In rivalry games, a few inches make all the difference, and there’s no rivalry game like the Red River Showdown at the Cotton Bowl. After a torrid start by the No. 21 Texas Longhorns in taking a 28-7 lead after the first quarter, head coach Steve Sarkisian’s Longhorns couldn’t make enough plays down the stretch as the No. 6 Oklahoma Sooners surged to a 55-48 victory on Saturday with the benefit of all the small margins.
Save for an apparently missed call when Oklahoma wide receiver Mike Woods went out of bounds on his own and then returned to the field of play to make a 29-yard catch on 3rd and 10 that led to a touchdown for the Sooners, nearly everything went right for the Longhorns in the first quarter.
Freshman wide receiver Xavier Worthy scored a 75-yard touchdown on a wide receiver screen on the game’s first play, a blocked punt by senior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown led to a two-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Bijan Robinson, and junior quarterback Casey Thompson hit two touchdown passes to junior wide receiver Joshua Moore, the second from 48 yards after struggling to hit shot plays all season.
After two turnovers by starting quarterback Spencer Rattler, including a bad fumble that led to a Texas touchdown and a 35-17 lead, Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley made the bold decision to bench the preseason Heisman candidate in favor of backup Caleb Williams. The freshman from Washington, DC whose presence was notably demanded by Sooners fans two weeks ago and then mockingly called for by Longhorns fans on the College Gameday set on Saturday announced his presence with a 66-yard touchdown run on 4th and 1 from the Oklahoma 34-yard line early in the second quarter.
Then Texas missed its first big opportunity on the final possession before halftime. Robinson gained a yard to set up 3rd and 9 from the Oklahoma 31-yard line, but Sarkisian allowed roughly 20 seconds to expire before taking a timeout. So when Thompson completed an 11-yard pass to junior wide receiver Jordan Whittington, the Longhorns had to call another timeout with two seconds remaining to set up a 38-yard field goal instead of having multiple shots at the end zone.
Like the missed call on Wood’s catch, Sarkisian’s decision ended up looming large in a game he coached well throughout much of the first half as Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley settled for multiple field goals.
But the decision to bench Rattler in favor of Williams paid off as Sarkisian’s play calling fell apart in the second half and those small margins started to favor the Sooners.
Texas and Oklahoma traded field goals after two punts to start the second half as the key inches started to tell.
On a 3rd and 7 from the Oklahoma 23-yard line, Thompson delivered a nearly-perfect pass to junior wide receiver Marcus Washington near the goal line. Unfortunately for Texas, Thompson’s pass took Washington barely out of bounds, forcing the Horns to settle for a field goal.
Then Sooners running back Kennedy Brooks creased the Longhorns on a 65-yard run that initially appeared to end with a hustle fumble forced by Texas senior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison. But Brooks was correctly ruled down and Oklahoma wide receiver Marvin Mims caught a 14-yard touchdown pass on 3rd and 11 when the Sooners barely beat the play clock and Williams fumbled the snap before recovering it and finding Mims alone in the end zone.
Williams continued to capitalize on broken plays with a 47-yard pass to Mims on 3rd and 5 early in the fourth quarter when Texas senior safety BJ Foster was in good position, but couldn’t make a play on the ball. Oklahoma kicked a field goal on that possession to cut the Texas lead to 41-33.
As the Sooners front rendered the Longhorns running game ineffective, Sarkisian compensated too far in the other direction, failing to test the soft Oklahoma perimeter and instead passing on all three downs on the ensuing possession, setting the offensive line up for failure in pass protection instead of failure in run blocking.
Thompson lost eight yards on a first down and then was hurried on second down and third down. The third-down play was particularly damaging — Thompson’s pass not only fell incomplete to force a punt from the Texas 10-yard line, but it also resulted in a clavicle injury suffered by Whittington, who left the game and could miss significant time.
“They started to get more penetration up front defensively, which is pretty much what we saw on tape all year long. The first half we stabilized that and we didn’t have that penetration, and then it started to get a little bit leaky,” Sarkisian said.
“You know, when you’re playing a good front over time, you know that the whole key to the drill is winning on first downs — you don’t put yourself in the third and long, and that’s what we were struggling to do there in the second half. We were losing 1st and 10, and we were playing second and long, third and long football.”
The Longhorns were close to getting off the field despite the strong field position for the Sooners when the improvisational ability of Williams came through again on 3rd and 19 as Williams found Mims again for a massive 52-yard touchdown.
Simply Marvelous.— Sooner Gridiron (@soonergridiron) October 9, 2021
"Touchdown! Are you kidding me what a play! That's one for the rocking chair there." — Chris Fowler
Marvin Mims finished the game with 5⃣ catches for 1⃣3⃣7⃣ yards and 2⃣ touchdowns.#OUDNA x @marvindmims pic.twitter.com/jcOPTOVK8b
How close was the play?
It instantly became meme-worthy.
When the paper due at midnight and you turn it in at 11:59:59 pic.twitter.com/sdLAX4JZQ3— Josiah Johnson (@KingJosiah54) October 9, 2021
“The broken plays really hurt us the most today with the quarterback kind of improvising and flinging the ball up downfield and they caught it and then ultimately the run game kicked in for them,” Sarkisian said.
Rattler re-entered the game on the two-point conversion and tied it up at 41-41 before more questionable coaching decisions contributed to the eventual outcome. Chasing a big play on the kickoff, Worthy was back to receive and decided to take a chance on a return from deep in the end zone. When Worthy didn’t protect the ball well enough on the return, Oklahoma linebacker Caleb Kelly stripped it from him.
The Sooners only needed one play to capitalize with Brooks rushing 18 yards to take the lead.
Worthy quickly bounced back by catching a 48-yard pass, but with less than five minutes left on the clock, Sarkisian made another questionable decision. On 3rd and 11 from the Oklahoma 24-yard line down by seven, Thompson tried a slot fade to Washington that fell incomplete. Then, instead of kicking the field goal, Sarkisian called a timeout and went for it, with Thompson unable to find Robinson.
Texas was able to get the ball back and Thompson hit Worthy three more times, including on a 31-yard touchdown to tie the game.
But the score with 1:23 remaining left too much time for Oklahoma as Brooks scored on a 33-yard touchdown run from a direct snap with three seconds remaining on a play mostly intended to set up the game-winning field goal. Possessing the ball for nearly 18 minutes in the second half clearly helped the Sooners wear down the Longhorns defense. The misdirection of the direct snap helped, too — Sarkisian thought the linebackers lost their eyes as Oklahoma got hats on hats across the board.
The virtual walk-off run from Brooks capped a 35-point second half from Oklahoma featuring 370 total yards, including 190 rushing yards, to mark the second-biggest comeback in program history for the Sooners. In 210 games featuring a 21-point lead this season entering Saturday, only two teams were able to mount an effective comeback.
Brooks finished with 25 carries for 217 yards and two touchdowns as Williams went 15-of-21 passing for 211 yards and two touchdowns of his own.
Now Texas is facing its second gut-check moment of the season with currently undefeated No. 12 Oklahoma State coming to Austin next weekend with star 2023 quarterback Arch Manning and other top recruits set to attend the game.
“Big-picture wise, this will test our mettle,” Sarkisian said. “We’ll find out what we’re made of. We’ve got a bounce back next week, we’ve got another great football team coming to DKR with an opportunity to get ourselves right before the bye, which I think we will — I love the heart and desire of our team mentality of our team, but this one hurts.”
The even bigger picture? Another matchup with the Sooners in December at AT&T Stadium.
“Ultimately, you know my mindset is I’d love to get another crack at these guys hopefully in December, so that’s that,” Sarkisian said.