It has always been the kind of game where, as Darrell Royal says, you are asked to screw your navel to the ground and scratch, bite and spit at the other guys. And this time would certainly be no different. It would be a rowdy amplification of all that had come before it. It would be, said Royal, the usual old-fashioned, country, jaw-to-jaw, "knucks-down gut check." Knucks down? Yeah, like when you shot marbles as a kid and then you started playing "keeps," and everybody got knucks down, and you hoped the other guy's hand would quiver, and if it didn't you knew you were "all covered up with trouble."
This is what the Texas-Oklahoma football game has always been, said Royal, who dresses Madison Avenue but talks Okie to get laughs. Royal knows all about Texas-Oklahoma warfare. He played in the game four times as a Sooner, and after last week's gut check he had coached Texas in it 13 times. Most of the time Royal has won the game. He was 2-2 as a player under Bud Wilkinson, and now he's 11-2 as a coach. Now his resourceful Longhorns have done it to Oklahoma again in what surely must be college football's grandest, throatiest, most frenzied pageant.
There were nothing but heroes down there in the Cotton Bowl last Saturday in gusty, hot Dallas as the two powerful, undefeated teams came together for the 64th time, nothing but guys willing to have their tummies checked by the tormenting pressure of the day, by the fretful necessity of winning an annual war between two football-crazy states in the middle of all the confusion, noise and merrymaking of a state fair. "These are the two best Texas and Oklahoma teams since about 1963," Royal said. "If we are what we're supposed to be—a contender for that No. 1 thing—then we have to win this one."
It took awhile. Chuck Fairbanks' remarkably poised and disrespectful Sooners tore into the burnt-orange jerseys of the favored Longhorns for a totally stunning 14-point lead in the game's first 11 minutes. Not only that, the Sooners, with Steve Owens churning over everything in his path and young Jack Mildren looking as cool as if he had been born in the Cotton Bowl, suggested that they might be capable of doing it all afternoon. Texas is, however, what Royal says it is—perhaps his best-equipped team since the national champions of 1963. No less of a team could have fought back against this excellent Oklahoma outfit and pulled it out 27-17.
What must be concluded, therefore, is this: if somewhere in the Western Hemisphere there is a squad with the muscle, zip, imagination, depth, character and leadership to challenge Ohio State as the best team in the land, it is, at the moment, Texas. Ohio State and Texas are as good as, or even better than, last year when it seemed obvious after the bowls that they were the two best teams in the country, and if they survive their remaining games, it will then be the grandest of injustices that they cannot meet each other in some sort of playoff game on the moon. There is no guarantee, of course, that the Longhorns and Buckeyes will continue undefeated. Texas still must play unbeaten Arkansas, which has national aspirations of its own as Oklahoma did, and Ohio State has Purdue and Michigan ahead. But let's assume they do win them all. The national champion will then be settled again by the polls, where the voters will be asked to examine winning margin, quality of opposition and other vague statistics, and that is a shame.
Fairbanks would be happy to testify for Texas—although he might be prejudiced. "We played our hearts out," he said. "We have nothing to be ashamed of. Our defense played better than it has ever played for me from end to end. So what I have to say is that Texas just has one fine football team."
What usually happens in a Texas-OU game is that the teams get so ready for each other that the defenses on both sides play about a foot off the ground and run around making goofy things occur. Such was the case last week. Oklahoma, in the early going, with both bands blaring out their fight songs for the 10,000th time and long before the 72,000 maniacs were willing to sit down, swarmed over Texas. The Sooners forced a poor punt, got good position at the Texas 41 and rammed it in for seven points. A few minutes later they got an interception at the Texas 17 and rammed that one in, too—and one had to suppose you could hear "Boomer Sooner" as far away as Royal's old home town of Hollis.
What brought Texas back was the forward pass, a weapon Royal hauls out every now and then, like in times of frantic desperation. In three easy romps over California, Texas Tech and Navy, the Longhorns had not found it necessary to throw, except to see if the ball could still float. They won by fiendish scores, despite the fact that the first team hardly got to play much. But they knew they would have to throw against Oklahoma. The quick and vicious Sooners would be determined to take away the rushing game first if they could.
So James Street, the Texas quarterback who has not lost a game since he became the pilot in last year's Oklahoma State contest, got ready to pass. Behind by those two touchdowns, Street said to his best receiver, Cotton Speyrer, "Get ready to start catchin' the ball."
