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Golden: Texas, OU football coaches like to run it, but quarterbacks will have the final say

Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m.

  • Quarterbacks have dominated the rivalry over the last two decades
  • Running backs were the biggest stars before the turn of the century.
  • Texas' Bijan Robinson leads an offense that averages 265.8 yards per game

It’s a quarterback’s playground, and the best guy behind center will get all the glory on Saturday.

When No. 23 Texas and No. 5 Oklahoma knock heads for the 117th time in their storied rivalry, we will get a matchup of  play-callers who are going against the grain when it comes to how they will attack the enemy.

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Before we can even think about a Fletcher’s corny dog or an ice-cold libation from the midway, Lincoln Riley and Red River first-timer Steve Sarkisian are looking to whip up a deep-fried game plan that will confuse, confound and turn back that team on the other sideline.

Texas quarterback Casey Thompson, right, celebrates a touchdown with running back Bijan Robinson in his first career start against Rice on Sept. 18. Thompson is confident heading into his first Texas-Oklahoma game as a starter. He has led the Longhorns to three straight wins.

More:After that 99-yard drive by TCU, Texas defense looking for 'a four-quarter football game'

They have mentored some of the best quarterbacks in college football over the last few years, which makes it soooo intriguing that they’re both talking about running the football.

After patiently waiting for three years and two games to get his first start, Casey Thompson has led the Longhorns to three straight wins after Sarkisian benched Hudson Card following a dreadful Arkansas performance, but he makes no secret in being a run-first coach with Bijan Robinson as the featured performer. The Horns are the fifth-best rushing team in the country.

More:Golden: Words from veteran teammates partially prepare newcomers for Texas-Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler was the most talked-about quarterback in America during the offseason, and the throws are there, but his head coach has consistently fed running backs Kennedy Brooks and Eric Gray, whose combined 103 attempts are two fewer than Robinson.

Both are averaging over five yards per carry but Rattler, just like Robinson, is the unquestioned star of his offense.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian and quarterback Casey Thompson will team up for a Saturday of firsts in Dallas: It will be Thompson's first start in the Texas-OU game and Sarkisian's first Red River experience as a head coach. Oklahoma has won three straight in the series.

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"I think (Riley) does a good job of fitting his scheme to the players that he has, most notably the quarterback," Sarkisian said on Monday. "That’s something that a lot of guys as coordinators or play-callers struggle with because it’s about their scheme and the players have to fit the scheme.”

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Rattler is a gunslinger and Riley has taken great pains to try and rein in the talented youngster at times while making sure to not stifle this confidence. Rattler also has had to deal with the sound of boos coming from the home fans.

His play-calling gets most of the attention, but Riley's handling of his quarterbacks’ mental well-being is sometimes overlooked as it’s been with Sarkisian.

Riley pulled Rattler in the first half last season after a pair of interceptions, but he went back to the redshirt freshman, who ruined an epic six-touchdown performance from Sam Ehlinger in OU's 53-45 overtime thriller.

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley talks with quarterback Spencer Rattler during the first half of last Saturday's win over Kansas State in Manhattan, Kan. Rattler thrived after Riley benched him in the first half of the four-overtime win over Texas in 2020. He has led the Sooners to a 5-0 start and a No. 5 national ranking.

These two SEC-bound schools are all about handing it off first, but the quarterbacks will ultimately decide who wins this one.

That’s been the trend for a while.

Over the last 20 years, as college football offenses have evolved mostly from run-first to more pass-happy spread concepts, the quarterback has become the central figure in the sport.

While the position has always been the most important in all of team sports, it has far surpassed the running back in schematics and concepts.

Predictably, the sport’s most prestigious award, the Heisman Trophy, has become a quarterback’s playground. Over the last 20 years, only three running backs have won. Reggie Bush famously outdistanced Vince Young in 2005 but later had to relinquish the award because of NCAA violations. Alabama’s Mark Ingram (2009) and Derrick Henry (2015) were the other two. Quarterbacks grabbed 16 and a wideout (Alabama’s DeVonta Smith in 2020) earned one.

It was almost like someone hit a switch after the 1990s that was labeled “overlooked running backs” when it comes to the Heisman.

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy visits with Oklahoma's Sam Bradford after the Longhorns defeated the Sooners 16-13 in 2009.  Bradford left the game after being injured on a tackle by Aaron Williams. McCoy went 3-1 against the Sooners during his time at Texas.

Texas’ lone two Heisman winners — Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams — were running backs, but their only two major threats to the award this century — Vince Young and Colt McCoy — were quarterbacks. Before 2000, Oklahoma’s three Heisman winners were running backs Billy Vessels, Steve Owens and Billy Sims before four Sooners quarterbacks — Jason White, Sam Bradford, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray — took center stage starting in 2003.

In this rivalry, the biggest running back storylines involved OU freshman Adrian Peterson, who took the spotlight away from Texas’ Cedric Benson with 225 yards in a 12-0 shutout in 2004  that was known more for UT coaches Mack Brown and Greg Davis putting redshirt freshman greyhound quarterback Vince Young on lockdown with a horribly conservative game plan.

That came four years after Oklahoma’s Quentin Griffin scored six touchdowns in a 63-14 humbling of the Horns, OU’s first of five straight wins to start the decade. The Longhorns didn’t reverse the losing trend until their two best quarterbacks of the last 20 years — Young and McCoy — ascended to All-America status.

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Texas’ best moments in recent memory have mostly come with quarterbacks taking top honors. Young steamrolled the Sooners 45-13 in 2005 and McCoy went 3-1 in the series and famously outdueled Bradford in an epic 45-35 win in 2008.

Rattler is getting more notice from NFL scouts as a projected first-rounder, but Thompson is getting more interviews because he's the son of Charles Thompson, who quarterbacked the Sooners for two years in the late 1980s. Thompson committed to Texas as a junior and stayed true to his word for a year despite attempts from Riley and even Nick Saban to flip his pledge.

“Casey’s done a great job,” Riley said during his weekly media availability. “Obviously, we know that family very well. It’s our rivals, so you never wish too much good upon them, but it’s been fun to see Casey do well. It’s no surprise.”

Thompson is playing so well within himself with 71% completion accuracy, 707 yards,  nine touchdowns and three interceptions as is Rattler, who is completing an astounding 76% of his throws with 10 touchdowns and four picks, the hisses and boos notwithstanding.

Thompson grew up with football at the dinner table and now plans to eat up the Sooners in a rivalry that’s been all about the quarterbacks the last two decades. Texas has lost the last three meetings, but that talk will go away with one successful Red River debut by someone who has experienced both sides of this blood feud.

It's why I give his Longhorns a slugger's chance to pull off the upset. History isn't on Thompson's side — quarterbacks making their Red River debut are 4-14-1 over the last 30 years — but history won't be taking the field this weekend. He has waited years for this opportunity.

“It’s a dream come true for me to be a part of the tradition of great quarterbacks that  have been able to play and start in this game,” Thompson said. “There have been a lot of great players that have made their name in this game and I’m looking to do the same this week.”

Somewhere north of here, Rattler is thinking the same thing.

Saturday's game

23-Texas vs. 5-Oklahoma, Cotton Bowl, Dallas, ABC, 104.9