A clutch 47-yard field goal by junior Bert Auburn to take a 30-27 lead with 1:17 remaining wan’t enough for the No. 3 Texas Longhorns to leave the Cotton Bowl in Dallas with a victory in Saturday’s Red River Rivalry when the No. 12 Oklahoma Sooners rallied with a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to drive a dagger through the hearts of the burnt orange faithful in attendance with the 34-30 defeat.
The game saw the Longhorns have a chance to win it late despite losing the turnover battle 3-0 and facing a massive deficit in red-zone scoring — in six trips into the red zone, the Sooners scored 34 points with a touchdown rate of 66.7 percent compared to three trips into the red zone and three points for the designated home team with one interception and one turnover on downs following four unsuccessful plays from the Oklahoma 1-yard line.
Sooners quarterback Dillon Gabriel frustrated Texas with his legs, rushing for a career-high 113 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries on scrambles and designed runs while avoiding any turnovers in a 23-of-38 passing performance for 285 yards and one touchdown, the game winner from three yards out with 15 seconds remaining.
Beyond the turnovers, all three by redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinn Ewers, the Texas offense was defined by a slow start and an equally impressive final three quarters — the Longhorns only managed 65 total yards in the first quarter with the only score coming on a blocked punt before racking up 23 points and 462 total yards from the second quarter on.
Ultimately, the recovery by Texas, demonstrative of this team’s grit, resilience, and connectedness, wasn’t enough to beat its greatest rival, leaving head coach Steve Sarkisian to make sense of the loss in its immediate aftermath.
Three things from the Longhorns head coach.
On the inability to contain Gabriel
While the Oklahoma quarterback did enter the game as a dangerous red-zone threat with four rushing touchdowns, Gabriel’s ability to change the game with scrambles and designed runs was on display in the Cotton Bowl in a way it hasn’t been in his length collegiate career.
Entering Saturday’s contest, Gabriel had a season high of 37 rushing yards with a season long of 16 yards compared to career highs of 70 rushing yards and a career-long 61-yard run against Nebraska last season. Gabriel wasn’t able to demonstrate that level of explosiveness against Texas, but he did smash his previous career high in rushing yards and had a 44-yard run, tying for the second-longest of his career.
The scrambles were particularly damaging for the Longhorns and indicative of a defense that didn’t play with enough discipline in those situations.
“Our inability to corral the quarterback, his legs really hurt us there scrambling, especially in the second half,” Sarkisian said.
Asked about how the tempo at which Jeff Lebby’s Oklahoma offense played impacted a Texas defense that preferred to rotate heavily through the first five games, Sarkisian pivoted back to the impact that Gabriel had on the ground.
“We got some subs done, which is good for us. That wasn’t so much the issue — it was the execution of our pass-rush lanes, which in the end when you let any quarterback go forward in the pocket when you’re in coverage for that long and then have the ability to run, it’s difficult,” Sarkisian said.
“We didn’t do a great job of forcing him lateral and building a wall inside. Gabriel took advantage of that with his legs and made some really critical third-down scrambles for him, then obviously the really long one there later in the game. I’ve got to go look at the tape and figure out why that happened. Where did we miss? Were we off on some stunts and different things?”
On the inability to score from the Oklahoma 1-yard line
One of the game’s most impactful sequences came early in the fourth quarter after the Longhorns stopped the Sooners on a 4th and 1 from the Texas 48-yard line when Gabriel couldn’t connect with wide receiver Drake Stoops on a throw to the sideline.
Texas took over and moved to the goal line on a 28-yard pass over the middle to senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington, who wasn’t able to finish it with a touchdown, an inauspicious moment given the red-zone issues for the Horns and the stout play of the Sooners defensive front.
Opting for a jumbo goal-line package, Sarkisian ran redshirt sophomore running back Jonathon Brooks up the middle for no gain, to the right for no gain, and then up the middle for a loss of a yard before spreading Oklahoma out and throwing a screen pass to junior wide receiver Xavier Worthy stopped inches shy of the goal line.
Sarkisian defended the formation and play calls after the game.
“We take a lot of pride in our goal line package. It’s been very effective for us over the years. We wanted to do what we do. We wanted to execute the plan that we had. We thought we had a good plan,” Sarkisian said.
“I think the first-down play, the linebacker shot the gap. Why we didn’t block him, it’s hard to tell. The second-down play, the play got strung out a little bit. Third-down play, looked like internal penetration again. On fourth down, we went to a play we felt really good about. Bang bang. We don’t score by about four inches. Tough play for Xavier trying to get in right there. We’ve got to re-evaluate. That’s why I said at the very beginning, we’ve got to coach better and we’ve got to play better.”
On kicking the late field goal
After Brooks tied the game at 27-27 on a 29-yard touchdown run, the Texas defense forced a three and out by Oklahoma to take over with 4:49 remaining at the Sooners 13-yard line with a chance to ice the game, something the Longhorns have done well at times under Sarkisian, including the win in Tuscaloosa this year.
The offense seemed to find a rhythm with a second-down completion to Worthy for 12 yards over the middle, a 16-yard completion to the right to junior wide receiver AD Mitchell, a nine-yard catch by Brooks, and another pass over the middle to Worthy, who gained 11 yards.
With one timeout remaining and the clock working against Oklahoma, the Sooners were on the brink until sacking Ewers for a three-yard loss on first down from the Oklahoma 35-yard line, still outside of field-goal range. A throw to Worthy only gained three yards, but forced the Sooners to use their second timeout, creating a huge third-down play with the Longhorns still outside the range of Auburn, whose career long is 49 yards.
Needing to pick up positive yardage on 3rd and 10, Sarkisian called a run for Brooks, who gained six yards, moving the ball into field-goal range. Sarkisian then tried to get Oklahoma to jump offsides. When the defense didn’t bite, he called a timeout to send Auburn onto the field. As Auburn has in the past, he hit a crucial late field goal that ultimately wasn’t enough to win the game.
Sarkisian explained his late-game thinking.
“We were trying to go score. We were trying to make sure we had the last possession. That second down call there,* we had called an RPO. We were blocking the run, Quinn was getting ready to throw the RPO, and the guy came off and make the sack. At that point, it put us in a third and long with about a minute and something left. I wanted to make sure we were in good field range because if I throw a pass there and it doesn’t work out, now we’re out of field goal range. Ultimately to get the lead and to try to win the game, that’s what we’re trying to do. We ran the ball there on third down, then we got to 4th and 4,” Sarkisian said.
“Then you’ve got to make that decision. To get a lead was what we tried to do. We tried to draw them off to see if that could keep us on the field. It didn’t work. Then we kicked the field goal. The mindset shifted on one play, really. All along, it was we’re going to finish the game with the ball in our possession whether we score, whether we kick the field goal. Whatever it looks like, we’re going to end the game with our possession. We got a little off kilter there after second down.”
*Sarkisian misspoke and meant first down.