A critical exchange of possessions in the second quarter defined this year’s Red River Rivalry.
With the Sooners trailing 10-3, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel dialed up three consecutive Blake Bell passes. All three fell incomplete.
Texas offensive coordinator Major Applewhite countered with three consecutive runs between the tackles for a first down. The drive ultimately ended with Case McCoy’s 59-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Johnson in man coverage that gave the Longhorns control of the game.
Saturday, on the same field where Texas finally uncovered an offensive identity, the Sooners completely lost theirs.
Oklahoma’s recipe for success before Dallas was simple and effective. Run the ball, take care of the ball and make the necessary plays in the fourth quarter. The game plan worked wonders in the Sooners’ convincing victory at Notre Dame. It was enough to beat TCU, too.
But against the Longhorns, once Oklahoma’s shaky passing attack was exposed, the entire offense fell apart.
Texas loaded the box and checked the Sooners’ ground game. The Longhorns dared Heupel and quarterback Blake Bell to beat them deep. And the Sooners blinked first.
Bell completed just 1 of 7 downfield attempts that were longer than 10 yards – a fullback pop to Trey Millard for 29 yards early in the game. Considering the defensive scheme Texas employed, the lack of completions downfield was staggering. The lack of attempts, even more so.
“There were opportunities there a little bit to unload the box that we're not taking advantage of,” Heupel said. “We haven't been good on the outside or in the middle of the field — anything past 15 yards. We’ve got to be better. There are explosive plays out there that have the opportunity to win. We’ve just got to make them.”
Heupel also shied away from calling many quarterback runs, which had been so effective for Oklahoma in the past and so lethal against the Longhorns this season. Against a loaded box, having the extra blocker would have been useful. But the Sooners didn’t attempt to capitalize off Bell’s power wheels, and Bell only ran three times for just eight yards.
“That’s just the way Coach Heupel and all of our offensive coaches wanted to go into the football game,” answered Bob Stoops, when asked why more Bell runs weren’t called. “Again, there were just some things we don't feel so comfortable with in some areas always with Blake.”
If the Sooners didn’t feel comfortable with Bell throwing the ball downfield or running him, maybe they should have made another quarterback change. But that wasn’t considered, either.
Now, the Sooners are left to pick up the pieces from their Red River disaster and rework an offensive identity that went to pot in Dallas.
“There’s no magical pill you’re going to take and correct it,” Heupel said. “You just go back to work.”
According to all reports, the Longhorns didn’t take any magic pills before the Oklahoma game. But they played a like a completely different team than the one that had shuffled through the first five games. And a week after calling 45 passes, Applewhite opted to run the offense through hard-nosed running backs Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown behind the Longhorns’ veteran offensive line.
“They were determined to go play, determined to move the ball and they understood the game plan,” Applewhite said of his line. “I think we spelled it out for them in terms of where we wanted to be on third down so we could possess the ball and convert and keep the chains moving. I think the game plan was a lot more simplified; the schemes were very simple.”
The simple scheme couldn’t have worked better for burnt orange.
Texas gained five yards anytime it wanted up the middle, as Gray and Brown both rushed for more than 100 yards. That took the pressure off quarterback Case McCoy, who delivered the big plays when he was called on to.
The last three years, Texas coach Mack Brown has been trying to locate the right identity for the Longhorns offense. This past offseason, Brown indicated he wanted to speed up the tempo and spread the field.
But as Saturday showed, this offense is built to run between the tackles, then throw deep to a host of speedy receivers.
The formula worked wonders against the Sooners. And could work wonders going forward, too.
“I loved the game plan,” McCoy said. “I was confident in the plan and knew in any situation what was going on and what I was doing. We played hard and played to the plan.
“And that's exciting.”