DALLAS — Sooner Nation will always wonder: what the heck happened against Iowa State?
After Oklahoma’s performance Saturday in a 29-24 victory over Texas, the question becomes even more confounding.
“I don’t know,” said OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.
It was Stoops who took the brunt of the Iowa State loss, unable to keep a third-string quarterback with two collegiate passes from looking like an all-star.
So, too, it is Stoops who bears the flag for this Oklahoma defense in the Cotton Bowl cauldron, a thriller that came down the final play and drained the sellout crowd of 93,552.
“I think we put our players in a better position to succeed. That’s where it always starts,” Stoops said. “I think we played harder. The tackling still was sketchy at times, but just our effort, our will was stronger.”
Let’s call it what it was: No. 12-ranked Oklahoma (5-1, 2-1) played better as a team, much better, because more was on the line.
This wasn’t OU-Iowa State. It was OU-Texas.
To borrow from the self-important SEC, it just means more.
Baker Mayfield played better, completing 17-of-27 passes for 302 yards and a touchdown against an opportunistic defense. Mayfield threw his first interception of the season (he broke Jason White’s school record of 198 consecutive passes without a pick, threw one more to make it an even 200, then was intercepted by John Bonney), but in the end delivered a perfect, 59-yard strike to Mark Andrews for the game-winner with 6:53 to play.
Running back Trey Sermon played better, rushing for 96 yards on 20 pain-filled carries, catching two passes for 11 yards and throwing a 42-yard halfback pass to Marquise Brown to set up a field goal. Texas defenders looked like they never wanted to see Sermon again after he ran them over time after time.
Kicker Austin Seibert played better, making all three of his field goals, averaging 48 yards per punt (one dropped at the Texas 2-yard line), and kept Texas’ return game in check with touchbacks on six of his seven kickoffs.
Linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo played better, making five tackles, hurrying Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger five times, sacking him once, batting down an Ehlinger pass and forcing a fumble.
Afterward, “Obo” planted the “OU” flag in the Cotton Bowl midfield logo, then took a long knee, both exhausted from the nearly 4-hour game and giving a prayer of thanks.
Okoronkwo wore the face of OU-Texas, or what it should be, what it hasn’t been the last four times these teams have clashed, when the Longhorns were not as talented as their Red River Rivalry counterparts but still were the more physical team.
This time, it was the Sooners who took the fight to surging Texas (3-3, 2-1), jumping to a 20-0 lead with a ferocious defense and a tough-minded offense.
That faded some in the second quarter, when the ‘Horns got a 41-yard kickoff return, two personal foul penalties and a 16-yard screen pass from Sam Ehlinger to Kyle Porter to make it 20-7.
Mayfield was intercepted on the next drive, and Texas added a field goal to make it 20-10 at halftime, and the game was afoot.
OU opened the third quarter with a field goal, but Texas — aided by four third-down conversions — answered with a touchdown run from Chris Warren to make it 23-17.
The Sooners went three-and-out on their next two drives, and the irrepressible Ehlinger finally put the Longhorns ahead with a brilliant march, completions of 7, 21 and 22 yards (the middle one on third-and-10) and the final eight yards on a keeper. His diving TD gave Texas an unlikely 24-23 lead with 8:01 to play.
Mayfield answered immediately with his 59-yard TD to Andrews, and Ehlinger and the Longhorns could not respond.
Ehlinger was spectacular, completing 19-of-39 passes for 278 yards and a TD, rushing 22 times for 106 yards and a score and frustrating Stoops and his players repeatedly.
“I think he’s terrific,” Stoops said. “I knew that. He’s got a bright future. He’s a talented kid. He’s a competitor, a lot like our guy. So the future’s bright, obviously, for him, and for Texas. We’re gonna have to compete against him for the next three years and, you know, that’s good.”
Ehlinger was special, but Stoops’ defense yielded almost nothing else. No other Texas runner gained more than 7 yards (UT rushed for 139 total), and no Texas receiver caught more than 4 passes for more than 55 yards. The Longhorns averaged only 6.7 yards per pass attempt and 3.6 yards per rush.
Oklahoma’s defense was dialed in, and Stoops couldn’t help feel at least a little vindicated.
“It’s part of the business,” Stoops said. “You’ve got to take the good with the bad. A lot of it, some of it is deserved. You earn your criticism sometimes. It’s not always the right — it’s easy for people to attack you personally. That, to me, is upsetting. But that’s just part of the business.
“I’ve been around too long, I know what my resume is. I know what I’ve accomplished in my coaching career. My players know, they understand it, and I’ll put it up against anybody.”
Two significant trends continued: the team with the most rushing yards won for the 18th time in the last 19 years (last year’s game was the only exception), and the quarterback with starting experience in the Red River Rivalry improved to 13-2-1 since 1990 against a QB who had never played in the game.
Maybe OU fixed things after the Iowa State debacle. Or maybe next week’s game at Kansas State will be trouble simply because it’s not OU-Texas.
“We’re gonna play a lot better as this thing goes on,” said OU coach Lincoln Riley. “We’re gonna to get a lot better as a team. But any time you come out of here with a win, it’s a special moment.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.