Texas hooks first loss on Ok­la­homa in Red River epic

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - Ge­orge Schroeder

DAL­LAS – Mo­ments ear­lier, one quar­ter­back had slowly walked off the field alone. Kyler Mur­ray paused for a mo­ment to kneel at the goal line be­fore walk­ing slowly up the tun­nel. Now Sam Eh­linger trav­eled the same path. But the Texas quar­ter­back paused to talk with the man in the wheel­chair.

Be­neath the goal­post, Eh­linger gave the golden hat to Texas Gover­nor Greg Ab­bott, who put it on as they posed for a photo. A hug and then a hand­shake, and the quar­ter­back bounced up the tun­nel.

That was Texas 48, Ok­la­homa 45 in two postgame scenes.

Ab­bott is fa­mil­iar with this rou­tine. A cou­ple of years ago, he waited be­neath a goal­post in Austin, Texas, and con­grat­u­lated the Longhorns af­ter a win against Notre Dame. Re­mem­ber that? An In­ter­net meme sprouted — Texas is back — but months later, af­ter an­other los­ing sea­son, the ’Horns were hir­ing a new coach.

This time, Ab­bott said, “feels dif­fer­ent.”

“It’s clear,” he said, “this is a dif­fer­ent Texas foot­ball team than what you guys have seen in the past.”

It’s pre­ma­ture to de­clare, and so no one did, that Texas is back. It’s also way too soon, even af­ter that ter­ri­ble de­fen­sive per­for­mance, to sug­gest Ok­la­homa is done. Soon­ers coach Lin­coln Ri­ley rightly called the game “an epic,” and it de­serves to stand on its own.

For most of the day, Texas dom­i­nated a bit­ter ri­val. Mean­while, Ok­la­homa, buried in the fourth quar­ter, stormed back — three touch­downs in less than six min­utes to tie — flash­ing the spec­tac­u­lar of­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­ity that had peo­ple think­ing they might be among the na­tion’s best. Then Texas drove for the win­ning field goal. A roar went up from the burnt or­ange horse­shoe.

“This game was crazy wild,” Texas de­fen­sive end Charles Omenihu said. “Maybe the wildest I’ve ever been in.”

So yeah, it was an epic, ab­sent any of the po­ten­tial ex­ter­nal stakes. But the prism in­evitably is the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off. Or at least, the Big 12 race, and the league’s place in col­lege foot­ball’s hi­er­ar­chy.

In that light, Satur­day’s re­sult in the Cot­ton Bowl goes down as a huge step for­ward for Texas, which has won five in a row af­ter that sea­son-open­ing loss to Mary­land. Led by Eh­linger’s solid but not flashy play, the Longhorns are grow­ing rapidly in con­fi­dence and swag­ger. They looked every bit like a team that could con­tend for the Big 12 ti­tle.

It’s ob­vi­ously a sig­nif­i­cant set­back for Ok­la­homa, which went into the game with de­fen­sive con­cerns but ex­its with a big prob­lem. While a loss to Texas does not have to be de­bil­i­tat­ing to the their Big 12 or Play­off hopes — see 2015, when the Soon­ers lost to Texas and got there — it’s how it hap­pened that makes it hard to be­lieve they have what it takes to get through the Big 12 un­scathed the rest of the way.

Or maybe Mur­ray is so good that the Soon­ers can over­come those de­fen­sive de­fi­cien­cies. He made two crit­i­cal mis­takes, turnovers that led to 10 Texas points and rad­i­cally swung mo­men­tum, but he also jump-started a fren­zied come­back with a 67-yard bolt through Texas’ de­fense.

Don’t miss this, ei­ther: Satur­day goes down as a very good day for the con­fer­ence.

In the short term, it’s pos­si­ble warn­ing lights should be flash­ing for the con­fer­ence. If Ok­la­homa is the league’s best Play­off hope, well, uh-oh, that de­fense.

But long term? The league’s for­tunes rest on its power pro­grams be­hav­ing like power pro­grams. On Texas be­ing Texas again. Longhorns coach Tom Her­man de­flected ques­tions about what it meant for the pro­gram, re­sort­ing to clichés such as go­ing “1-0 every week.”

“Tread lightly on this one,” Her­man ad­mon­ished him­self. “It’s ir­rel­e­vant to us I think, is prob­a­bly the best way to put it. … It would be fool­ish for me not to un­der­stand the big pic­ture. We’ve taken some re­ally big steps here the last few weeks. I’m not gonna deny that. I’m not gonna down­play that for th­ese play­ers. They’ve taken some very im­por­tant steps for this pro­gram’s de­vel­op­ment and its progress.”

In that fourth-quar­ter come­back, Ok­la­homa showed that for all of its de­fen­sive is­sues, it’s not ex­actly fad­ing away.

“We’ve been na­tion­ally rel­e­vant for a long time,” Ri­ley said, “and we plan to keep it that way.”

Which brings us back to a de­li­cious prospect: Hey gover­nor, how about a re­match in the Big 12 cham­pi­onship game?

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Ab­bott said, “but yes!”

Ab­bott added: “This game was not as close as the score. Texas dom­i­nated it. If they played again, I think, it’d be the same re­sult with a wider mar­gin.”

But it’s a long way off. Some­one asked Longhorns se­nior de­fen­sive end Breckyn Hager: Is Texas back? He’d just fin­ished a ram­bling dis­ser­ta­tion on how the Longhorns had grad­u­ally bought into what Her­man was preach­ing. He’d in­sisted he was “glad” they’d lost to Mary­land (“I’m still so happy we lost that game,” he said).

Now he stopped.

“Woooo!” he said, and it was more of a loud ex­hale than any­thing else.

He fin­gered the “C” on his jersey, des­ig­nat­ing him as cap­tain, and said he knew he had to speak for the team.

“The only thing that’s back,” Hager said, “is we’re go­ing back to work for Bay­lor.”

He smiled, then added an ex­cla­ma­tion point: “Hook ’em!”

KEVIN JAIRAJ/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Texas quar­ter­back Sam Eh­linger scoots free for one of his three rush­ing touch­downs and he passed for two TDs Satur­day against Ok­la­homa.

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