How the Sooners got ‘their pride back’ with Red River redemption

How the Sooners got ‘their pride back’ with Red River redemption

Saturday showed not only how far this OU team could go, but how far it’s come in the span of 364 days.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Oct 7, 2023, 8:15pm CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Oct 7, 2023, 8:15pm CDT

(Editor’s note: Sellout Crowd’s coverage of the Oklahoma-Texas game in Dallas is Sponsored by Modelo – The Official Beer of Fans with the Fighting Spirit (https://www.modelousa.com))

DALLAS — Brow furrowed. Back bent. Hands on his knees.

Brent Venables watched on with all the intensity of a former all-conference linebacker and national champion football coach. Yet there was nothing he could do but wait as Quinn Ewers’ hail mary floated through the sky in the dying moments of the 119th playing of the Red River Rivalry. 

No more than 60 seconds later, it was a different scene entirely inside the Cotton Bowl.

Venables held the Golden Hat above his head at the 50 yard line, then handed it to linebacker Danny Stutsman. Wide receiver Drake Stoops barreled in for a hug with the coach he’s known since kindergarten. In the immediate aftermath of the Sooners’ stunning, 34-30 win over Texas, defensive Isaiah Coe stood in the background waving a jumbo OU flag. 

For the Sooners, a moment of unconfined, exuberant bliss, a day short of a year on from a national embarrassment on the same turf. 

“(It’s) just how incredibly proud you are of so many people,” Venables said of his feeling in that moment. 

“The players and their commitment and their work. Really, really thankful for them. Happy for them in that moment. They get a chance to get their pride back. That was a tough moment a year ago.” 

Texas’ 49-0 win over the Sooners on Oct. 8, 2022, was a beatdown. This edition of OU-Texas, Sooners veteran center Andrew Raym said afterward, was a fist-fight.

No. 12 OU landed the final punch Saturday on its game-winning, five-play, 75-yard scoring drive, flourished by Dillon Gabriel’s touchdown throw to Nic Anderson in the back of the Cotton Bowl’s south end zone.

With it, the Sooners stayed unbeaten (6-0) and left Dallas holding onto perhaps the best win of any program in the country in 2023. They’ll enter their bye week with a foothold in the College Football Playoff conversation. Gabriel is likely to garner Heisman Trophy consideration. Venables is officially off the schneid against the Longhorns. 

The ceiling on OU’s season exploded Saturday. Yet the broader context is just as difficult to look away from. 

If the shutout loss to Texas cratered the Sooners’ season last fall, Saturday showed not only how far this OU team could go, but how far it’s come in the short span of 364 days. 

 “Last year was an embarrassment,” Venables said Saturday. “My hands are all over that.”

Now?

“We’re better in every area,” Venables said. “And we’re not where we want to be. But this is the next step. This team is a very determined football team.”

The transformation from the 6-7 Sooners to the team that toppled the Longhorns (5-1) who beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa four weeks ago began in January.

Venables and his players have outlined frequently the day-to-day, detail-focused approach that carried them from spring to summer and to a 5-0 start this fall. 

But Oct. 7, more than most years even, was always circled on the calendar. 

“It was 364 days of disrespect going down until this point,” said linebacker Jaren Kanak, the Sooners’ leading tackler Saturday. 

Don’t believe Kanak? Ask Raym.

In past seasons, OU players began their Tuesday workout sessions with 25 medicine ball sit ups. However, when the Sooners returned for offseason workouts in mid-January, that number changed.

“First workout, we go to 25 and we just keep going and we go all the way to 49,” Raym said. 

This is what we’ve worked for,” he continued. “This is where legends are made. This is what you want.”

Pride has been a driver for OU. The progress it’s fueled showed up all over the place Saturday.

The Sooners trailed 28-0 at halftime last fall. This time, OU built a 20-17 halftime lead on turnovers, chunk plays and more yards — 245 — than the Sooners finished with in their last visit to the Cotton Bowl.

The results were even more apparent after halftime; no time more so than in the goal line stand that featured hints of the dominant defenses Venables developed in Norman two decades ago.

The Longhorns needed five plays to drive 51 yards to the OU goal line in the early minutes of the fourth quarter. 

Three consecutive carries from Jonathon Brooks weren’t enough to punch in thanks to tackles from Sooners’ Kip Lewis, Dasan McCullough and Danny Stutsman. McCullough and Billy Bowman were there on fourth down to keep Xavier Worthy inches out of the end zone, turning the Longhorns over on downs in a defining sequence for the Sooners’ defense and a critical moment in the biggest win of the Venables era. 

“We were definitely confident in our ability to make a stand like that,” Kanak said. “It’s something we pride ourselves on as a defense being able to buckle down.”

OU’s offense got its turn later in the fourth quarter. Bert Auburn’s 47-yard field goal put the Longhorns ahead 30-27 with 77 seconds remaining and set the stage for the Gabriel-led touchdown drive and the Sooners’ first Red River win since Caleb Williams charged a 55-48 victory in 2021. 

Raym called that win a comeback story. Could these 2023 Sooners be a comeback story, too?

“In regards to last year? Maybe,” Raym said. “But I think this is a team full of dogs. This is a team with a killer attitude that’s humble. They’re consistent. They’re detailed. We’re a whole different program than we were last year.”

Indeed, things are different than last year.

OU left the Cotton Bowl Saturday unbeaten and in the driver’s seat of the Big 12. Of the six teams remaining on the Sooners’ schedule, three — West Virginia, BYU and Kansas — have fewer than two losses. The next hardest game on OU’s schedule might be a presumed Big 12 title game rematch with the Longhorns.

“There’s no limits on what this team can do and no excuses, either,” Venables said. “We have everything we need.”

A lot can change in a year.

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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