An in-depth look at Second Half Sark

Photo by Paul Knight

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For a program whose mantra is "All Gas No Brakes," Texas has started games hitting the nitrus and ridden the brakes to nail-biting wins several times this season. Saturday's near-debacle in Fort Worth is the latest example.

Texas took a 26-6 lead against an overmatched TCU into the fourth quarter. Then, Josh Hoover piloted three consecutive touchdown drives as Texas's offense stalled in neutral with 151 second-half yards and three points. But facing a 3rd-and-12 up 29-26, Quinn Ewers lofted a 35-yard pass to Adonai Mitchell to ice the game.

"Another way that our guys continue to find ways to win the game," Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian said postgame. "The versatility of this team, the heart and resiliency that this team shows, the ability to make plays at critical moments when we needed them the most showed up."

In the thick of a College Football Playoff race with no margin for error, the question for Texas is, at what point do they stop getting credit for overcoming self-inflicted adversity?

The Longhorns have blown three double-digit leads this season. A 21-0 cushion against Houston morphed into needing a fourth-down conversion to escape with a victory. A 27-7 lead before the third quarter's final play against Kansas State evaporated into a tie within two-and-a-half minutes of game time. A week later, Texas did the same thing against TCU.

"For a team that has been so good in the fourth quarter all year, for us to get outscored 20-3 in the fourth quarter I would say is out of character and I would say is unacceptable," Sarkisian said Monday.

But are Texas's second-half woes really out of character?

This is a common theme in Sarkisian's Texas tenure. His 5–7 record in 2021 was chalked up to a program reset, but Texas had a double-digit lead in three consecutive losses to No.6 Oklahoma, No. 12 Oklahoma State and No.16 Baylor. That team had Bijan Robinson and a freshman Xavier Worthy. The difference in 2023 is Texas has a bevy of potential first-round NFL Draft prospects on offense, including Mitchell to make a miraculous catch in the final drive on a ball he had to bend backward for.

Three years in, Texas still isn't finishing games. They just have the talent to mask it. At what point does it bite them?

These second-half woes prevent Sarkisian from ascending to college football's elite coaching tier. He's one of the most respected play-callers in the nation. He's reeled in two straight top-five recruiting classes. Texas is now 9–1, their best start since 2009. But in 35 career games at Texas, Sarkisian's teams have been outscored 16 times (46 percent) in the second half. In that same span, Nick Saban's Alabama teams have been outscored seven out of 38 games (18 percent), Kirby Smart's Georgia in five of 35 games (14 percent) and Jim Harbaugh's Michigan four of 34 games (12 percent). 

Fine. That's not a fair comparison to make. Those guys have been entrenched in their respective programs while Sarkisian spent those years building Texas in his image. That 2021 team was chock-full of Tom Herman guys. Yet, in the two years prior to Sark, Herman's Longhorns were outscored just six of 23 games in the second half (26 percent). 

Ok, partly because Herman had a veteran quarterback in Sam Ehlinger those final two years, whereas Sarkisian rotated quarterbacks in 2021 and played a young Ewers in 2022. And teams change drastically year-to-year, especially with a new coach. But in the 18 games he coached at USC in 2014 and 2015, Sarkisian's Trojans were outscored ten times, 55 percent of games. In the first five games of the 2015 season, Sark was outscored thrice in the second half. After he was fired and Clay Helton took over, USC was outscored in the second half just three times in nine games. Helton was outscored in the second half 39 percent in two-and-a-half seasons compared to Sark's 55 percent.

Sure, but Helton also benefitted from the emergence of quarterback Sam Darnold, whom Sark recruited. Plus, Sarkisian needed more time to build USC in his image before he was terminated. That stat would've gotten better with time. However, he got five years with Washington and was outscored in the second half 29 times in 63 games (46 percent). That trend looked like it was starting to correct itself his fifth season, where the Huskies only got outscored in the second half twice in 12 games. But his successor, Chris Petersen, was more consistent. In three years, Petersen got outscored just 10 of 41 games in the second half (24 percent) as he elevated Washington to the College Football Playoff in 2016.

So, what's the common denominator through three different schools? Sarksian's lost the second-half scoring battle in 47 percent of the games he's coached. The TCU game isn't an "out-of-character" blip. It's the continuation of a worrying trend that maybe his current Texas team is just talented enough to overcome now.

This isn't all to say Sarkisian will never correct this narrative. And he does deserve credit for his teams winning these games they would've lost two seasons ago. Even if it might just be because of superior talent, who got that talent there?

But College Football Playoff teams don't play with their food before they eat it. Just look at the Sabans, Smarts and Harbaughs of the world. Whether it's this Saturday's night game in Ames against Iowa State, the day after Thanksgiving against a Texas Tech team that wants nothing more to beat them in the rivalry's final matchup, or the Big 12 Championship game, Texas will lose a contest where they take their foot off the gas and give up a double-digit cushion.

And that'll be the difference between the College Football Playoff and the Cotton Bowl.

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