DALLAS — The game was still in the balance at 27-20 with a little less than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter when the No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners did what they had done virtually all game — put the defense for the No. 11 Texas Longhorns in difficult situations by formation and motion, then make defenders miss in the open field.
First it was Kennedy Brooks running for 42 yards on the critical drive’s first play, then Rhamondre Stevenson gaining 24 yards and forcing a missed tackle by junior safety Chris Brown, who went down with a fractured forearm.
Three plays later, the Sooners scored to push the lead to 34-20 and effectively put the game out of reach in the Cotton Bowl. The Horns scored a late touchdown to cut the lead its final margin of 34-27, but sophomore kicker Cameron Dicker’s onside kick went harmlessly out of bounds to allow Oklahoma to run out the clock.
“Hats off to our opponent,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said after the game. “That’s an extremely talented and well-coached team led by an exceptional quarterback that had a heck of a day. They are really, really good and played really, really well. We did not.”
Missed tackles, banged up defenders, and a masterful game plan by Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley were the stories of the game when the Sooners had the ball. Riley often used star receiver CeeDee Lamb as the inside receiver to the boundary, then put him in motion to get favorable matchups and force the Longhorns defense to show man or zone before the snap. The misdirection from Lamb’s motion helped, too.
On 14 targets, Lamb caught 10 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns, while also taking a handoff. One telling play featured Lamb running into open space against redshirt freshman linebacker Ayodele Adeoye, a snapshot into the matchups that Riley created for his best offensive player. Elusive in the open field, Lamb forced numerous missed tackles, including on his long touchdown catches of 51 yards and 27 yards.
The physical, inside running ability of quarterback Jalen Hurts threatened the Texas defense up the middle early and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando opted against using a spy against Hurts in passing situations, allowing three first-down scrambles on third down in the first 17 or so minutes.
Hurts finished the game with 17 carries for 131 yards and the final Oklahoma touchdown on the ground. Like Lamb, he was elusive in the open field, on one play forcing missed tackles by junior safety Chris Brown and sophomore safety BJ Foster with the same outside-in juke move in rapid succession.
Herman said that keeping the quarterback in the pocket was the biggest challenge against the Oklahoma run game.
“They made some plays early on the Power read, but I thought we adjusted well to that, but we played more man-to-man coverage than we traditionally do because of a lot of their pop passes and double moves — if you sit in zone too much, they’re going to exploit some of that. When you play man to man, you’ve got to find a way to keep that guy in the pocket and we didn’t do that and he rushed for 131 yards because of it.”
Other than the two runs by Brooks and Stevenson on that critical drive, Texas did a solid job on defense against the Oklahoma running backs — the other 14 runs for the two players only went for 32 yards (2.3 yards per carry).
Along with largely playing the run well, the Horns were able to stay in the game by holding the Sooners to 3-of-12 conversions on third down, forcing a fumble and an interception in the red zone by Hurts, and holding Oklahoma to two field-goal attempts inside the 20-yard line. Otherwise, the Sooners would have blown the game wide open in the first half.
Instead, the Longhorns started to press, as the margin felt greater than it actually was early in the game — the Sooners held a 136-35 advantage in total yards after the first quarter, but only led 7-0. No matter what the scoreboard said, the sense of momentum in favor of Oklahoma changed the mood on the Texas sideline.
“You know, I didn’t get that sense coming in,” Herman said of his team pressing. “I didn’t get the sense pregame. I thought our guys were loose and relaxed.”
Mistakes on special teams and penalties hurt the offense, too. After returning the first Oklahoma kickoff 31 yards, senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay opted against fair catches on the next three kickoffs, only gaining 46 yards — a loss of 27 yards of field position.
When Duvernay finally did try to fair catch the ball, he dropped it. Because of the new fair catch rules, the ball was ruled dead at the spot of his recovery at the 5-yard line. Add in another 20 yards.
By the time that Duvernay did successfully call for a fair catch in the fourth quarter he drew a derisive cheer from the Longhorn fans on that end of the stadium.
“Yeah, we should have instructed our returners probably to fair catch. They do a good job spreading the ball to different sides of the field, and it makes it difficult for the return schemes,” Herman said.
“We adjusted, we certainly did, but it was too little, too late at that point.”
Due to those issues on special teams and defense, the average starting field position for Texas was its own 14-yard line. Meanwhile, Oklahoma benefited from starting drives at its own 41-yard line. Against such an explosive offense, that simply wasn’t a path towards victory for the Horns, even with the turnovers, the success on third down, and the stops in the red zone.
After Duvernay’s fumble halfway through the third quarter when Oklahoma had just regained the lead with a touchdown to make it 17-10, senior wide receiver Collin Johnson dropped a pass, then Texas had two false start penalties. On second down, sophomore wide receiver Brenann Eagles dropped a beautiful throw down the sideline from Ehlinger that would have flipped field position, at the least.
Instead, sophomore Ryan Bujcevski had to punt from his own end zone and Oklahoma got the football at the Texas 41-yard line.
