Man, do I miss John Blake

Oh, how fast things can change.

Standing in the Cotton Bowl last Saturday I could not help but think back to 1998, to the moments after Texas had just blasted Oklahoma 34-3 after dominating the Sooners in all phases. There is a picture which still appears in the UT media guide of Mack Brown perched on a platform above a huge throng of reporters standing with tape recorders raised as if in some kind of gesture of homage. I was in that pack, and you can see me smiling as I listened to Brown’s take on what had just transpired. I was also smiling with the knowledge that Texas had hired a winner, while OU still bumbled along with John Blake at the helm.

There’s a lesson there -- cherish what you have in life at the moment, because you never know when you might lose it. The OU program is an example for Texas football fans. The ‘98 season would be the last for OU under Blake. Then OU hired Bob Stoops. The John Blake era at OU is now just a pleasant memory for Orangebloods who reveled in seeing the Okies struggle. That era, less than three years in the past, is now long gone.

After Brown’s Horns bested Stoops’ Sooners in their first head-up contest in ‘99, Oklahoma has caught up with the Texas program and surpassed it, at least in terms of success on the field.

The 2000 blowout of Texas by the Sooners is still unimaginable to this day, and still mostly inexplicable. That OU went on to an undefeated season and a national championship in just Stoops’ second year perhaps helped Texas fans to accept that game to some small extent: hey, we got creamed by a damn good football team, a championship team, a team which beat the best. And we all knew that the Horns would get another shot at the Sooners, and that this year the outcome would be different. People who love Texas football literally counted the days until their team would get the chance to even the score with the taunting, class-less, upside-down-Hook-em-waving Okies.

Well, the Horns got their chance, and the score was different, but the outcome was the same.

In some ways, this loss to OU hurts more. I am almost willing to call the ‘00 game "a blip on the screen," to quote John Mackovic. A fluke. A "snowball" game. A game where one team did everything right and another everything wrong. It happens. The Longhorns showed guts by winning the rest of their games before falling to a very good Oregon team in the Holiday Bowl in a tight contest. That rebound from last year’s Sooner rout portended great things for the ‘01 Horns. And through four games, we got what we hoped for. A 4-0 start and a top five ranking built on a power running game and a field-stretching passing game, superb special teams and a defense that flies to the football and swarms. This team gave us every reason to believe that it could erase the memory of last year’s embarrassing loss -- exceptional talent fueled by revenge.

Instead, we get 14-3, Sooners, in a game where a sophomore QB with virtually no experience came on and led his team to victory over a team with a veteran under center.

We now have to face the sobering reality that Stoops has got something going on in Norman that Brown has not yet been able to capture in Austin. Somehow, the OU staff has got the Sooners finding a way to win, every game out, no matter the opponent, no matter the circumstances. Eighteen straight wins, now. OU hasn’t lost a game since 1999. Texas under Brown has not reached that level.

But is it fair to make this conclusion in light of UT's second straight loss to the Sooners? After all, the coaches didn’t down the fourth quarter pooch kick on the three that set up OU’s game winning INT for six, Nathan Vasher did. Greg Davis didn’t throw four INT’s in the game, three in the crucial fourth quarter, Chris Simms did. Carl Reese’s defense held OU to a measly seven points and gave up 200 yards for god’s sake. What more could you ask?

Well, as superb as the Texas defense played, and man did they get after it, they produced no turnovers, no big plays that won the game for Texas. The offense struggled all day to find any rhythm. They looked impotent most of the day, throwing little dink out routes for a few yards while rarely even trying for a game-turning strike down field. Simms hit 24 of 42 passes for 198 yards. That’s an average of a little over eight yards per completion. Credit a lot of that to OU’s defense, which played zone to take away the deep throws, leaving Simms, on Davis’ instructions, to take what the defense gave him. It wasn’t much, and it certainly wasn’t enough. I won’t even talk about the running game, because there wasn’t any. The Texas defense needed to win this football game. They didn’t, while OU’s defense did.

So it was a team loss: an offense that could put up only three points, a defense that played great football, but which couldn’t make a game-turning play, and a critical special teams mistake that put Texas in a hole, opening the way for OU’s defense to turn in the clincher. Oklahoma got one TD from its offense and one from its D, which was enough. And for 18 straight games, that is what Stoops has gotten out of his team, just enough to win. Brown has gotten that from his team only most of the time.

Do I wish we had Bob Stoops and his staff at Texas? No, I don’t. I am amazed at what they are doing at OU from the pure standpoint of an observer of people doing a kick-ass job. But I like Mack Brown a lot; he is a good fit at Texas and still a relatively young coach who is learning as he goes. Greg Davis and Carl Reese are great people and good football coaches. Brown and his staff have gotten Texas back to an elite level, and we shouldn’t forget the long list of positives in our frustration over another loss to the Sooners.

Still, 14-3 following 63-14 shows that their counterparts in Norman have stolen some of the thunder of the Texas staff. As long as Stoops & Co. are at the helm of the Sooner Schooner, Brown & Co. are going to have to dig deeper and be more creative in finding the problems and making changes if necessary to correct them. OU has become a gigantic obstacle for Brown in reaching almost all of his yearly goals: winning the Big 12 South championship, winning the league title, and winning the national crown. If the Horns can’t beat the Sooners themselves, then they will lose control of their own destiny, always having to rely on other teams to knock the Okies off.

So the challenge is there, and it is a huge one. UT under Mack Brown is a much stronger program than the one he inherited. It must get stronger. Texas doesn’t have John Blake to kick around anymore.

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