DALLAS — In what became the highest-scoring edition of the Red River Rivalry ever on Saturday, No. 20 Oklahoma, led by quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook, surged ahead with 21 unanswered points beginning in the third quarter and went on to beat Texas 45–40 at the Cotton Bowl.
The Sooners avenged last season’s loss to the Longhorns and have now won five of the last seven meetings in the storied rivalry. Meanwhile, after another poor defensive showing by Texas, head coach Charlie Strong’s seat is bound to get even hotter.
Here are three thoughts on Oklahoma’s win:
1. Can Oklahoma win the Big 12?
Things are not great for the Sooners at 3–2, but they’re not dire, either. Oklahoma could absolutely win the Big 12, especially if the Baker Mayfield-to-Dede Westbrook connection continues. The Sooners already boast the best running back duo in the conference with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, and Westbrook is an emerging star. You have to believe that the defense, under a coach known for defense in Bob Stoops, will continue to improve. Consider that OU came in giving up 429.2 yards per game, and Texas only racked up 425. Baby steps.
Let’s imagine Oklahoma wins the Big 12. Conference championships are of the utmost importance to the selection committee. And if other conference champs and top teams around college football get to the end of the season with one or two losses, should Oklahoma’s two losses really be held against it? Stoops deserves a lot of credit for scheduling Houston and Ohio State. And while Houston was surely much better than anyone could have anticipated, the Sooners didn’t find a way out of that at the last minute, which we’ve seen other teams do. Stoops wanted his guys to be challenged, and they got it. If they get through their conference season blemish-free and everyone else has at least one loss, they’ll be in the conversation.
2. Texas tackling, still an issue
I’m often perplexed by coaches who make their name doing one thing really well, then get a big job and stop doing that thing. This is, to a certain degree, what’s happened at Texas. Charlie Strong, long touted as a defensive guru, wasn’t as involved with that side of the ball as he should have been the last two seasons. But after giving up at least 47 points three times this season before Saturday, Strong announced he was taking over play-calling duties from defensive coordinator Vance Bedford.
It will not be a quick fix. Oklahoma did mostly whatever it wanted Saturday, averaging 7.6 yards per play. Westbrook, in particular, ran wild and free, totaling 232 yards and three touchdowns on 10 catches. The receiving yardage total set a school record, not just for an OU player against Texas, but for an OU player in ANY game in the history of its program. Texas barely pressured Mayfield, giving him all day to dance around the pocket and find Westbrook. And Oklahoma’s terrific running back tandem of Perine (214 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and Mixon (48 rushing yards) averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
This does not fill you with hope if you’re a Longhorns fan. Did Strong take over the defense too late?
3. This rivalry really IS as good as advertised
Saturday marked my first trip to the Cotton Bowl for what one local reporter described as “a carnival on steroids.” After spending the last 10 days reporting on the history of the Red River Rivalry, I couldn’t wait to experience it. But I also wondered if the rivalry would lack anything given that in the grand scheme of things (which is to say, the College Football Playoff picture) this game probably doesn’t matter.
Turns out, it’s as awesome as advertised. Seeing a stadium split right down the middle with fans is unique, and while both of these teams are likely out of the postseason picture that matters, they’re playing for the thing that maybe matters most anyway: pride. Saturday’s game was heated from the beginning, with players getting in each other’s faces and being forcibly separated by officials, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties called (and missed) and a general dislike of everyone not wearing the same color as you. Coaches can downplay rivalries all they want, but the truth is this one matters just a little bit more than other games. That’s clear in the way big plays are celebrated by coaches and players.
And the fried food! I trust that fans from Oklahoma toasted their victory with fried sweet tea, fried butter (trust me, it’s delicious) and fried jello. Then, hopefully, they washed everything down with a smoky bacon margarita. If you haven’t been, get ye to a Red River Showdown. In the tradition of breaking up great college football traditions, this game will probably move to Jerry World at some point in the near future. You don’t want to miss it as it was originally intended: at the State Fair of Texas.