The defense was able to hold the Sooners to a field goal to limit the damage. However, coming after freshman running back Roschon Johnson’s touchdown run to tie the game at 10-10, the poor drive from the defense that included a targeting ejection of senior defensive end Malcolm Roach on the first play and a 51-yard touchdown catch by Lamb on a flea flicker featuring missed tackles by senior safety Brandon Jones and sophomore linebacker Joseph Ossai robbed the Horns of the only real momentum the home team had all day.
It was never a question of Texas underestimating Oklahoma — it was all about how the failures to execute resulted in the team starting to press in shades of the 2017 season.
“We knew how good they were,” Herman said. “There was no taking them lightly. We knew what we were up against, we knew that their defense improved and we certainly saw the things that they were doing offensively. We didn’t play well. Everybody knows the what, right? The what is that we didn’t play well. We pressed. We’ve got to figure out why, and that’s our job as coaches — to get to the root of the issue and make sure that we correct those things and they don’t happen again.”
Offensively, Texas allowed nine sacks of Ehlinger, the most allowed since Nebraska sacked Colt McCoy nine times in the 2009 Big 12 Championship game.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of communication,” senior center Zach Shackelford said of the protection issues. “Set with depth, passing stuff off, and not allowing penetration.”
Even though Texas does need to improve in those areas after executing well along the offensive line through the first five games, Herman was quick to point out that it wasn’t all on the offensive line — Oklahoma wasn’t blitzing more than normal and didn’t show anything caught the offense off guard.
Most importantly, the failures happened all around.
“You know, I think every time you see sack numbers, everybody wants to blame the offensive line, but you know, I said before, it’s on everybody,” Herman said. “It’s on the play caller and the protection that’s called. It’s on the receivers to get open at the right time. It’s on the quarterback to deliver the ball. It’s on the running back to handle his assignment.”
None of those things happened frequently enough — the offensive script entering the game wasn’t creative enough and the wide receivers didn’t make enough plays on the ball. Oklahoma had 15 tackles for loss to set up third downs that on average forced Texas to gain 9.1 yards.
When Ehlinger was allowed time on third down, he completed 6-of-8 passes for 62 yards, with each of those completions going for first downs. Overall, Ehlinger went 26-of-38 for 210 yards and played a turnover-free game. His running ability was limited, however, by an Oklahoma defense that rallied to the football whether he was scrambling or executing a called run.
The same was true on the horizontal passes attempted by the Longhorns, a key part of the offense as an extension of the running game — senior wide receiver Devin Duvernay was held in check on those plays and so were the running backs.
After the Horns dominated the Sooners on the perimeter and in beating press coverage in key situations last year, it was a remarkable turnaround this season for Oklahoma. Ehlinger credited a less complex scheme that allowed the talented athletes for the Sooners to just go out and make plays, but that doesn’t fully explain the transformation of a formerly soft defense into a physical unit that didn’t give an inch to Texas, whether it was in the trenches or on the perimeter.
Regardless of the specific inputs, the output was a defense under Alex Grinch that didn’t look anything like the group that Mike Stoops put out on the Cotton Bowl field last season in his last game as the Oklahoma defensive coordinator.
In the Texas running game, freshman Roschon Johnson was able to break several plays to keep the Longhorns in the game, including a 57-yard run in the third quarter that was the longest for the Longhorns since D’Onta Foreman had runs of 55 yards and 74 yards against Texas Tech in 2016. Johnson finished the game with eight carries for 95 yards and a touchdown as sophomore Keaontay Ingram only had two carries and two catches for nine total yards after suffering a stinger last week against West Virginia.
An improved Oklahoma defensive front largely made things different for Texas on runs and passes, though, led by two sacks from Sooners defensive tackle Neville Gallimore, who controlled the middle of the field. At the second level, linebacker Kenneth Murray set the tone early.
“Great player,” Herman said of Murray. “I think the new defensive scheme puts him in position to make a lot of plays. He showed up a bunch. He’s a great player.”
Murray had five tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack, but his impact on the game was more significant than his final stat line — he was one of the primary defenders who helped disrupt the horizontal passing game early and generally showed up all over the field.
After the slow start, Texas was able to make enough adjustments at halftime to score 24 points in the second half and record 227 of the team’s 310 total yards.
“But again, the big plays defensively then, you know, came back to haunt us when we couldn’t get those key takeaways,” Herman said.
Oklahoma scored on four of its last five drives.
“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.”
And that was enough to make the difference in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score.
“I mean, this hurts,” Herman said. “It really does. When you’ve invested what this team has invested, any loss hurts, especially when you lose to your rival. But hopefully for all of us, the sun will come up tomorrow, and you know, we’ve got, again, to learn from the mistakes.
“Again, losing is not a failure unless you refuse or don’t learn from the things that you did poorly, and as long as we do that and continue to improve, I told our team, we’ve got a team coming into our place next week; they could care less what the outcome of this game is, and they shouldn’t, and they are going to going to give us their best shot. We need to be able to, again, learn from this, put it behind us, and move forward.”