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Red River rejuvenation: Surging Texas faces early crossroads moment vs. Oklahoma

Posted October 13th, 2017

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Most college coaches have become so vanilla, they’re boring. Every game is important, they say. Each one is just as critical as the next. Sure, whatever, coach.

It’s refreshing to know that Texas’ Tom Herman doesn’t think Texas-Oklahoma is just another game. It’s not. Far from it.

“I would be naive not to tell you that this rivalry is important to a lot of people,” Herman said this week. “A lot of stakeholders in this program, a lot of alumni, fans, Texas citizens in the great state of Texas in general. So with that comes a responsibility.”

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That’s why Herman put a countdown clock on the wall inside the UT football building. There’s now a display for the Golden Hat trophy. Every day, UT players can walk the hall, look at the time and think … well, Texas fans know the rest.

“It gets the blood pumping every time you see it,” running back Chris Warren III said.

Breckyn Hager (44) Anthony Wheeler (45), Charles Omenihu (90) and Poona Ford (95) are all back for another shot at Oklahoma on Saturday. Jay Janner/American-Statesman

The Longhorns (3-2, 2-0 Big 12) have reached an early crossroads moment in Herman’s brief tenure. The 12th-ranked Sooners (4-1, 1-1) are favored by a little more than a touchdown, so an OU win wouldn’t be that surprising. But a Texas victory in the Red River rivalry would be an unmistakable signal that this rebuilding project is on the fast track.

Think about how far the Texas program has come in one calendar year. Last year during Texas-OU week, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit was calling Austin “a cesspool.” Now the Longhorns are looking to start off 3-0 in league play for just the sixth time since joining the Big 12.

Would a win Saturday in the Cotton Bowl launch Texas into the national discussion? It certainly would thrust the Horns into the Big 12 title race, for sure.

“I wouldn’t say ‘launch.’ I’d just say ‘Just keep us what we’re building on and taking it one step at a time,’” linebacker Malik Jefferson said. “Like I said, this is just another opponent that we’re facing. We’re keeping the bunker mentality that we need. It’s given us a lot of success, so that’s why we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing.”

The burnt-orange bunker sure seems like productive office space. Herman said his players went into “a bunker mentality” after the season-opening Maryland loss. Since then, the defense has focused solely on stopping the run while the offense sorted out the quarterback situation.

If Sam Ehlinger doesn’t fumble near the USC goal line, would these Longhorns be riding a four-game winning streak? It’s hard to say, especially since the Trojans had another possession in the Coliseum in double-overtime.

One year ago, Texas coach Charlie Strong (left) and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops were on the sideline. This year, it will be the first time since 1947 both teams meet with first-year head coaches. Jay Janner/American-Statesman

The focus on run defense was critical in wins over Iowa State and Kansas State. Don’t think that didn’t come up again this week with defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.

Remember, Herman, Orlando and the bulk of this coaching staff were the brains behind Houston’s 33-23 win over No. 3 Oklahoma to open the 2016 season. That day at NRG Stadium, OU’s Joe Mixon had a team-high 40 yards and Samaje Perine managed just 31. OU had 70 rushing yards total even though Baker Mayfield threw for 323 yards and two touchdowns.

That win over Oklahoma was a huge reason why Herman’s name shot to the top of UT’s wish list. Herman came to Texas with a 6-0 record against ranked opponents. It’s a mark that he won’t brag about publicly but one that he takes great pride in. Now it’s 6-1, thanks to the loss at No. 4 USC.

“Nobody is fooling anybody, I can tell you that part of it,” Orlando said. “It is going to come down to who is the most physical and who can execute the best.”

The last few years, the Texas defense has gone into the Cotton Bowl with its fingers crossed. The Horns absolutely had to play their A-game to be successful.

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, 1-2 all-time against the Longhorns, will get his last chance at Texas on Saturday. Jay Janner/American-Statesman

That worked in 2015. Perine and Mixon couldn’t get much going while D’Onta Foreman and Jerrod Heard found plenty of running room. The Longhorns captured a 24-17 win, and players hoisted then-coach Charlie Strong at midfield.

But this season, UT brings a structurally sound defensive unit to Dallas. Jefferson, who leads the Horns with 43 tackles, is playing like most everyone thought he could. Safety DeShon Elliott has five interceptions, fueled in part by Charles Omenihu and Naashon Hughes’ defensive pressure.

“For us, we have to keep in mind since we have a big game every week, we can’t let the opponent outplay us,” safety Brandon Jones said. “We have to play for ourselves and for each other.”

Don’t get caught speculating about UT’s quarterback decision. Herman may not have publicly named Ehlinger the starter this week. But Ehlinger’s teammates and offensive coordinator Tim Beck left little doubt who was in charge during their interview sessions.

Ehlinger will become the first true freshman to start the Texas-OU game since, well, Shane Buechele last year. Ehlinger’s dynamic running ability gives the Texas offense help, especially when the running backs are struggling to find their way.

Beck raved about Ehlinger’s ability to play fast in last week’s double-overtime win over Kansas State. “When guys play hard, they put their foot in the ground, as coach Herman says, they go really, really hard and good things happen,” Beck said.

This is the game for Collin Johnson to put up Dede Westbrook-type numbers. Westbrook ran straight through UT’s defense last season and finished with a school-record 232 receiving yards. Johnson has that same capability.

Texas’ offensive line is also feeling good about things. The unit may have found a winning formula with Denzel Okafor and Derek Kerstetter as the starting tackles.

“I think last week was a big moment for them in showing themselves they play regardless of who’s in and who’s out,” Warren said about the offensive line.

Make no mistake, this is a big moment for Herman and the Longhorns as a whole.

Better come hungry. Grab two corny dogs and some of those bacon-wrapped, deep-fried cheese sticks at the State Fair. This may be a year Texas fans do a lot of cheering in the north end zone.

“It is a huge game,” Johnson said, “and the team is not going to shy away from that.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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