Tom Herman once wondered why his Texas Longhorns “can’t get out of our own way.”
“If we all thought that we were going to come in here and, in nine months, sprinkle some fairy dust on this team and think that we’ve arrived, then we’re wrong,” the first-year Texas coach said. That was back on Sept. 2, when Maryland stunned Texas 51-41 at home in the season opener.
Only a week later, after Oklahoma took down then-No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus, first-year Sooners coach Lincoln Riley felt the need to warn against the sentiment that his team had arrived.
“We’ll be disappointed,” Riley said, “if this is the highlight of our season.”
All of which brings us to Saturday, when Texas (3-2, 2-0 Big 12) and No. 12 Oklahoma (4-1, 1-1) renew their annual grudge match in a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. It’s the first time since 1947 the Red River Rivalry features two first-year coaches. This year’s edition also features two teams trending in opposite directions.
It seems that Herman has indeed found some fairy dust.
Texas has won three of its last four games, including victories over Iowa State and Kansas State in Big 12 play. There was also that double-overtime loss at then-No. 4 USC before the Longhorns continued with a 56-0 pasting of San Jose State.
It also seems that beating the Buckeyes may yet stand as the highlight of the Sooners’ 2017 season. Oklahoma lost to Iowa State for just the second time in 56 years last week, 38-31 in Norman. The 31-point-favorite Sooners only scored seven points in the second half and were incapable of stopping the Cyclones offense.
One team has shown dramatic improvement since the start of the season. The other has clearly regressed. It’s an unexpected development in one of college football’s most colorful rivalries.
“This game,” Oklahoma linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said, “is going to define the rest of our season.”
At Texas, Herman is trying to change what has inexplicably become a losing culture. Only three fifth-year seniors on this team have ever experienced a winning season. It’s something Herman is slowly introducing back to the program.
“Winning is hard, and it is something that you have to learn how to do,” said Longhorns wideout Collin Johnson. “But I guess you could say that we’re finally learning how to win.”
After pummeling San Jose State, the Longhorns played more angry defense at USC and rallied to take the lead in the final seconds, but gave up a game-tying field goal and lost in double overtime. In Ames the following week, Texas yielded just 10 rushing yards on defense, racking up three interceptions and four sacks. And last week against Kansas State, true freshman Sam Ehlinger threw for 380 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 107 yards as the Longhorns outlasted a Wildcat squad that many had projected as a Big 12 contender.
Ehlinger seems to have emerged from a simmering quarterback battle with 2016 starter Shane Buechele. Major injuries at offensive line (All-American left tackle Connor Williams remains out) and tight end have limited the offense, but Texas has five non-offensive touchdowns so far — the most since the 2009 team played for the national championship.
“I think we’ve got good momentum,” Herman said. “… There is a lot of positive energy in that locker room right now. I’ve had numerous players tell me, ‘Coach, this is as close as we’ve been as a team in a long, long time.’ That feels good.”
Contrast that with how things have unfolded at Oklahoma.
After returning home from Columbus, Oklahoma allowed Tulane to march for two easy touchdowns, and nearly allowed a third. A 14-0 lead against a still-winless Baylor team turned into a 31-28 deficit as former second-team quarterback Zach Smith torched the Sooner secondary for 463 yards before the ground game rescued Oklahoma in the fourth quarter. And another 14-0 lead against the Cyclones didn’t hold up as former third-string quarterback Kyle Kempt threw for 343 yards and three scores in the final 17 minutes.
A revolving door of injuries in the secondary has hurt, and last week the Sooners lost their leading rusher Abdul Adams and receiver CeeDee Lamb in the first half (their status remains unknown). Baker Mayfield has been magnificent with 15 touchdowns and no interceptions, but a fumbled exchange on the goal line between him and running back Trey Sermon was catastrophic against Iowa State. It was the Sooners’ first offensive possession of the second half, and set the tone for the rest of the game.
Mayfield said the recent rough patch has been more mental than physical.
“I think there was a difference in the locker room at halftime at Ohio State versus halftime at Baylor and Iowa State,” he said. “I think in Columbus, the positive attitude was, ‘We’ve got them right where we want them.’ We had all the confidence in the world.
“The past couple weeks … we get our heads down a little bit instead of just continuing to go to work.”
Now it’s on Riley to make sure the Sooners get back on track.
“Our expectations are so high,” Riley said, “when something doesn’t go our way, we haven’t handled it well. And that falls back on me.
“We’ve got to bounce back, got to respond. That’s part of college football these days. Obviously we’ve got a big one this week with Texas that’s big regardless of what’s happened in the past.”
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