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Carlson: Why the Cotton Bowl shook Saturday and other unexpected surprises from OU-Texas

Jenni Carlson
Oklahoman

DALLAS — Kennedy Brooks barreled into the end zone, and the Sooner south side of the Cotton Bowl erupted. 

OU fans cheered and screamed, jumped and stomped.

They moved the grand old stadium.

No one on the Sooner side would’ve been able to tell amid the delirium and no one on the Longhorn side would’ve wanted to admit it amid the distress, but for several seconds, the mammoth concrete cathedral vibrated. 

Never know what could happen when OU and Texas get together.

OU 55, Texas 48.

On a day the Sooners overcame a two-touchdown deficit in the first two minutes of the game and an 18-point deficit with only a little over a quarter of football left, the college football world was reminded how grand the Red River Rivalry is. There were huge plays. There were memorable moments. There were unexpected twists. 

OU benched its Heisman Trophy hopeful and turned to a true freshman quarterback, for crying out loud.

In a series that has had its share of crazy, wonderful, classic games, this topped them all.

“That was a hell of a fight,” Sooner coach Lincoln Riley said. “I told the team, I'm trying to think of the moments in my career that I've been prouder of our team.

“I don't know if there's any.”

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This rivalry rarely disappoints, but Saturday was next level stuff.

Exactly 113 seconds into the game — before some fans might have cleared the ticket turnstiles — Texas led 14-0. 

It might have been the worst start imaginable for OU. The Sooners stunk on defense, missing a couple tackles to allow a 75-yard touchdown on the Longhorns’ first snap, then allowing another touchdown on their third snap of the day. The Sooners stunk on offense, losing ground on their first possession and going three and out. The Sooners stunk on special teams, getting a punt blocked that set up the Horns on the 2-yard line for that second touchdown.

“The past few Texas games, we’ve all won by, what, less than a touchdown?” said Sooner fullback and captain Jeremiah Hall, who was a little bit off in his history but not much. “And so when you look at the clock and it’s 14-0 with 13 minutes and seven seconds left in the first quarter, you’re like, ‘Wow.’"

And not in a good way.

“There was never a moment in time where I thought that we were going to lose,” Hall said. “But I was frustrated that we were making it harder on ourselves than what we needed it to be.

“But as a captain, as a leader, I knew that we could come back, and I knew that it was only a matter of time until we got things rolling.”

I’m not so sure every Sooner fan had as much faith as Hall. Even though the Sooners righted the ship a bit on their next possession, by the end of the first half, they found themselves in a 38-20 hole.

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Fans take photos by Big Tex before the Red River Showdown outside the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Saturday.

But midway through the second quarter, Riley decided to make a switch at quarterback. 

Spencer Rattler was out. 

Caleb Williams was in.

Things started rough, the true freshman misfiring on a couple throws near the goal line on his first full possession that resulted in a field goal. The first two possessions of the second half ended with a punt and a field goal.

Felt like the Sooners were bringing knives to a gunfight.

But there were flashes of what was to come.

A 24-yard pass to Hall. A 17-yard run that included Williams breaking a tackle at the line of scrimmage, then juking a defender. An 11-yard pass to Mario Williams.

And then late in the third quarter with OU still in a three-score scare, Caleb Williams made the play that let you know the Sooners weren’t dead. That Riley might not have a decision to make about his starting quarterback moving forward either.

It was third and long from the Texas 14. After nearly taking a delay of game, Williams dropped the snap. The ball was on the ground. The whole thing was a mess.

Williams picked up the ball instead of falling on it and rolled right. He spied Marvin Mims in the back corner of the end zone, but two Texas defenders were converging to close Williams’ tight window to Mims. 

No matter.

Williams threw a bullet of a pass to Mims.

Touchdown.

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The Pride of Oklahoma arrives before the Red River Showdown on Saturday.

As good as that play was, it wasn’t even the play of the day, though I’m not exactly sure what was.

How do you even pick the best?

Was it Williams’ 52-yard touchdown pass to Mims that tied the game? Williams stepped up in the pocket to avoid the blitz, then threw a bomb to the pylon where Mims not only caught it but also got a toe in bounds.

Was it Caleb Kelly’s strip and recovery on the ensuing Texas kickoff return? The sixth-year Sooner yanked the ball out of Xavier Worthy’s hands and had it cradled in his own arms before he hit the ground.

Was it Brooks’ 18-yard touchdown run on the next play to give the Sooners’ their first lead of the game?

Or was it Brooks’ 33-yard touchdown run on the last play from scrimmage to give the Sooners the lead again and the final margin of victory?

It was a Red River Rivalry the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

“It’s crazy,” Mims said. “Last year, we won in a four-overtime game. I had the first touchdown in that game, had a huge punt return in that game as a true freshman.

“This year to make a remarkable comeback … I thank God that I was part of these games.”

Anyone who got to witness this game should feel blessed. I’m guessing the Longhorns and their fans don’t feel that way, but really, this was the type of unbelievable theater that makes sport great.

“This one hurts,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian admitted. “When you play a tight game in a rivalry game it hurts.

“Ultimately, my mindset is, I’d love to get another crack at these guys hopefully in December.”

Another round of Red River for the Big 12 championship?

Wonder if JerryWorld would shake like the Cotton Bowl did?

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.