AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a program that’s steeped in tradition as much as Texas is, it could come across as odd to talk about a change in culture, but that’s where Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian began the conversation Thursday night following a 27-20 loss to Washington in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.
In his first season last year, Texas went a disappointing 5-7 and didn’t have the opportunity to play in a postseason game. Sarkisian said this year’s senior class had a lot to do with the collective shift in attitudes and sense of pride, and playing the 13th game of the season alone showed that.
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However, the Longhorns want more in the future. They don’t necessarily want to go back to the Alamo Bowl but build on the momentum and improvement to get them closer to national prominence again.
“I know I’ve been harping on this, but I really mean it,” Sarkisian said. “I think we have a team that’s full of competitors and they’re fighting to win together. I still think we can make improvements there, in making sure we’re really poised and composed in critical moments. I also look at the improvement we made defensively. We made them [Washington] earn it the way we did tonight was good.”
Sarkisian mentioned getting off the field on third down is where Texas has to improve. Playing the Huskies, the best third-down team in the country with a 57% conversion rate, skews the stats a little bit, but overall this season the Longhorns weren’t good at turning the down marker from a three to a four. Texas allowed teams to convert 41.1% of third downs this season, No. 89 in the country just below Big 12 member West Virginia.
On the flip side, Texas converted just 38.8% of third downs on offense, tied for No. 74 in the country with Michigan State who finished 5-7 and didn’t play in a bowl game. Making third-down plays on both sides of the ball is not just a matter of scheme, but also effort and mentality.
“It’s something that needs to be addressed,” Sarkisian said. “A sign of a good program is continued growth and improvement, and our developmental program has to come right back into effect in January and our offseason conditioning program to get us ready for spring ball so we can continue to grow.”
Where the Longhorns took the biggest leap from last year to this year was undoubtedly on defense. Texas played remarkably better, swarming to the ball and playing more as a collective unit instead of just a bunch of individual players. That is a big indicator of the culture change, and senior defensive tackle Keondre Coburn said it was all about being in a position to compete.
“We came into a lot of games confident that we could dominate, and I felt like we did that a lot,” Coburn said. “This program in Year 2 made a huge change from where we were last year. This year we played in a bowl game, last year we didn’t. All I see is success, and I’m happy to be part of that. Everyone in the program believed after last season, and I’m seeing nothing but growth here.”
Texas ranked No. 30 in scoring defense this year, allowing 21.62 points per game. Last season, Texas was much worse, allowing 31.1 points per game for No. 99 in the country.
As the defense continues its upward trajectory, the offense must do the same. Quarterback Quinn Ewers, who just completed his freshman season, said he’ll take more of a leadership role as the team shifts into the offseason.
“I think I need to fill more of a vocal role,” he said, “be more of a vocal leader instead of just leading by what I do on and off the field. I need to mature in that area a little more.”
Ewers finished this year with 2,177 yards on 172-of-296 passing with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions, and while he had his shaky moments all year, the talent he has in obvious and another full offseason will serve Ewers well. Also, having Arch Manning — the No. 1-ranked recruit in the 2023 class — enroll early and join Maalik Murphy and Charles Wright should also help Ewers in his growth.
Sarkisian knows as Ewers grows, so will the offense.
“The passing game is about continuity and confidence,” Sarkisian said. “It’ll be a big point of emphasis to go along with a lot of other things. We definitely have to improve that area of our team from a consistency standpoint. It should be a strength of ours, and this season it was hit or miss. We should be a dynamic passing football team, and we’re close to being one.”