OU football: Sooners, Longhorns remind us of the grandeur of this rivalry
DALLAS – Jalen Hurts planted a victorious knee on the Cotton Bowl turf, popped up and turned toward the crimson-clad end of the stadium.
He lifted his arm in the air and flashed a hand signal.
It wasn’t Horns Down but rather a raised index finger.
OU 34, Texas 27.
On a day the teams flirted with an all-out mid-field brawl before the game even started, the Sooners and Longhorns reminded the college football world of the grandeur of the Red River Rivalry. The defenses were rugged. The offenses were skilled. But best of all, the game was close enough to keep every fan on the edge of their seat until the final moments.
“Heck of a football game,” Sooner coach Lincoln Riley said. “This game continues to live up to its billing as the best game in college football.”
The status of this rivalry even made its way into referee Mike Defee’s comments during the pregame coin toss. The longtime official threw a flag after the teams had to be separated half an hour before kickoff. He issued an unsportsmanlike penalty on every player, meaning another unsportsmanlike penalty during the game would mean ejection.
It was the first time Defee called a penalty before the game – and he was none too happy about having to do so.
“This is the greatest rivalry in college football,” Defee told the captains when they gathered for the pregame coin toss. “We're going to play this game with sportsmanship. Are we clear?”
The teams responded with a fantastic football game. It might not go down as an instant classic, but you could watch football for a lot of Saturdays and not see a game more fun than this one.
On the Sooner side, that started with the defense. This bunch was clearly better but lightly challenged in the first five games, but Alex Grinch and his rebuilt defense showed they are legitimate.
The Longhorns managed only 305 yards of total offense.
When the two teams met a year ago in the Cotton Bowl, Texas rolled up 501 yards as quarterback Sam Ehlinger accounted for five touchdowns, three rushing and two passing. Everything seemed easy that day.
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That wasn’t the case Saturday.
Ehlinger was sacked nine times, but even when he wasn’t hounded by Neville Gallimore or Kenneth Murray or Ronnie Perkins, yards were hard earned. Ehlinger ran the ball 14 times but managed only 44 yards on those carries.
“To play the way we need to play, we have to affect the quarterback,” Riley said. “Sam’s too good of a player. … If you don’t do that, it’s going to be easy pickings for him.”
They definitely weren’t easy Saturday. Ehlinger completed 25 of 37 attempts but never got one of those home-run throws. His longest completion was 22 yards, his per-completion average 8.2 yards.
It was quite a change for the OU defense, so suspect in this game a year ago Riley decided to fire defensive coordinator Mike Stoops before the weekend was out.
“I’m a true believer that the past doesn’t define you,” said Murray, the junior linebacker who had five tackles, including two for a loss. “This is a new year. Completely different approach, completely different mentality for this defense.
“I’m just proud of the way that we’re playing right now.”
It’s a good thing the Sooner defense is because the Sooner offense sputtered Saturday.
After leading the Sooners to a touchdown on their opening possession, Hurts committed two killer turnovers in the first quarter. First was a fumble at the end of a long run. Then came an interception on a forced throw into the end zone.
Both giveaways came in the red zone, costing the Sooners points. With another first-half red-zone possession ending in a field goal, OU left 18 points on the table.
The result: the Sooners led 10-3 at halftime.
But after the teams traded punts to start the second half, they started trading round-house blows. Not actual punches, mind you. That nonsense ended after Defee's directive. Instead, we got two teams answering big plays with big plays.
Texas scored a touchdown after Roschon Johnson’s 57-yard run, but OU answered with CeeDee Lamb’s tackle-breaking 51-yard touchdown catch.
(Hurts is so great, but after what Lamb did Saturday, is it possible the Heisman hype has been directed at the wrong Sooner?)
The Sooner defense then forced a punt after the Longhorns were pinned deep in their own territory only to have the Longhorn defense answer. It forced a couple Hurts incompletions in the red zone and made the Sooners settle for another field goal.
On and on it went.
“Second half just kind of became like a prize fight, each team taking their shots, making a lot of plays,” Riley said. “We made a few more in the end.”
After the Longhorns’ onside kick went out of bounds with less than two minutes left, the Sooners ran out the clock, then started the celebration.
Ronnie Perkins grabbed a big white OU flag and took a victory lap around the field. Grinch got bearhugs from his wife and kids. Hurts wore the Golden Hat, then passed it to teammates. Riley clapped his hands over his head and pointed to the Sooner end of the stadium.
Riley mentioned later that Cale Gundy, long a participant in this game, said in the locker room the Red River Rivalry never changes.
“It never needs to,” Riley said. “It’s pretty special.”
Before the Sooners left the field, they posed for a team picture at midfield with the huge scoreboard behind them. Many of them raised their arms in the air and flashed a hand signal.
This time, it was Horns Down.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.