Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard has plenty of history with the rivalry game. It’s in his blood – his dad played in the Cotton Bowl. He’s still waiting for the defining Oklahoma-Texas moment of his career. Shepard has just one touchdown and less than 75 receiving yards in three games, but a game changing punt return score might be the perfect ending in his mind.
Eric Striker gets one more time down the ramp and into the split stadium: One half Crimson, one half Burnt Orange. The captain will lead 11 other seniors playing in their final Red River Showdown. For some, it’s the first start. Others have played a major role for three years. For all of them, it has come too soon.
“One more time. It’s like you wish it could last forever, that type of feeling,” Striker said. “It’s been fast. It’s gone really fast. I have to make the best of this last one right here. It’s been a good ride. I’ve had a nice time these last three years. This is my last one, and hopefully, I can make it special.”
It’s a unique atmosphere and a rivalry that some consider the best in college football. It’s certainly up there near the top – pitting two of the most historic teams in college football against each other in one of the nation’s most revered stadiums.
All of it in the middle of the largest state fair in the country.
The scene is certainly imposing and one that can catch even the most talented young player off guard. That’s why it’s important to have experienced it once or have someone along that has.
“You knew it was a big rivalry in college football,” Striker said. “You appreciate the atmosphere and everything about the game. You wish it could last forever. It’s just that type of feeling. You just have to make the best of it every year.”
With the experience of playing in the game comes the understanding that preparation is a little bit different. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has repeatedly said that there can’t be any difference between this weekend and any other game.
But there is. The grandiose stage is impossible to ignore. Players have made careers at the Cotton Bowl. Preparing for the game for the final time is different, too.
“The sense of urgency for me, knowing that I’ve gotta put everything I can into the preparation for this week and be completely ready to go,” Darlington said. “I don’t want to look back and say I had any regrets for my last one because it’s been such a huge part of my life.
“To have the chance to put the golden hat on, to put that flag in the ground in the Cotton Bowl one more time, that’s pretty special for all of us seniors.”
Got one last big play to make? Only have one chance to rush for 100 yards or score three touchdowns. Pick up three sacks in a single contest?
Maybe return a punt for a touchdown?
“What better week to do it than Texas?” Shepard said.
Only six of Oklahoma’s 12 seniors have ever made a start in the Red River Rivalry. Left guard Derek Farniok will make his first start in the rivalry Saturday.
Shepard, Darlington, Striker and Durron Neal have played in all three since they’ve been on campus. But this is the last one.
It’s not the most important one, but it’s the last one.
“I plan to take full advantage of it,” Darlington said.