DALLAS — Texas is back. It’s OK to say it loud, proud, burnt and orange … with an asterisk.
Everything else is details after the No. 19 Longhorns’ 48-45 upset of three-time defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma. In 35 short days, the team that loves to underachieve went from losing to Maryland to beating the No. 7 Sooners, altering the national landscape and soothing its own insecurities.
But is Texas back … all the way? After a gut-turning, sweat-pouring, three-hour, 40-minute marathon decided by a true freshman kicker with 9 seconds to play, coach Tom Herman paused when I asked him that ultimate question about his legendary program.
“I’ve got to tread lightly on this one, Dennis,” Herman said. “It’s irrelevant to us, is the best way to put it. We’re not so concerned with where people think Texas is. We’re concerned about where we … the people in that locker room are the people whose opinions matter the most to us.”
Those Horns spoke with equal parts humility, courage and optimism. Sure, they blew a 45-24 lead before driving smartly for that game-winning field goal. Sure, this result will be looked at by some as the typical Big 12 defensive-optional shootout.
It was all that, but it was different. If you haven’t noticed, Texas has already beaten three ranked teams: USC, TCU and OU. The malaise is gone. The Horns have an identity.
“They’ve gone from a sandlot team to a graduate student at MIT,” remarked NFLtalent evaluator Gil Brandt at halftime.
If not for the Maryland loss, the Horns would be hovering around the top five. With it, one of the richest football programs in the country is … a dark horse?
If not for Texas’ inspiring win, we wouldn’t have been able to ask Herman about a rematch in the Big 12 title game. It could/should happen if Texas and OU end up the 1-2 teams in the conference.
“That’s about [it’s] the one-millionth and 37th thing on my mind right now,” Herman said.
It was time to drink to drink this one in still. Texas oozed “toughness,” in quotes because that adverb wasn’t uttered much in Austin during the glory days of Mack Brown and Vince Young. Those Texas teams were gilded, talented and celebrated. But tough? Not so much.
Bob Stoops scored at least 55 on Mack Brown four times. Those memories melted faster than the deep-fried Reese’s and Cream at the adjacent Texas State Fair.
This day, at another sold-out Cotton Bowl, the Longhorns schematically and physically dominated the Sooners. And then they shrank back.
There’s that asterisk again.
Oklahoma rallied back with three touchdowns in 5 minutes, 50 seconds across the third and fourth quarters. The last of those three tied it 45-45 with 2:38 left.
Texas drove methodically for a 40-yard game-winning field by Cameron Dicker, that aforementioned true freshman kicker, with 9 seconds left.
In the process, the Sooners and Longhorns switched roles. It is Texas that has become a Big 12 and — by association – College Football Playoff contender. It still has to face undefeated West Virginia less than a month from now, but that’s looking way ahead and ignoring what the Horns have already accomplished.
That is, they have posted their biggest win in almost nine years since winning the Big 12 in 2009 en route to a crushing BCS Championship Game appearance against Alabama.
That is, they have knocked off the mighty Sooners with another Heisman Trophy contender (Kyler Murray) leading them but ultimately a highly suspect defense helping defeat them.
That is, they have posted Herman’s biggest win since he came to Texas two years ago.
That is, they have sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger staging a coming out party accounting for five touchdowns. To say that both quarterbacks channeled Heisman winner Baker Mayfield would be an insult to their efforts.
Murray added five touchdowns of his own (four passing), but it was two critical turnovers that may have decided it. A first-half interception led to the field goal that gave Texas a 10-7 lead.
More significant was a third-quarter fumble that got converted into an Ehlinger 2-yard run that made it 38-24 for the Horns. There was the usual snark on social media about the Oakland A’s draft choice committing an “error.”
“It’s tough because I turned the ball over,” Murray said, choking up ever so slightly up on the podium during postgame interviews.
But Murray made another Heisman statement in a loss. He has now accounted for 12 touchdowns in the last two games. His touchdown run with 5:11 left looked like a world-class sprinter was on display.
“That man and how small he is and how I can’t see him,” Texas defensive tackle Breckyn Hager said. “The whole game I couldn’t see him; he was like a little sliver out of my peripheral vision. I had never seen anything like this.”
But to narrow this Big 12 shootout to one play would be foolish. In a game of football tennis, Texas scored on seven of first eight possessions. Oklahoma went scoreless in four, going down 45-24.
As that lead slipped away, Herman said he saw “zero negativity, zero body language.”
That’s why it’s not too trite to bring up that Texas toughness. It started in warm-ups, watching the reality of Texas’ physical mismatch at the most important matchup in the Big 12: receivers vs. secondary. Texas’ 6-foot-4 Lil’Jordan Humphrey and 6-foot-6 Collin Johnson are a combined 435 pounds worth of high-jumping, ball-clutching talent.
Match against an Oklahoma secondary where not a single defensive back reaches 6 feet. Maybe we should have seen it coming.
“There are not a lot of 6-4 corners running around,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said.
That mismatch flexed early when Humphrey threw a 2-yard Tim Tebow-like jump pass to Johnson to tie it 7-7. That started a series of five consecutive possessions for Texas with a score. In fact, the Horns wouldn’t punt almost halfway through the third quarter.
Early in that quarter, Humphrey caught a tunnel screen on third-and-21 from Oklahoma’s 46. Humphrey then got lumped into scrum and was carried or about half of the 19 yards that moved the ball to the 27. Five plays later., Ehlinger ran for the second of three scores.
“That to me was the play of the game,” Herman said of Humphrey’s catch and run.
We now have to look at Texas differently. Herman is suddenly 4-3 against top 10 teams in his career. All three of those losses were last season. He is establishing himself at Texas after establishing himself at Houston.
We now have to look ahead to Texas as a playoff contender. It has beaten those three ranked teams by a combined 41 points.
We have to look ahead to that possible rematch on Dec. 1 back in Dallas for the Big 12 Championship Game. We have to look at OU looking at itself in the mirror. Its defensive problems are now officially profound.
“Obviously, we need to tackle better,” Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray said.
But first look back 35 days to that crippling Maryland loss that’s suddenly not so crippling.
“We got to the Maryland game,” Hager said. “That was the adversity I talked about before. … I’m glad we lost that game. I’m still so happy we lost that game. They had God on their side. How you going to beat God? Rest in peace?”