second half, cruising to a 40-14 win over No. 24 Kansas to remain undefeated.
If you’re waiting for the bottom to fall out on this Texas team, you might be waiting awhile. These Longhorns are one of the best teams in the country and it’s time to acknowledge that, without any equivocation.
The Longhorns (5-0) aren’t perfect, and that’s OK. No team in the country is without its flaws. Georgia, the No. 1 team in the country, had to scratch and claw to beat Auburn on Saturday a week after the Tigers’ offense looked overwhelmed against Texas A&M. Ohio State and Florida State have had their own challenges, too.
For all the handwringing throughout September about Texas’ slow starts against inferior opponents, the end results have been the same every time: double-digit Longhorn victories. Since the season began, skeptics have remained on the lookout for reasons to doubt the Longhorns. It’s understandable. They have more than a decade’s worth of results to support their suspicions that at some point, the bottom may fall out, even though Texas was a consensus pick to win the Big 12.
This season, the Longhorns have had stretches where they’ve offered those skeptics something on which to dwell. Poor pass protection and a disjointed first half against Rice (I fell for that one myself, using it as a reason to pick against Texas the following week). Texas needed three quarters to break open a Week 3 win over Wyoming. The Longhorns had two muffed punts against a bad Baylor team.
On Saturday, the Longhorns marched up and down the field to the tune of 342 first-half yards, but they had but only had 13 points to show for it. Five of their first seven drives of the game ended without a trip to the end zone. Four of those were capped by field goal attempts (two of which were missed), and one ended in quarterback Quinn Ewers’ first interception of the season.
But that’s where things are different this year on the Forty Acres. Instead of letting those things linger, the Longhorns have regularly responded with dominant second halves. Their smallest margin of victory was in the game they looked their best, a 34-24 win at Alabama. But in the other four, Texas has an average margin of victory of 26.5 points. A team that tended to start fast and fade down the stretch in the first two years of the Sarkisian era is now making its mark by finishing strong.
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Against Rice, Texas produced three consecutive touchdown drives in the third quarter to break the game open. Against Wyoming, the Longhorns had three consecutive touchdowns to turn a 10-10 tie into a 31-10 win. Against Baylor, three second-quarter touchdowns removed doubt from that game’s outcome.
On Saturday, Texas constructed three consecutive touchdown drives in the late third and early fourth quarter to put the game away.
“I’m most proud of the maturity of this team and their ability to accept the next challenge, put forth the work and go out and perform and not panic when we go to the locker room and it’s 13-7 and you feel like it should be worse,” Sarkisian said. “They came out and played a really solid second half and next thing you know, you look up and it’s 40-14.”
While the offense worked through its issues, the defense carried the team. Kansas was 0 for 4 on third down in the first half. The Jayhawks had a mere 22 offensive snaps. The Longhorns tallied five tackles for loss.
The final statistical comparison was eye-popping. Texas had 661 yards to Kansas’ 260. The Jayhawks — who were without Jalon Daniels, their star quarterback — finished 0 for 8 on third downs after leading the country in third down conversion rate (60.4 percent) coming into the game.
Texas possessed the ball for 39:41 to Kansas’ 20:19. The Jayhawks snapped the ball 40 fewer times on offense than Texas.
This isn’t to say that Texas should make its College Football Playoff reservations just yet. There are things the Longhorns need to work through, starting with red zone offense. Texas was 108th in the FBS in touchdown rate entering Week 5 and had a few issues again on Saturday. Those two missed field goals left points on the field. And the Longhorns lost star tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders to an ankle injury, though Sarkisian said afterward he’s optimistic it’s not serious and that he’s hopeful Sanders can play next week against Oklahoma.
But for any deficiencies the team has, it has ways to pick up the slack. When the offense is struggling, the defense can pick it up and vice versa. If Ewers is off-target, running back Jonathon Brooks (217 yards) can carry the load. The defensive front is playing as well as any in the country. The roster is stacked enough that it’s hard to keep everyone down.
It was just last season that another Big 12 team kept finding ways to win that weren’t the prettiest and fans kept wondering when good fortune would finally catch up with it. This time a year ago, nobody would have pegged TCU to be in the national title game, but each week, the Horned Frogs kept finding ways to win.
This Texas team is much more talented than that TCU team and doesn’t need a lot of luck, but when looking at the rest of the schedule, it’s not hard to imagine the Longhorns embarking on a similar run.
“Championship teams get better during the season,” Sarkisian said. “I think that’s something we’ve been able to do here through five weeks.”
If they keep doing it, a championship of some kind will be well within Texas’ reach.
(Photo: Tim Warner / Getty Images)