DALLAS — This Oklahoma team suddenly just looks different.
Not different than vintage Oklahoma teams. Not even different than last season’s Big 12 champion.
But different than it did just two weeks ago.
Don’t misunderstand. Problems, like covering the pass, still exist. And sometimes, new ones — like the epidemic of turnovers OU suffered on Saturday in the Cotton Bowl — can crop up.
These Sooners won’t contend for a national title.
But there is no doubt, the OU team that punched, counterpunched and ultimately survived Texas 45-40 in a Red River Rivalry game that, at times, felt a little like riding the nearby Tilt-a-Whirl with a tummy full of funnel cakes, is different than the one that outlasted TCU last week or the one that previously lost to Ohio State and Houston.
Start with Samaje Perine and Dede Westbrook.
They’ve been playing all season, but they’re just now reaching peak efficiency. That is, they’re just now completely healthy.
Texas can attest.
Perine hammered away at the Longhorns for 214 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and Westbrook chiseled off chunks against the Bevos with 10 catches for 232 yards and touchdowns of 71, 42 and 47 yards.
It’s the first time in school history the Sooners have had both a runner and a receiver go over 200 yards in the same game. Think about that.
In the highest-scoring OU-Texas game ever, Perine and Westbrook were exquisite.
Perine has been healthy, technically speaking, but after offseason ankle surgery, he spent a lot of time that he could have been working on his craft just healing. And Bob Stoops says Westbrook has been “nursing a pull.” Both had been good, but neither had been truly elite.
Until Saturday. And a healthy Perine and healthy Westbrook changes the look of this Oklahoma team.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Stoops said. “I said that a lot last week, that (Perine) is finally back into form. People who don’t play or work with these guys, that’s a highly skilled, trained athlete that hasn’t been doing it … since he had that operation. So it takes a while.
“That hit he took in the Houston game? When have you ever seen him take a hit like that? Well, he was rusty. He wasn’t ready to slip it or at least avoid it to some degree. Now, you wouldn’t see that again. He’s just finally getting his, probably, too, confidence and trust in his ankle.”
And in the team’s desperate quest for someone, anyone to become the next Sterling Shepard, Westbrook — this was Dede Westbrook we’re talking about here, though on Saturday he easily could have been mistaken for Russell Westbrook — may be emerging as the next Ryan Broyles or Mark Clayton.
“When he’s healthy, nobody can compete with his speed,” quarterback Baker Mayfield said. “He’s got track speed. I love throwing to him.”
Another thing that looked different about the Sooners on Saturday was a dangerous, diverse offense, a rhythmic and confident play-calling routine by offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.
The Sooners produced plenty of big plays against a shoddy Texas defense in second-half scoring drives that covered 79, 85, 76, 93 and 60 yards. But with Texas’ offense coming at them from all angles (D’Onta Foreman ran for 159 yards and two TDs and Shane Buechele threw for 245 yards and three scores), Riley’s crew also chewed up the game clock when the Sooners needed to with drives that consumed 6 ½ minutes and 8 minutes.
That’s almost an entire quarter on two scoring drives. Who does that any more?
“I think that shows the versatility of what we can do right now in that we had some big-play, short drives, and then we had some long ones to chew it up when we needed it,” Riley said. “That’s what we always want to be able to do. We want to be able to play fast some, but we want to be able to slow it down and execute when we need that to win the game.”
What a healthy and explosive Perine and Westbrook really did was give Riley options. And what Riley did was give Mike Stoops’ beleaguered defense a significant break.
Consider for a moment what the end of the game might have looked like if the Sooners score quickly instead of slowly on those two drives. Or if they had slipped up and punted instead of scoring. Texas, remember, scored its own second-half touchdowns on drives that covered 79, 75, 67 and 69 yards.
That furious Longhorn rally (which ended with a frantic series of laterals that was really kind of clownish, actually, hilariously silly, and — just ask Mike Stoops — maybe a wee bit scary) might have gone the other way entirely.
“That was huge,” Mike Stoops said of the offense’s sustained success during the second half. “We started to complement each other. … We (the defense) held us in the game the whole first half. Right? How many turnovers did we have? We had three? Right. (Four OU turnovers in total netted Texas only a field goal.) We held us together, and then they picked us up in the second half. That’s what good teams do. You have to work together, and that’s when you start to get big wins and gain momentum.”
This might not qualify as a “big win” per se. Let’s not oversell a five-point win against a team that has the kind of terminal and systemic problems like Charlie Strong’s ‘Horns do. Still, Sooner Nation rightly says it beats a sharp stick in the eye or losing to an inferior Texas side, as their team had done two of the previous three.
Here’s the new truth, the new identity of this Oklahoma football team: Baker Mayfield can throw interceptions and fail to connect with Mark Andrews, Joe Mixon can have the worst game of his life, the offensive line can be a surprisingly tasty casserole of overachieving leftovers, the defense can be gutted of starters and stripped of depth by debilitating injuries.
But as long as Samaje Perine and Dede Westbrook are humming, the Sooners have a chance to win every game.
“They’re two of our bigger playmakers,” Riley said, “and when they’re not full speed, we’re not as good as we can be, no question.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the The Franchise 107.7 app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.