Texas 2021 Season in Review: Second-half woes doom Longhorns in Steve Sarkisian's first year in Austin

Courtesy of Texas Football

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2021 record: 5-7 (-2 wins from 2020)

Texas Power Poll ranking: 9 of 12

THE GOOD

Texas started the season, and the Steve Sarkisian tenure, with an impressive win over a ranked Louisiana squad on Sept. 4. The Longhorns outscored Louisiana 24-12 in the second half to pull away with a 38-13 victory. Hudson Card, who beat out Casey Thompson for the starting quarterback spot to start the season, threw for 225 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions on 66 percent completions. The performance by Card and by the team in the second half weren’t repeatable throughout the season, but the feel-good factor was high in Austin after the opening week win. 

The season-long bright spot was the play of Texas’ running back room. Bijan Robinson, a five-star recruit, was unleashed as a sophomore after an interesting usage rate as a true freshman. Robinson raced to 1,127 yards and 11 touchdowns on 195 carries. He averaged 5.2 yards a run and 112.7 rushing yards a game. He was also tied for second on the team with 26 catches. He accounted for 1,422 yards and 15 touchdowns of total offense. 

His backup Roschon Johnson averaged 5.9 yards a carry. The former quarterback from Port Neches-Groves ran for 569 yards and five touchdowns on 96 carries. Keilan Robinson averaged 7.2 yards a carry on 45 attempts and true freshman Jonathon Brooks averaged 6.8 on 21 rushing attempts. Texas averaged 5.2 yards a carry and 199.3 yards a game on the ground. 

Freshman wide receiver Xavier Worthy was another bright spot. The former Michigan commit caught a team-high 62 passes for 981 yards and 12 scores. He averaged 15.82 yards a catch and 81.75 yards a game. The passing game, while inconsistent at times, wasn’t a negative for the Longhorns. Thompson completed 63.2 percent of his passes and averaged 8.02 yards per attempt, which were both higher than Sam Ehlinger in 2020. Thompson finished the season with 2,113 yards and 24 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He added four rushing touchdowns.

The raw numbers suggest the Texas offense wasn’t the problem in 2021. The Longhorns scored 35.25 points per game and 6.3 yards per play. Texas converted 43.75 percent of its third downs and scored touchdowns on 35 of its 47 trips to the red zone. 

Cameron Dicker also performed well as a three-trick pony. The Lake Travis product averaged 46.81 yards a punt, including a long of 78. He kicked 16 punts further than 50 yards and pinned opponents inside their own 20 yard-line on 11 different occasions. Dicker also made 13 of his 15 field goal attempts and was 10 for 10 inside 40 yards. His long was 50. Dicker registered a touchback on 45 of his 72 kickoffs.  

THE BAD

The Texas defense allowed 31.08 points per game in 2021. Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski found defending Big 12 offense to be tricky. The Longhorns allowed 5.2 yards a rush and 202.6 yards a game. Opponents scored 26 rushing touchdowns against the Longhorns in 2021. Texas’ defense allowed conversions on 42.35 percent of third downs. The unit lacked big plays. Texas only registered 20 sacks, with no player recording more than 2.5, and seven interceptions. Two of those interceptions were recorded by linebacker Luke Brockermeyer. Three more were registered by safety B.J. Foster. That means the cornerback position only accounted for two interceptions over 12 games. The Longhorns were minus-four in the turnover battle in 2021. 

Offensively, Texas failed to find a second option in the passing game. Jordan Whittington was the second-leading wide receiver with 26 catches for 377 yards and three touchdowns from the slot position, but he missed multiple games with injury. The next-best outside receiver was Marcus Washington, who caught 18 balls for 277 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Cade Brewer led the tight ends with 22 catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns. The offensive line allowed 26 sacks. 

THE UGLY

Texas was 4-1 entering the Red River Rivalry game against Oklahoma. The Longhorns were up 38-20 at halftime with Thompson throwing for four first-half touchdown passes. The Sooners stormed back in the second half to win the game 55-48 and begin a six-game losing skid for Texas. The Longhorns would blow halftime leads of 17-13 against Oklahoma State, 14-10 at Baylor and 7-3 at Iowa State over the next three weeks. The six-game losing streak cost the Longhorns an opportunity at a bowl invite in year one under Sarkisian. 

TEAM GRADES

Quarterback: B-

Running back: A

Wide receiver/tight end: C

Offensive line: C+

Defensive line: C-

Linebacker: C+

Cornerback: C

Safety: C+

BIGGEST OFFSEASON QUESTION

Can Texas learn how to win? 

The phrase “winning is hard” became a punchline at Texas under Tom Herman. Year one under Sarkisian proved the merit of the saying. Texas is always talented, but no one on that roster knows how to win. The goal for Sarkisian is to instill a winning culture at a university with high expectations and low output since the end of Mack Brown’s tenure. The Longhorns simply don’t know how to win. They hope to, but there isn’t a tangible feeling of confidence inside that locker room as evidenced by the six-game losing streak that included four losses after leading at halftime and a defeat at home against Kansas. 

Developing a winning culture might be the hardest thing to do in coaching because there isn’t a sure-fire recipe to turnaround a program. There isn’t a simple fix. Sarkisian needs to recruit players who are tough, not just ones that look like future NFL prospects. He needs to hit the transfer portal hard on defense, wide receiver and along the offensive line. He needs to instill competition into every aspect of the program’s offseason schedule. 

WAY TOO EARLY 2022 OUTLOOK

If winning is contagious, so is losing. Texas feels like a program that is two years of consistent results away from burying the past 10-plus years of mediocrity. The talent is in the building. Quinn Ewers arrived from Ohio State to quarterback the offense. The rushing attack should be the best in the Big 12. The offensive line even improved as the season went on. If Texas can improve the defense and its mental makeup, maybe the Longhorns can compete for a Big 12 title. 

Oklahoma is undergoing a coaching change and lost multiple star players to the portal. Baylor must retool defensively and at running back. Oklahoma State is rarely consistent. New coaches are at Texas Tech and TCU. The Big 12 is winnable, but that is usually the case. Whether Texas can take advantage before the impending move to the SEC is an entirely different question that no one can answer. 

 

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