ARLINGTON — I found myself inside that huge AT&T Stadium (often called JerryWorld because that’s where Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys play their home football games), but where this particular Saturday was where the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners were getting ready to start the game that would decide which team will represent the Big 12 Conference as football champion and enter the so-called Final Four playoff to decide this season’s national champion. Other than Oklahoma, the other three teams will be defending champion Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame. And that’s exclusive company.
But first Oklahoma had to defeat Texas, something it could not do back in October when the teams first played that Red River Showdown. The Longhorns won that thriller, 48-45. History (and the Las Vegas odds-makers) say it is extremely difficult for one good team to beat another good team twice in the same season. That’s why Oklahoma was favored by about four points in the early betting, but by early Saturday the betting line had gone up to seven points.
Obviously those people who put their money on Texas were also aware that Oklahoma has a lousy defense. Didn’t have one when the Sooners played Texas, didn’t have one when they played Texas Tech, didn’t even have one when they played Kansas.
And they didn’t have what Oklahoma once had when they had the Selmon brothers at defensive tackle or maybe Brian Bosworth at linebacker for three seasons starting with 1986. But what they had on Dec. 1 of this year was just good enough. And of course they had some winners to head up the offense.
Oklahoma this season reminded me of that old saying, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick.” But Sooner quarterback Kyler Murray can do even better. He can lead his Sooner team to its greatest football victory of the season.
That is what he did in that big AT&T Stadium this past Saturday before a record attendance of 83,114, the highest attendance figure any conference football championship has ever achieved (it beat even the 1992 SEC championship game of 83,091).
Can Murray do it in his next game? I doubt it. He will be playing in the Orange Bowl against defending national champion Alabama, and last Saturday, even with a two-touchdown lead and with Alabama’s starting quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender Tua Tagovailoa knocked out of action with an ankle injury, powerful Georgia couldn’t do it. And Georgia not only beat Oklahoma last year, Georgia was ranked higher and has a better defense than Oklahoma this year.
But who knows? Maybe nothing can stop Kyler Murray this season. I know he has a decent shot to win the Heisman when that award is announced on Saturday.
(Yes, I have been the Heisman sectional representative in charge of choosing the state chairmen for Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Colorado and New Mexico since years ago when Field Scovell turned that assignment over to me.) My wife, Reba, and I used to go annually, but not since we got on up in years — I am 93.
The most memorable of our trips to the Heisman ceremony came in 1977 when Earl Campbell won the Heisman and the Heisman committee decided Earl’s mother, Ann, needed to be there to see her son be awarded college football’s highest honor. So they got in touch with Ann back in Tyler and told her they were flying her to New York for the ceremony. They arranged for someone to meet her at the New York air terminal and bring her to the Downtown Marriott Hotel, where the Heisman Trophy is always presented.
And knowing Ann Campbell would be feel lost seeing all the skyscrapers and all, they asked my wife if she would meet Ann when she arrived at the hotel and pin a rose on her. If you ever see a photo of Ann, Earl and Texas football coach Fred Akers at the Heisman ceremony, you will see the rose that my wife pinned on Ann Campbell that day.
But back to last Saturday’s game, where Kyler Murray reached down deep and did things that reminded me of what his daddy (Kevin Murray) did to Baylor in the Baylor-Texas A&M game at Kyle Field on Oct. 18, 1986, before 74,739 fans, the seventh-largest crowd ever to see a Baylor-A&M crowd on Kyle Field during the SWC years. I was there to cover the game and saw All-SWC quarterback Kevin Murray break the Baylor Nation’s collective hearts by leading the Aggies to a 31-30 victory. That game was later voted the best football game played in the SWC during the 1980s.
As you can see, I’m trying to delay as possible the fact that the Longhorns lost last Saturday’s big showdown. But they did lose, 39-27, after breaking in front and leading until late in the second quarter and moving into a 27-27 tie with OU at the end of the third quarter. At that moment it was still either team’s ball game to win or lose.
Then the bottom fell out.
Oklahoma’s field goal kicker Austin Seibert booted a 31-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to move the Sooners ahead, 30-27 and then Kyler Murray threw an 18-yard pass to tall (6-2, 221-pound sophomore) receiver Grant Calcaterra in the Texas end zone for the touchdown that nailed down the Sooner victory. Oklahoma had moved 65 yards in 11 plays to get the score.
The odd part of it was that Calcaterra earlier had managed fewer than 325 receiving yards, and his catch in the UT end zone was a ONE-HANDED grab. That catch, experts tell us, will live on in Oklahoma history forever.
“What a play,” Dallas Morning News special contributor Spenser Davis quoted Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley as saying after the game. Incidentally, Riley is a Texan, from Muleshoe (population 5,000, in far-out West Texas), so this state didn’t lose out entirely. If Murray should win the Heisman, Riley would be hitting 2-for-2. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield (another Texan, from the Austin area) won the award last season in Riley’s first year as OU coach.
Actually, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (6-3, 230, only a sophomore) played well enough for the Longhorns to win. He completed 23 of his 36 passes for a whopping 349 yards and two touchdowns and threw only one interception. But that one time he got sacked in his own end zone that resulted in OU getting a safety, that was the one that turned the game wrong-side out. And that wasn’t Sam’s fault. The Longhorn who failed to block OU sophomore cornerback Tre Brown when he came blitzing in on Ehlinger, tackling him for a safety, is the guy to blame.
And all those penalties also played a big role in the Longhorns’ downfall. Texas was flagged 13 times for 128 yards, tying a championship record for penalty yardage, and some of the flags were extremely costly — grabbing face masks and the like.
“It’s hard to win a game when you’re going backwards that many times,” one senior Longhorn said after the game.
And Texas coach Tom Herman added: “We had some aggressive penalties that were called that hurt us.”
But Ehlinger said he will be back and with the mission to win the 2019 conference title, and he has good reason to think so. Texas looked to me as the team for next year, Oklahoma a team for this current season. The Sooners lose Murray and four other offensive starters (only one starter on defense, but the defense was OU’s main weakness this season); Texas keeps its quarterback and loses only three offensive starters but does lose eight defensive starters. However, recruiting has long been a Longhorn strength.