It’s Texas-Oklahoma week, folks. This is serious stuff.
KEYE-TV reporter Bob Ballou was treating it as such Monday when a cell phone rang during Texas coach Tom Herman’s press conference, interrupting the ebb and flow of the Q&A.
“Fraud Risk. Somebody’s getting a call from Fraud Risk. Is that important?” Herman said, looking at the screen on his podium. “Should I answer it?”
Oh, yes. Absolutely. In a rivalry series now sponsored by AT&T, why not?
“This is coach Herman. Hello?”
Someone on the other end launched into a sales call. “Well good afternoon …”
“Good,” Herman said. “Whoever you’re calling, can he call you back?”
The 11th-ranked Longhorns (4-1, 2-0 Big 12) don’t have time for robocalls or chitchat at the moment. The sixth-ranked Sooners (5-0, 2-0) come calling Saturday at the Cotton Bowl. By goofing around, even just a bit, Herman showed he’s loose and ready, just as a 10.5-point underdog probably should be.
“It is one of, if not the greatest, games in college football,” Herman said of the Red River Showdown. And this is a coach who’s been in everything from the Battle of Piney Woods (Sam Houston State-Stephen F. Austin), the Cy-Hawk series (Iowa State-Iowa) and The Game (Ohio State-Michigan).
“Been pretty cool to be a part of all of those, but this one, it takes the cake because of it being interstate rivals. The two states in general don’t get along very well,” Herman said. “And then to have it at such a historic venue, during the Texas State Fair. I think it’s cool that it’s always on our soil.
“Everything that surrounds the game makes it one of the, if not the best games in college football.”
Herman’s Houston Cougars upset the third-ranked Sooners to open the 2016 season. That victory propelled Houston to a 9-4 record and put Herman on track for the Texas job.
Herman is 1-2 in two seasons against his OU counterpart, Lincoln Riley, since coming to Austin. In 2017, the Horns were nine-point underdogs and lost 29-24 to future Heisman winner Baker Mayfield. In 2018, Texas was a seven-point underdog and won 48-45, beating future Heisman winner Kyler Murray.
This time around, OU has yet another transfer quarterback with Heisman potential — Jalen Hurts from Alabama. Hurts (6-2, 218) presents a different dynamic than Mayfield or Murray. He’s a big, dangerous scrambler, a quarterback who sits third in the Big 12 in rushing at the moment.
Hurts averages 99.8 rushing yards per game. He’s also thrown 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
But just how good are these Sooners? OU’s five opponents are a combined 10-17. Even OU’s win over South Dakota, a FCS team, doesn’t look so impressive. The Coyotes are 2-3. Texas Tech (3-2, 1-1) is the only team of OU’s five opponents with a winning record. Kansas fired its offensive coordinator on Sunday.
Still when you watch the Sooners play, Hurts appears to be running through a ghost town at times, not a soul in sight. “You’ve got to cover CeeDee Lamb, Charleston Rambo and Theo Wease and all those guys,” Herman said.
Complicating matters for OU, both starting tackles are likely to be out. Riley said left tackle Erik Swenson and right tackle Adrian Ealy are “highly questionable for this game, probably at best.”
The Longhorns had a better injury report Monday. Herman said tight end Cade Brewer was not diagnosed with a concussion after Saturday’s win over West Virginia. Defensive backs Chris Brown and DeMarvion Overshown will ease into practice this week, too.
Herman had hoped freshman running back Jordan Whittington (sports hernia) would be cleared this week. “Having him this week was maybe a bit of a pipe dream, but he has not had setbacks,” Herman said.
Receiver Collin Johnson practiced Sunday, so he could be cleared this week. Johnson has not played since week two against LSU with a nagging hamstring issue.
Injuries aside, this game always comes down to who best manages the emotional roller-coaster in the Cotton Bowl.
“It’s just kind of a slugfest. I mean, it always is. That makes it fun,” Riley told OU reporters in Norman, Okla. on Monday. “Staying level-headed, even-keeled throughout this entire game is important.”
Riley doesn’t expect OU’s favorite hand signal to be an issue, either. Asked whether his players will do the Horns Down, Riley said, “Our players won’t do it. Just like the Big 12 (championship) game.”
Herman remembers a different hand sign during his first Texas-OU experience as a graduate assistant under Mack Brown.
His first memory was “looking out the window and literally seeing this elderly lady — had to have been at least 80 years old — going double bird to the Texas bus. And then literally next to her was this, couldn’t have been more than 8-year-old boy, going double bird to the Texas bus.”
Herman held up both hands and nearly completed what would’ve been a screenshot for the ages. “I hope I didn’t actually put those up. I got close, right?” Herman said, prompting howls from the assembled scribes.
Eh, Texas fans would’ve been OK with that. It’s that time. It’s OU week.
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.