The 2013 Longhorns were supposed to be a team years in the making. Top recruiting classes in 2010, 2011 and 2012, forged through the crucible of seeing the field too early, agonizing losses and and surprising rebounds. In 2010, Texas struggled with too-soft play on the lines and a lack of impact athletes to tote and catch the ball. By 2013, supposedly, those players were replaced with speedy deep threats. At running back, Texas returned both Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown, two backs who were ranked among the top backs in their respective classes.
Saturday was a window to that talent. Saturday, despite missing a starting quarterback and starting right tackle* — wounds that would have waylaid the 'Horns just three years ago — Texas overpowered and out-athleted a team that entered the game 5-0 and ranked No. 12/10. Oklahoma's last two games included a solid win at Notre Dame and a victory over TCU, a team many considered to be a Big 12 favorite before the season started. But it wasn't that Texas tricked or lucked its way into a win. The Longhorns achieved it by lining up and running for 255 yards, including 100-yard days for Johnathan Gray (123) and Malcolm Brown (120).
"I think this is probably as well as we have run the ball against them since 2005," said Texas coach Mack Brown.
"We just needed to be more physical at the line of scrimmage and didn't do that," said Oklahoma defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue. "That's out-executed us and we were driven back. That's pretty much it."
* Of course, Oklahoma had its own injuries, chief among those the loss of defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and linebacker Corey Nelson, far-and-away the Sooners' top defenders against opposing running games.
When asked about those absences, Ndulue continued: "Well, that's not really an excuse because anyone has to step up, so missing them was … they outplayed us, and that's basically it."
While the Longhorns weren't tricky, per se, they were brilliant at times in their execution. Packed boxes led to matchups on the outside that quarterback Case McCoy was able to exploit with floating deep balls, first to Marcus Johnson for a 59-yard touchdown, then again to Mike Davis for a 38-yard score. And Texas utilized tempo to its advantage, switching speeds to catch Oklahoma off guard. Texas went quickly after big plays and earned some extra yards by surprising the Sooners with their pace. Then, the Longhorns would slow things down, forcing Oklahoma to display its defensive hand before Texas ran the play.
And that advantage showed early, as Texas raced out to a 10-3 first quarter lead, thanks to both the running game and a 31-yard interception return from senior defensive tackle Chris Whaley.
"The mentality today was to go out and be the more physical team throughout the whole game," Whaley said. "We fought hard for 60 minutes, and we came out for the win."
That quick start certainly represented a change from the Longhorns' recent norms against the Sooners. In fact, when Texas led 10-3 after the first quarter, it marked the first Texas advantage heading into the second quarter since 2006. When Texas led heading into the halftime break, it represented the Longhorn's first halftime lead since 2005.
"We saw it early in the game running the ball with the up-tempo and tapping their helmets, we just kept coming and pounding," Gray said. "We knew it would break eventually, and it did."
The third quarter proved to be the best Texas quarter yet. A Daje Johnson 85-yard punt return touchdown gave Texas a 16-point lead, while the McCoy-to-Davis TD put the Longhorns up 23 points heading into the fourth quarter.
"We turned up to another level," said Davis, who grew up a stone's throw from the Cotton Bowl. "It was great. We came out here an had more fight than they did.
"I always wanted this since I have been here," Davis said. "To go out with a bang my senior year and win this game means a lot to me."
Of course, because it's Texas-OU, and because the Longhorns have had such rough luck lately with the Sooners, this one wouldn't be settled by Texas rolling off comfortably into the sunset, hanging a blowout on a despairing Oklahoma squad. McCoy made one of his few mistakes, throwing a pick-six to Sooner defensive end Geneo Grissom. That cut the lead to 36-20, a two-score game. Just under three minutes later, the Sooners had the ball back. And three plays put Oklahoma with a first down at the Texas 11 and a chance to take things to one score.
This time, the Texas defense stiffened. Trey Millard was stopped by Jackson Jeffcoat and Mykkele Thompson for a two-yard gain. Bell — on his way to a 10-26 day with two interceptions — twice fired incomplete for Jaz Reynolds. After Oklahoma was hit with a delay of game penalty, Bell was sacked to end the drive by Jeffcoat.
Overall, the defense was outstanding, holding the Sooners to just 263 yards while sacking Bell four times.
Ever since the Ole Miss loss, one that left the Longhorns 1-2, Mack Brown has pushed forward with his Big 12 title talk, stating that the team's primary goals — a Big 12 championship and the BCS bowl appearance that comes with it — were still ahead of them. At the time, his comments came across as a punchline, and became a quick punching bag for those who pointed out, perhaps rightfully so, that no 1-2 team that was giving up rushing yardage by the bushel-loads should be making such lofty claims.
But Saturday, Texas moved to 3-0 in the league, with two wins over teams that have traditionally served as trip-wire for successful Longhorn seasons in the Sooners and Kansas State Wildcats. That they were able to do so, to present themselves as one of the league's titans, with a bevy of 2014 and 2015 recruits in attendance was all the better.
Of course, now, the onus is on taking this performance and duplicating it, week after week. If Texas beat Oklahoma, but falters in future matchups, the impact of Saturday's win lessens significantly. And then, of course, there's the common topic of Mack Brown's job security. Just how important, if at all, was Saturday's game for Mack?
"It's all important for Mack Brown because, let me tell you something, I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Mack Brown," said defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. "I just wanted to come help him because he is that kind of guy.
"I think that our players feel the same way, and I know our coaches feel the same way," Robinson said. "He is a good person, and he has had tough situations that he has been having to deal with here for awhile. I'm just so happy for him, I really am. I think he deserves it. I think he guided our team and our coaching staff well."
But even Mack Brown would say that job issues will work themselves out, and that the important thing is to keep winning. To do that, Texas will need to bottle whatever spirit they found on Saturday and use it more consistently.
"I believe that we can be this team," Malcolm Brown said. "We have the athletes and we have the coaches. I do believe we can be this team the rest of the year."
TEXAS — Anthony Fera 31 FG, 10:13 1Q
Oklahoma — Michael Hunnicutt 34 FG, 6:53 1Q
TEXAS — Chris Whaley 31 interception return (Fera kick), 2:29 1Q
TEXAS — Marcus Johnson 59 pass from Case McCoy (Fera kick), 8:46 2Q
TEXAS — Fera 50 FG, 3:22 2Q
Oklahoma — Damien Williams 3 run (Hunnicutt kick), 1:06 2Q
TEXAS — Fera 43 FG, 0:00 2Q
Oklahoma — Hunnicutt 37 FG, 11:08 3Q
TEXAS — Daje Johnson 85 punt return (kick blocked), 7:22 3Q
TEXAS — Mike Davis 38 pass from McCoy (Fera kick), 0:21 3Q
Oklahoma — Geneo Grissom 54 interception return (Hunnicutt kick), 10:07 4Q