AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Slow starts and big finishes. The No. 3 Texas Longhorns have been quite the second half team so far this season.
A 21-point third quarter against Rice blew open a close season opener. Then Texas crushed Alabama and Wyoming in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Tide and Cowboys by a combined 42-8 in the final period.
Saving the best for last has Texas shooting up the national rankings and has them believing that any game is there for the taking.
“It changes the mentality,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday as Texas moved past its non-conference and into the start of their final season in the Big 12 this Saturday at Baylor. “I think our psyche right now is there is a level of belief … It’s been two weeks in a row, that our best football has been played in the fourth quarter.”
And that is a big change. Texas was just as likely to surrender a late lead than stretch one in Sarkisian’s first two seasons.
“This offseason, and two offseasons ago, all I heard about is we weren’t a fourth-quarter team,” Sarkisian said. “We made a huge emphasis on how we finish games.”
Texas finished off Alabama in emphatic fashion. The Tide had taken the lead late in the third quarter when the Longhorns immediately answered with a touchdown drive to go back ahead, stretched the lead to 10, and then put the game away with a clock-killing drive that consumed the final seven minutes.
Against Wyoming, the Cowboys had tied it 10-10 in the final seconds of the third quarter before the Longhorns responded with a 44-yard touchdown catch-and-run from Xavier Worthy, a grinding drive keyed by a 61-yard run from Jonathon Brooks, and a 23-yard interception return from Jerrin Thompson in a game that ended 31-10.
“Sark said in (training) camp, ‘We need to start winning games in the fourth quarter.’ We’d been losing that lately. He put that into our head,” Worthy said.
Now, about those slow starts. Sarkisian’s pre-game script needs some work.
Texas’ first drive against Rice went four plays and got stuffed on fourth down. Alabama forced a punt. So did Wyoming as Texas lost 5 yards in its first three plays.
The Longhorns haven’t scored more than 16 points in the first half of the first three games and have three total touchdowns before halftime. Kicker Bert Auburn has done most of the early work with six first-half field goals.
“We gotta get back to being a team that starts fast, that starts well,” Sarkisian said. “That’s something that was a trademark of ours for a couple years.”
Some of the early misfires have been at quarterback. Quinn Ewers was missing open receivers in the first half against Rice and Wyoming. His touchdown pass to Worthy against Wyoming was a sideline catch at the line of scrimmage and Worthy did the rest. Ewers’ 131 yards passing against Wyoming was his second-lowest total in his career.
“Every aspect of the passing game needs to improve. We weren’t sharp,” Sarkisian said. “Quinn could have made a couple of throws he can make. We all could be better.”