Texas may have the wunderkinds, but Oklahoma is truly wonderful
DALLAS -- Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops had apparently heard enough about the wunderkind coordinators at Texas. Saturday, after his team thoroughly de-trousered everyone wearing burnt orange, Stoops couldn't help but needle a reporter who asked about the Sooners' near-psychic ability to diagnose and blow up the Longhorns' trick plays.
"That's what everybody was infatuated with all week, right?" Stoops said. "That's what you guys were writing about. Now you don't like it?"
Like coordinator Brent Venables' defense, Stoops was rolling.
"Our guys seemed to pick it up pretty good," Stoops said with just the faintest hint of a smile. "Coach Venables, it's fair to say he's pretty bright, too."
Indeed he is. In Oklahoma's 55-17 win, the Sooners' defense outscored the Longhorns, 21-17, returning two fumbles and one interception for touchdowns. Venables, who lands on the short list for head-coaching jobs seemingly every year, outcoached Bryan Harsin, the young coordinator who flummoxed Venables on a long-ago night in Glendale, Ariz. The razzamatazz that was Harsin's hallmark at Boise State simply didn't work against an Oklahoma defense that was more fired-up, more experienced and significantly faster than the Texas offense.
Venables emphatically quieted the ghosts of Circus and Statue, the trick plays then-Boise State coordinator Harsin used to thwart the Sooners in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Saturday, Harsin opened his bag of tricks a few times with horrendous results. Facing third-and-five in the third quarter, Harsin called a play with tailback Fozzy Whittaker in a Wildcat formation that -- after a few distracting machinations -- would allow receiver Jaxon Shipley to throw a pass. Oklahoma defensive end Ronnell Lewis grabbed Shipley and flung him for a loss of 14. That wasn't a failure of the play or of Shipley as much as it was a failure of the offense as a whole. Trick plays enhance an offense that handles the basics well. The defense, wary of getting beat straight-up, plays on its heels and gets fooled. When the offense can't get yards with a standard power or zone run, trick plays become slow-developing, low-hanging fruit for aggressive defenses to devour like so many gobs of fried mashed potatoes at the Texas State Fair outside the stadium.
That's especially true when the opposing defensive coordinator has prepared his players so well. Consider this description of the play from Lewis. "I saw two pullers coming at me," Lewis said. "They like to do a lot of trick plays with the quarterback rolling out. So I felt like that was my responsibility, to stay backside. I saw the reverse and just played it." Here's a football-to-English translation: Oklahoma coaches had drilled into their players that the pulling offensive linemen would give away the direction of the play. In other words, forget the game of three-card monty in the backfield. So, after fighting through two blockers, Lewis emerged on what appeared to be the play's back side. A less-prepared player would have chased the ball. But because he had read the linemen, Lewis knew the ball was coming back in his direction eventually. Sure enough, the ball was flipped to Shipley, and he headed straight toward Lewis, who ragdolled the freshman.
While the Longhorns' offensive stars got pounded, their defenders got burned. Texas coordinator Manny Diaz got all the press, but Oklahoma co-coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell won Saturday's matchup with a huge assist from quarterback Landry Jones. Diaz came to Dallas knowing it didn't matter how well his defensive backs covered if his front seven couldn't disrupt Jones' timing. That rarely happened Saturday. "No matter what you do against him," Diaz said, "he's going to know what he's getting."
Never was that more evident than on a third-and-25 play in the second quarter with the Sooners already up 13-3. It seemed Texas would force a third Oklahoma field goal attempt, but Jones noticed something when he surveyed the field. It appeared Texas intended to use man coverage. So Jones changed the play -- remember, it's third-and-25 -- sending all four receivers on vertical routes. He took the snap as the play clock expired. Texas rushed four and dropped seven. Oklahoma left a back in the backfield to protect, meaning the Sooners had four receivers being covered by seven Longhorns. Jones' hunch was correct, though. On the right sideline, Quandre Diggs was the only defender on Jaz Reynolds. Reynolds ran past him, and Jones dropped a pass into Reynolds' hands before safety Adrian Phillips arrived to push Reynolds out of bounds after a 30-yard gain. "Those things just kill you," Texas coach Mack Brown said of the play. "They break your back."
Oklahoma proved once again Saturday that it belongs in that ultra-elite club that also includes LSU, Alabama and Wisconsin. The Sooners are well coached, fast, tough and relentless. They have an unflappable quarterback, three game-breaking receivers (Reynolds, Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills) and a walk-on tailback (Dominique Whaley) who buzzed past a herd of former five-star recruits on a 64-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. They have playmaking linebackers (Tom Wort and Travis Lewis), a versatile hybrid (Tony Jefferson) and ruthless defensive ends (Ronnell Lewis and Frank Alexander).
Texas, meanwhile, proved that it has plenty of work to do before it belongs in the same sentence with Oklahoma. Quarterbacks Case McCoy and David Ash got rattled by Oklahoma's pressure, and the Longhorns' line couldn't open any holes for anyone. Defensively, the Longhorns need to learn that wrapping up a ballcarrier and bringing him to the ground beats the big hit. Elite opponents sometimes bounce off those big hits and keep running. The Longhorns aren't as bad as they looked Saturday -- by this time next year, they could be quite good -- but they will have to be more disciplined than they were at the Cotton Bowl.
"We had decided we needed to win the turnover ratio coming in," Brown said. "We had to win the penalties coming in. We had to win the red zone coming in. We had to win third downs. I'm not sure we won any of them. ... It's usually a great game. I was disappointed today that we didn't live up to our side of the match."
The Longhorns will invoke their 24-hour rule. By Sunday afternoon, the pity party has to end, because Oklahoma State comes to Austin next week. The Cowboys, by the way, scored 56 points against Kansas on Saturday -- in the first half. "We don't have enough time to feel sorry for ourselves," Brown said. "Oklahoma State throws it like this bunch."
"This bunch," meanwhile, will head to Kansas after scoring a ton of style points against the Longhorns. Whether that will be enough to make the Sooners No. 1 in every poll is irrelevant now. If they keep playing the way they did Saturday, they'll play for the national title -- even if their coordinators aren't wunderkinds.
The Sooners seem content to settle for wonderful.