It’s games like Saturday’s 34-30 loss to Oklahoma that make college football fans eternally skeptical of Texas. The No. 3 Longhorns came into the Red River Rivalry as 4-point favorites over the No. 12 Sooners, but it was evident from Quinn Ewers’ opening-drive interception that it wasn’t going to be a repeat of last 2022’s 49-0 beatdown.
Though the Texas defense stymied Dillon Gabriel and the OU offense for most of the second half and kicker Burt Auburn put the Longhorns up 3 with less than 2 minutes left, it felt like Steve Sarkisian’s group left too much time on the clock, and too many points on the board. The reason those opportunities weren’t taken advantage of had more to do with the Sooner defense than Longhorn miscues, but more on that in a moment.
The burnt orange outgained their crimson counterparts 527 yards to 486, won the time of possession, blocked a punt for a score, converted a fake punt, and had the Sooner defense scrambling (yet not out of sorts) the entire second half, but lost the turnover battle 3-0, failed to get points on first, and goal from the 1, and came away with just three points from three trips to the red zone.
Sooner kicker Zach Shmit even pushed a 45 yarder that would’ve given Brent Venables’ squad a 10-point lead with 7:55 remaining in the fourth, and it seemed Oklahoma was fated to gag the Golden Hat. All Texas had to do was get a stop, or force a field goal, on OU’s final possession, to win, or go to overtime, but Gabriel didn’t even face a third down on the game-winning five-play, 75-yard march that ended with a Nic Anderson TD in the back left corner of the endzone.
The touchdown pass from the Sooner QB was his first of the game, his second score overall, and after missing last season’s Red River Rivalry due to concussion protocol, the transfer from UCF finished two yards shy of 400 total with zero turnovers but most importantly, the win.
That said, Quinn Ewers was the scarier quarterback. He threw six incompletions all game and racked up 346 yards in the air. Had he only avoided those crucial mistakes, Texas probably wins.
Defense at a premium in college football
Before I get to the Longhorns, the Sooner defense deserves a lot of credit. They were opportunistic on the first turnover, forced the second two, and were a big reason UT had to kick three field goals.
Venables did an excellent job this offseason of shoring up a side of the ball that hasn’t been a top-25 scoring defense since 2013. Remove that blocked punt for a TD, and the Sooners only gave up 23 points to a team that came in averaging 36.
Ahead of Saturday’s game, Oklahoma was holding opponents to 10 points per game, and what fans don’t realize is it’s easier to put up gaudy stats than it is to construct a defense that can marginally disrupt the game’s best offenses. (There’s a reason Big Ten teams crumble when they face coaching staffs with an ounce of creativity, so I don’t want to hear your “What about Michigan?” arguments.)
It feels oxymoronic to say a unit that gave up 500-plus yards played well, but it’s true. Oklahoma’s fourth-quarter goalline stand wasn’t aided by a UT false start or a holding call. It was four straight stops when the team needed it most.
When Venables was at Clemson, the Tigers finished top 10 in scoring defense six times, and only once during his tenure did they miss out on the top 25, and that was his first year calling the defense for Dabo Swinney. Last season was an objective disaster in Norman, and the hire looked like it was heading that way as well.
It felt like, for whatever reason, the Sooners were incapable of getting stops. Whether it was the culture of the Big 12, a talent deficiency, or apathy, I don’t know, but those aren’t passable excuses for a program that can attract the requisite talent for a sustainably stingy defense.
When Lincoln Riley left for USC, the shift to the other side of the spectrum felt unnecessary. Why not stick to what was working? Give OU AD Joe Castiglione a lot of flowers for zagging, and using the unexpected opportunity to flip priorities before switching conferences.
I suppose it makes more sense to bring an SEC defense to the SEC than a Big 12 offense.
Texas, oh, Texas
This Longhorn offense is beautiful. Ewers, Xavier Worthy, Jonathan Brooks, and Jordan Whittington are running NFL-level schemes, but this group should be averaging 40 points per game, and anything less is malpractice. In addition to the turnovers, the Longhorns were flagged nine times for 70 yards Saturday and converted a meager five of 14 third downs.
Again, credit Oklahoma for solid situational defense, and making well-timed, massive plays, but this was classic Texas hubris. While it was an emotional rivalry game, it also doesn’t take away from the fact that Steve Sarkisian is rocking Astro Boy’s haircut six months shy of 50 — or that the Longhorns repeatedly pissed this win down their legs.
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