Bill Little commentary: A perfect day for football
Oct. 18, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
DALLAS -- It was Darrell Royal who said it, years ago when he was asked about this Texas-Oklahoma football matchup played annually in the Cotton Bowl Stadium at the Texas State Fair in Dallas.
"It will be decided," he had said in answer to a question, "by three things: field position, turnovers and the kicking game."
The years are many and the days are long since Royal roamed the sidelines in what is now officially dubbed The AT&T Red River Rivalry. Much has been said and written about The State Fair's creative concessions such as fried butter, and the rides on the midway are high tech and breathtaking.
Much of college football today has been focused on spread offenses and score-a-second schemes. But this game, more than any other, is like a pendulum, momentum swinging back and forth in the series and on the field. And it also produces one lasting truth: Here, on a Saturday in October, the ghosts in the old stadium sit in judgment of those who have followed them. Heroes are made, coming out of the shadows of their better-known teammates.
And as the bright morning's contest began under perfect blue skies, a 60-degree temperature and almost no wind, it soon became obvious that this would be classic determined very simply by the warriors of the game.
Saturday's 16-13 Longhorn victory over Oklahoma was a reminder that football is still a game about blocking and tackling; of running and hitting -- of collisions and individual effort. A game where great defense will always trump great offense. It was a match of wits as coaches saw their respective game plans work, and not work, and had to make adjustments accordingly.
A match-up of two of the nation's premier quarterbacks ended on the ninth offensive snap of the game for Oklahoma, when a blitzing Aaron Williams tackled defending Heisman winner Sam Bradford. As Bradford fell to the grass field, he reinjured a shoulder that had kept him out of three games earlier in the year, on what could be the last play of his season.
The Longhorns' Colt McCoy himself tore a fingernail and injured his right thumb in the first quarter in a brutal battle that was dominated by some of the fiercest defense the old stadium had seen in years.
And when Mack Brown asked him if he was okay, he said, "My fingernail is about gone, my thumb hurts, and I have got to run the ball more."
In other words, take the battle to the opponent.
Oklahoma had started the game committed to take the middle of the field away from McCoy and the Texas passing game. They surrounded his favorite receiver, Jordan Shipley, as if he were in protective custody. And the Sooners installed a completely new blitz package that McCoy, with all of his film study, said after the game he had never seen before.
On the flip side, Will Muschamp's defense was also playing relentlessly. When the first half ended with the Sooners on top, 6-3, Oklahoma had rushed for minus-15 yards and Texas for plus-40. Oklahoma had 207 yards passing, with 64 of those coming on a missed tackle on a reception by a running back.
If Texas wins the pre-game coin toss, it has been part of the Longhorns' strategy to defer the choice to kick or receive to the start of the second half. Again, it would pay off for Brown and his team. On back-to-back drives after intermission, the Longhorns tied the game 6-6 with Hunter Lawrence's second field goal, and then as the defense stopped the Sooners for a three-and-out, McCoy and his team reverted to the smash-mouth run-the-ball football that would help them carry the day.
The yards were hard to come by, but it is in that moment that this game always seems to produce surprising new heroes. Fozzy Whitaker and Cody Johnson were about to join McCoy in taking control of the running game, and true freshman receiver Marquise Goodwin would emerge as a receiving star.
Facing a third-and-10 at the Oklahoma 14, McCoy fired a slant pass on the left side to Goodwin who caught the ball at the seven-yard line and ripped away from a defender and into the end zone for the go-ahead score to make it 13-6.
Goodwin, who is a world-class track star and a long jumper who has approached 27 feet in international competition, showed great strength when he pulled away, and that should not be surprising. You figure what kind of leg strength you have to have to propel your body nine yards through the air.
Oklahoma answered on the next series, again after one of the few missed tackles by the Texas defense, but the game would change again on the next few plays. As Oklahoma attempted to seize momentum with a defensive stop, Longhorn punter Justin Tucker drove a 60-yard kick into the Sooners end zone for a touchback.
When the Texas defense stopped the Sooners for a net loss of 12 yards on the series, Texas took the ensuing punt and set up shop at the Sooners 45-yard line just as the third quarter was ending. And when McCoy rode his running game and another key completion to Goodwin to the Sooners 15, Lawrence drilled his third field goal of the game to make it 16-13 with just over 12 minutes remaining in the game.
And thus began the game within the game, a dozen minutes of high level tension that was a total microcosm of Royal's philosophy. The game, he said, would be decided by field position, the kicking game and turnovers.
And all of that would be predicated by a massive defensive stop that started the Sooners in the quarter. Facing fourth down and a yard at the Oklahoma 49, Sooners coach Bob Stoops elected to go for it. When Blake Gideon and Sam Acho led the charge that stopped Oklahoma's Chris Brown for no gain, the tenor of the contest changed dramatically. And somewhere, the ghosts of the game remembered the first of Royal's premises: Field Position.
On the next series, Tucker came up big for Texas one last time, with a 51-yard punt that pinned Oklahoma at its own nine.
Royal point number two: The Kicking Game.
Aaron Williams stopped the first Sooners drive with an interception at the Oklahoma 20, but a mix-up where a receiver and McCoy miscommunicated led to an interception. And the warrior in McCoy came out as he made a touchdown-saving tackle at OU's 30.
The Sooners drove out to their own 43, where Earl Thomas picked off Landry Jones at the Oklahoma 45. Royal point three: turnovers. Texas ran out the clock, and McCoy won his third game in four tries against Oklahoma.
In the fourth quarter, Texas had the ball for 9:36 to Oklahoma's 5:24. Texas won the turnover battle in that quarter, 2-1, and finished 5-3 for the game. And in the fourth quarter, with the game hanging in the balance, Oklahoma averaged starting the ball at its own 20, and Texas' average starting position was the Oklahoma 44.
Field position, turnovers, and the kicking game.
Analysts will note that the Texas running game, which produced 142 yards for the game including 102 in the second half, was a key factor in the game. McCoy's tenacity despite overwhelming pressure by the Sooners carried the day for Texas offensively.
The entire Texas defense deserves credit for an effort that limited the Sooners to minus-16 yards rushing for the game. Earl Thomas had seven tackles as well as the critical pass interception and two tackles for a loss. Sergio Kindle, Lamarr Houston, Sam Acho and Eddie Jones led an aggressive defensive line effort for Texas.
The victory evened Mack Brown's record against Oklahoma at 6-6, including four of the last five games.
Perhaps, however, the most appropriate moment of the day came after the shouting and the tumult had died in this old-fashioned battle for the ages.
First, Colt sought out his injured friend Bradford and told him he was praying for him. Then as McCoy was finishing his interview with ABC-TV, two white-clad sentinels stood by, waiting patiently - their uniforms stained with the grass and the blood of the day. When Colt finished, he turned to see the Sooners' all-American defenders, Gerald McCoy and Auston English, waiting to congratulate him. In a moment, Oklahoma's all-American offensive tackle Trent Williams would limp up as well.
It was the final, telling moment of the day, because this game had been about warriors, and about respect.
And, of course, field position, turnovers, and the kicking game.