NORMAN — We’re spending a lot of Oklahoma-Texas Week on fans’ hands, players’ mouths and coaches’ schemes. That’s fine. Controversy, color and intrigue help make this rivalry uniquely wonderful.
Just know that toughness and pride remain football’s core characteristics, and they burn hottest in boil-over games like this one.
It brings to mind a third-and-21 play from Texas’ triumph over the Sooners last October. A quick inside throw that Longhorns receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey caught at the line of scrimmage. A “let’s get what we can and try a long field goal” kind of call.
OU linebacker Curtis Bolton lunged at Humphrey’s legs, and Humphrey didn’t go down.
OU safety Brendan Radley-Hiles squared up on Humphrey’s thighs, and Humphrey didn’t go down.
Safeties Khalil Haughton and Justin Broiles piled on. Defensive linemen Neville Gallimore and Kenneth Mann arrived. Linebacker Kenneth Murray and cornerback Tre Brown came late and made it eight OU defenders at the scene of the play.
None of them brought the force that Humphrey, and the three Texas offensive linemen who showed up to push the pile forward, did.
Humphrey’s 19-yard effort set up a fourth-and-2, which Texas converted. The conversion set up Sam Ehlinger’s 5-yard touchdown run. What looked like a field goal-at-best situation became a touchdown drive, a four-point swing that towered over the 48-45 final score.
To the Longhorns, it was a play that defined both their 10-win 2018 season and the culture coach Tom Herman wants so badly to instill.
It was a defining moment for the Sooners, as well, a 19-yard symbol of their 2018 defensive failure and of something broader when it comes to Red River October.
The Cotton Bowl on State Fair on Saturday is more like a Colosseum. Since OU’s 63-21 ambush in 2012, Texas’ gladiators have been stronger, braver and more worthy of the game. They have been 7-to-16-point underdogs every time, and have the same number of wins (3).
If you aren’t as sleek as your opponent, you can always fight harder when you catch him. OU, with the likes of Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, has lapped Texas in sleekness the past six Octobers. It’s how the Sooners won their three games, and how Murray nearly rescued them last year.
Texas, with the likes of Ehlinger, Tyrone Swoopes and D’Onta Foreman, has countered with fight. The Longhorns have countered with what we saw during Humphrey’s catch-and-drag. It’s how they have equaled OU’s win total and beaten the spread all six times.
Asked this week about watching Humphrey’s play in film review, OU coach Lincoln Riley said: “Oh, man, a year ago? Sure wasn’t very fun.”
Does Riley replay that moment this week as an example?
“There’s a lot of plays in the second half of that game as we made a run where we were dragging them,” he said, stretching reality a tad. “There’s going to be momentum swings in this game. Guys are going to make great plays.”
Right, but there’s a difference between great plays and great effort plays. Assuming Riley realizes OU-Texas at the Cotton Bowl takes dirt and grime as much as glitz and glamour, and he knows both the win count and the toughness tenor from the past six games, he should show Humphrey’s play morning, noon and night.
I asked Kenneth Murray this week if he thought something like that would happen Saturday.
“No,” he answered. “Not at all.”
Why is that?
“Different approach,” he said. “Different mentality. … Preparation that we’re putting in right now, that doesn’t happen.”
What did you think when you watched that play a year ago?
“We got to be better. Simple,” he said. “Played them again a few weeks after that, we were better.”
The Sooners were better in the Big 12 championship game. They were tougher. It was a positive sign, but then that game was in Jerry Jones’ spaceship. Let’s see what happens back at the Colosseum, where the intensity of players, coaches and fans is layered one on top of the other.
That version of OU-Texas, the one that makes this rivalry, takes gladiators. The Longhorns have showed up with more of them long enough.
It’s past time the Sooners drag them 19 yards.