Texas hooks first loss on Oklahoma in Red River epic
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!”
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger scoots free for one of his three rushing touchdowns and he passed for two TDs Saturday against Oklahoma.