For Texas, a win Saturday is the final thing it can control: 'We didn't come this far just to come this far'

Photo by Paul Knight

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Steve Sarkisian's office window overlooks Darrel K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Every day, he looks at the years Texas won a conference championship immortalized on the stadium's upper deck, a reminder this program's only done it three times in 27 years. 

Since the last-second loss to Oklahoma in October, the Longhorns faced a must-win situation in every contest to reach the Big 12 Championship Game. Oklahoma State is the final team to conquer before Texas can etch 2023 into history as well.

After this season ends, whether in a New Year's Six Bowl or the College Football Playoff, Sarkisian will audit his performance managing the game on the field. But he knows he's improved in his personal relationships with this team. That could be because he's in year three now. But everything's easier, and the vibes are always higher when you're 11–1.

"From a connection standpoint, I feel very good where I'm at with our team," Sarkisian said Monday. "But, I'll say, probably the most important thing is how much I've enjoyed this season and enjoyed being with our players every day."

There was a chance Texas would get an opportunity to avenge its only loss. Still, Sarkisian finds it fitting his squad will face Oklahoma State, a team they have yet to play this season yet and won't play again in the foreseeable future.

Texas was a preseason pick to reach Arlington. Oklahoma State was supposed to be in a rebuilding year after a mass exodus from the program in the offseason, headlined by quarterback Spencer Sanders. Their season was on the brink of collapse after a shocking 33-7 loss to South Alabama.

Then Ollie Gordon emerged.

After rushing just 19 times through the first three games of the season, Gordon's carried the ball at least 20 times in seven of the last eight games. The only match Oklahoma State lost in that stretch was when he didn't hit the 20 mark. The sophomore from Euless Trinity has played himself into a dark-horse Heisman contention with 1,580 yards and 20 touchdowns.

"Ollie Gordon's a heck of a player," Sarkisian said. "They have done a great job offensively of leaning into him. He really signifies who their team is. I feel like he gets stronger as the game goes on. He gets stronger as the game goes on like a lot of big, physical backs do."

The Cowboys have taken on the identity of their bell-cow back as a second-half team. They reeled off 10 fourth-quarter points to devastate Oklahoma in the final installment of Bedlam. A back-and-forth affair with Houston turned into offensive fireworks when Oklahoma State ripped 24 second-half points. The Cowboys punched their ticket to Arlington by overcoming a 24-6 halftime deficit to BYU to win in double overtime. Conversely, Texas has nearly blown multiple double-digit leads in the second half this season.

But Ollie Gordon and the Oklahoma State offense have yet to face an interior line like Texas's. T'Vondre Sweat has played himself into Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year consideration alongside the ever-dependable Byron Murphy. Those two headline the nation's best third-down and red zone defense.

Since these teams didn't face each other in the regular season, Saturday marks Quinn Ewers's first chance for revenge after Oklahoma State forced him into a 38% completion rate and three interceptions on a windy Stillwater day in 2022. But Ewers's demeanor during trying times this year has convinced Sarkisian he's bringing a different quarterback to Arlington.

"For example, the interception Friday night when he was trying to hit the fade to AD Mitchell," Sarkisian said. "I thought his poise, his composure, really showed through. And he was able to come right back and still execute at a high level. A year ago, it might have been more of a challenge to rebound from that type of a play."

Texas's goal all year was to win the Big 12 Championship. That still needs to be accomplished. Ending their Big 12 tenure by winning the conference championship is the final thing they can control. Then the College Football Playoff chips will fall where they may.

"We didn't come this far just to come this far," Sarkisian said.

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