Very quickly Street zoomed one down the middle for 35 yards, Speyrer making a diving catch. And just as quickly he lobbed one 24 more yards into Oklahoma's end zone that Speyrer looked around for—back, up and over his headgear—and managed to gather in. It was 14-7.
The next time Texas got the ball Street promptly put it in the air again. From his own 20 he tossed a short pass to his halfback, Jim Bertelsen, who carried the ball to the Oklahoma 25. This put Royal's team in position to workhorse it in, power style, for the touchdown that tied the score. Bertelsen, the fine sophomore from Wisconsin, made the touchdown himself, his fourth of the year, on an end run from just a yard away.
Before the game Royal said, "We'll be a couple of look-alikes out there. We'll both be aggressive. We'll both move it using much of the same stuff, the triple option and the power game. The big difference could be the defensive secondary. We're zone. They're man-to-man. I don't believe they can cover Speyrer one-on-one."
The Sooners couldn't. The Texas split end caught eight passes from Street, and the threat of him out there in the open eventually helped Texas to get a rushing game going. For a long while Oklahoma was the only team on the field that could run. Oh, could Oklahoma run. This Steve Owens, who gained more than 100 yards for the 13th time in a row, had Texas tacklers bouncing off of him repeatedly as he butted, hurdled and bored into anything within reaching distance. Speyrer's jittery presence out there in the OU secondary, however, managed to spread the Sooners too thin, and eventually Texas' own hammering ballcarriers, the Steve Worsters, Ted Koys and Bertelsens, controlled the game.
When Texas got the ball just after the second half started, Worster, Koy and Bertelsen pounded the Longhorns down into range for a 27-yard field goal that a most happy fellow named Happy Feller booted, and it was 17-14.
Jabbering James Street put Oklahoma back in it, nevertheless, when he threw his second interception, a 43-yard play that Oklahoma returned to Texas' 24-yard line, which resulted in a tying field goal.
"I never did figure out what they were going to use on defense," said Street. "I couldn't read it too good."
He read the Sooners when he had to, as it turned out. On Texas' first play after the ensuing kickoff, Street threw another bomb to Speyrer, a 49-yarder over the middle, which quickly spun the Longhorns to the Oklahoma 19. A motion penalty erased a touchdown run by Koy, however, and Oklahoma's defense tightened to limit Texas to another field goal by Feller, this one from 21 yards away, high and true despite the crosswind.
It was a 20-17 game as it moved into the last quarter, and it was far from being over. Oklahoma, granted, had only had to travel 41, 17, and 24 yards to get its 17 points, while Texas had been forced to go 58, 80, 64 and 68 to scratch, bite and spit ahead, but there was little doubt in anyone's mind that Oklahoma was still capable of moving the ball. Mildren, a talented sophomore who had scored Oklahoma's first touchdown on a slick keeper play, was calling a good game, standing cool under Texas' furious rush—a rush led by big Leo Brooks—and Owens and his running mate, sophomore Roy Bell, did not appear tired.
Mildren hit three passes and Owens battered away and Oklahoma drove 50 yards to threaten to reclaim the game, but an offside penalty crushed the drive at Texas' 27, and Bruce Derr's try for another tying field goal was wide. This was Oklahoma's last shot. A short time later the Sooners fumbled a punt, and for once Texas got the ball on a break at OU's 23. And from there on Steve Worster played Steve Owens and barged it home for the touchdown that finally ended all of the day's suspense.
In some ways these Texas-OU games are a bit much. People start playing them early in the week in Dallas amid the ever-present sound of sirens of all kinds. At first, last week, there were the sirens of the police escorting Bob Hope to various rounds of parties that socialites were giving for him, and then there were those of the police escorting Vice-President Ag-new to various rounds of fund-raising functions. In between, there would be some kind of parade through downtown featuring fire engines commemorating Denton Day or Lancaster Day at the Texas State Fair.
And then there was Friday night. Friday night before a Texas-OU game is the biggest gut check of all for the fans. For blocks, in the heart of the city on Friday night, in the hours leading up to and just after midnight, the fans play something that could be called Saigon suburb. The city comes under siege of drunks, wanderers, rooters, shouters, musicmakers and pranksters. They jam side streets, thoroughfares, hotel lobbies, restaurants and bars and try to see if they can break the NCAA record for arrests. This time they didn't come close, because Dallas pressed 650 cops into duty. Only 475 got arrested, in meek contrast to the alltime high of 700 that was set last year.
Well, maybe riots aren't what they used to be, but the Texas football team looks like it might be.