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Tramel: A star is born in the Red River Rivalry. So what's next for Caleb Williams and Sooners?

Berry Tramel
Oklahoman

DALLAS — Some brave OU students stepped onto the Cotton Bowl turf Saturday, and with little resistance from Dallas’ finest, more followed. 

Soon enough, thousands of OU young’ns milled about the hallowed grass, making history while celebrating the Sooners’ 55-48 victory

Storming the field at OU-Texas? Not even the 50-year observers of this series could recall anything similar. 

Of course, the Sooner scholars were on a mission. They were looking for Lincoln Riley. Time to deliver a “told you so.” 

Two weeks earlier, the OU students booed the Sooner offense and led a “We Want Caleb! We Want Caleb!” chant that spread throughout Owen Field. Just because you’re boorish doesn’t mean you’re always wrong. 

The students got their wish in the second quarter of OU-Texas, true freshman Caleb Williams replacing Spencer Rattler, and soon enough the Sooners had an epic victory. OU trailed 28-7 after one quarter and 41-23 with 18 minutes left in the game. 

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But when the four-hour epic was over, the Sooners danced in delight, in part for their sixth victory in the last seven meetings of this ancient rivalry, but also because a new hero emerged who figures to make continued OU success likely. 

In nine possessions, Williams led OU to four touchdowns and three field goals, and that’s not counting his 66-yard touchdown dash on a fourth-down play to open the second quarter. 

Riley was a little slow to overly praise Williams and a little quick to overly praise Rattler. Riley said it was difficult to bench Rattler and pointed out that Rattler was inserted for the two-point conversion when the Sooners trailed 41-39 with 7:25 left in the game.

Forgive Riley. He’s got personalities and a team to manage. Speaking truth is not a high priority in such a morality play. 

But Riley admitted he benched Rattler on Saturday for the same reason he benched Rattler a year ago against Texas. Turnovers. A Rattler mental error led to a first-quarter interception, and then Rattler fumbled while scrambling in the second quarter. The latter allowed Texas to take a 35-17 lead, and Riley had seen enough.  

“You can't turn the ball over and win this game,” Riley said. “I really was expecting to put him back in, didn't know it would come on maybe the most important play of the game. But he handled it like a pro. 

“I thought we got a little bit of a rhythm when Caleb came in, he did some good things and we were scoring, we were moving it, so I stayed with it.” 

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OU's Caleb Williams (13) hands off to Kennedy Brooks (26) during the Sooners' 55-48 win against Texas on Saturday in Dallas.

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But make no mistake. A star was born, and Riley will be hard-pressed not to hand the reins to Williams going forward, even though Rattler was the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite and has played from moderately well to extremely well this season. 

But OU is 6-0, a College Football Playoff berth is there for the taking, and Williams showed that his mobility and playmaking trumps Rattler’s rifle-arm advantage. At least against Texas, and no reason to think that’s not the case against everyone. The Rattler offense has been good, not great, and great is the OU standard. 

And it’s not like Williams struggles throwing. Just view his two touchdown passes to Marvin Mims. 

The former was a third-quarter, 14-yard play on third-and-11, when Williams almost let the play clock expire, dropped the snap and had to step up several feet to avoid a sack. But he drilled the ball to Mims between converging Texas defensive backs. 

The latter was a fourth-quarter, 52-yard play on third-and-13, when the Longhorns flushed Williams from the pocket and forced him toward the sideline. Williams improvised by jumping to launch a pass that almost reached the end zone. Mims turned magician, wangled around a Longhorn cornerback Darion Dunn and caught the ball while falling with a foot inbounds and then an elbow in the green of the end zone. 

A 52-yard jump pass, with the game on the line? Are you kidding me? 

“The 50-50 balls that went up in the air, they came down with them,” said Texas coach Steve Sarkisian. “The broken plays really hurt us the most today with the quarterback. Kind of improvising and flinging the ball up and down the field, and they caught it.” 

Williams was everything his student body hoped for. Hard to corral. A knack for playmaking. Spectacular at times. And clutch with the game on the line. 

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OU quarterback Caleb Williams (13) had four carries for 88 yards and a touchdown Saturday against Texas.

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The record-setting Dallas temperatures reached into the 90s in mid-afternoon, but Williams was cool. He took the Sooners on a 75-yard, six-play drive to the winning touchdown, scored by Kennedy Brooks with a 33-yard run with three seconds left. Williams was just trying to get the Sooners into the field-goal range and did just that, before Brooks made a kick unnecessary. 

Williams wasn’t entirely comfortable throughout the game. The play clock ticked perilously close to zero several times, and he missed some open throws, including at least one easy touchdown that instead sailed over Jadon Haselwood’s head. 

But still. A guy who directs a cross-country touchdown drive in the final two minutes to win the game against Texas has all the chops you need. 

“He did a pretty good job,” Riley said (see what I mean). “A backup quarterback naturally is not going to get as many reps. But I felt comfortable with him.” 

Riley was careful with Williams in the third quarter, calling just one pass in the Sooners’ first eight plays of the second half. But as the game wore on, Williams’ ability to evade the rush meant the passing game could flourish and, oh yeah, open the running game, which was good in the first half and became great in the second (190 yards). 

“He did good,” Riley said. “He made some plays. He missed a couple of really, really easy things. But no, he was ready. He handled it well.” 

The students tried to tell him. They tried to tell us all. And now Caleb Williams is the best bet for quarterbacking the 2021 Sooners. 

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at btramel@oklahoman.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.