Steve Sarkisian didn’t use the term his mentor Nick Saban often has, but there’s no denying it: In order to be a national championship contender, Texas needs to avoid the “rat poison.”
Saban has said before that there are a couple different definitions of his famously coined phrase. But as it pertains to Texas upsetting Alabama 34-24 in Tuscaloosa on Saturday night, the version Sarkisian probably hopes his players will ignore is the outside world hyping up the team and telling them they should win the rest of the games on the schedule.
The Longhorns, ranked fourth in the latest AP Poll, are 2-0. There is a long season ahead, which continues this weekend against Wyoming. And beating up the Crimson Tide on their home turf won’t matter if Sarkisian’s players don’t keep this thing rolling.
“I think one of the mistakes I can make is beat them down and then knock the confidence out of them,” Sarkisian told reporters on Monday. “I’ve spent two and a half years trying to instill confidence into them, and so I want to be mindful of that.
“But I have to point out areas for us to improve and where we can get better as a team. And I think ultimately, for me, being transparent with them all of the time — good, bad, ugly, whatever — that I’ve earned their trust that I would never guide them in a direction that wouldn’t be in their best interest to perform at the highest level.”
Texas’ win was a statement of all statements, the first true non-conference road win since Vince Young led the Longhorns to victory over Ohio State during the 2005 national championship season. Over the last 10 years — in which the program had four different coaches — it has struggled mightily in opposing stadiums. The losses piled up, including Arkansas (2021), Maryland (2018), USC (2017), Cal (2016), Notre Dame (2015) and BYU (2013).
There were some remarkable stats discovered before the game last week to show just how divergent Texas and Alabama’s paths were since the Tide beat the Horns in the 2009 title game. One of them being that Bama’s worst record (10-3 in 2010) was slightly better than UT’s best (10-4 in 2018).
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When Sarkisian took over the reins in Austin three years ago, the locker room lacked confidence, cohesion and leadership. It didn’t have a disruptive defense or a fast-paced offense. It became clear Saturday night that it has those qualities now. But in order to win the Big 12 — before bolting for the SEC next year — or make its first-ever College Football Playoff or win a national championship for the first time since the 2005-06 season, Texas can’t get too comfortable or over-confident.
Or as Saban might say, eat the rat poison.
“That one game isn’t going to define our season,” Sarkisian said. “What we do moving forward, I think championship teams continue to improve as the season goes on. And we’ve got goals and aspirations of being champions this year. We’ve got to continue to improve.”
That starts with some tough love and constructive criticism.
“We gotta take care of the ball better than we did,” Sarkisian said, referencing the two fumbles Texas dropped, though both were ultimately recovered. “It cannot be as loose as it was.”
“We still missed a couple opportunities in the red area where we had chances to score, which is somewhere we definitely need to improve,” he added, pointing to two first-half drives inside the red zone that ended in field goals instead of touchdowns.
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“I thought defensively, we got a little sloppy in our coverage and allowed them to make some explosive plays there in the fourth quarter,” he said, bringing up a third-and-17 on which Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe found Malik Benson over the middle for a 27-yard gain. Milroe hit Kobe Prentice on the next play for 17 yards, and moments later, completed a short pass to Amari Niblack for a 39-yard touchdown to cut Texas’ lead to 27-24.
“When we play really great football,” Sarkisian continued, “we minimize those explosive plays. We’re very aware situationally, so [those are] areas for us to improve no question as we move forward.”
Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers — who went an impressive 24 of 38 for 349 yards with three touchdowns, zero interceptions and no sacks — was unflappable playing in the most hostile environment he’s experienced in his college career.
A year ago, after getting off to a strong start against Alabama at home, he left the game with an injury and was forced to watch from the sideline as his team lost by a point.
Days before this year’s matchup, Ewers refused to bite on reporters’ questions about this game being an opportunity for revenge. His focus was confused for aloofness, and he proved all kinds of things vs. the Tide, from being able to throw the long ball to leading his team through adversity and finishing with a win.
“I thought Quinn was very clear-minded going into the game,” Sarkisian said. “I thought he had a really good understanding of what we were going to do and why we were trying to do it. To go into that environment and have zero pre-snap penalties, that’s a credit to our offensive football team. There were no self-inflicted wounds that way, where on the flip side we saw it for the home team.
“And a lot of that credit goes to Quinn. His poise, his composure, how calm he was. I think [that] went through the entire offensive football team and everybody felt comfortable because he was.”
Sarkisian said he thinks all of that also played a role in allowing Ewers to be technically sound in the game. He had solid pocket presence, save for a couple of times late in the second quarter when Sarkisian said he got “a little bit antsy” and made a “couple errant throws.”
But that’s two weeks in a row that Ewers went into halftime and came out “refocused and resettled and then went and played a good second half,” Sarkisian said.
“So I think that’s a lot of real growth that he has shown from last season to this season, to kind of recalibrate and recenter himself and then come out and play a really good second half after maybe not being as sharp as he could be.”
Texas won’t see another Bama this season when it comes to overall talent — or in the intimidating stadium department. But to actually be “back,” as they say, Sarkisian’s team can’t let this win linger.
“They earned the right to be confident by the way they played,” Sarkisian said. “Now, we’re trying to recreate it. They set a new standard for what we’re capable of.”
That will be the challenge moving forward, and one that this program hasn’t seen in a long, long time.
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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