We deserve an OU-Texas rematch Dec. 2 at AT&T Stadium. We’ll get one, barring a disastrous crash as both teams speed through their Big 12 schedules until then.
“Oh I have no doubt,” OU safety Peyton Bowen said after Saturday’s 34-30 epic. “We’re going to see them again in the Big 12 Championship.”
“We were just talking about that in the locker room,” defensive end Ethan Downs said. “Excited. Round 2, let’s go. Round 3, let’s go. We’re ready for it. We expect them to be there as well. Looking forward to it.”
What the Sooners did in the Cotton Bowl is a keepsake, an all-time effort to win one of the all-time Red River clashes.
What the Sooners must do in the rematch is dig even deeper and play even better. It won’t just be pride on the line Dec. 2 but a championship trophy and, most likely, a College Football Playoff ticket.
How much better can the Sooners be? Brent Venables leans toward infinitely.
“We’ve got a gazillion things from this game,” he said Monday by way of clean-up.
Let’s start with three…
1 – Be a gazillion times better on special teams
Bowen’s punt blocks against SMU and Iowa State and Gavin Freeman’s 82-yard punt return for a touchdown against Arkansas State masked blemishes in OU’s special teams – the Sooners rank 99th in ESPN’s special teams efficiency rating – until Red River.
Then came Texas’ blocked punt for a touchdown, Texas’ faked punt for a 20-yard first down, OU’s knuckleballed punts for a 29.5-yard average, a kickoff return reverse pitch that went forward instead of backward and cost OU 29 yards of field position, and Zach Schmit missing wide right on a 45-yard field goal try midway through the fourth quarter.
Venables spun OU’s special teams play positively the week of the Texas game – “I think the sum of our parts in the kicking game has been really, really good” – but he couldn’t go there again after practice Monday.
He said the protection breakdown on the blocked punt was a “day one installation issue.” He said OU worked on Texas’ faked punt all last week but broke down in communication Saturday. He said OU worked on executing the Jalil Farooq-to-Jaquaize Pettaway kickoff return pitch legally but failed in the moment.
“Those are big plays,” Venables said. “The margin for error is small. Championship level, you can’t make those mistakes and win games typically. We were able to overcome it.”
The Sooners will not overcome similar special teams blunders Dec. 2.
2 – Make the heroic plays… and the simpler ones
Caleb Williams rose to meet his OU-Texas debut more heroically than any Sooners quarterback in history… until Dillon Gabriel jogged onto the field with 1:17 remaining and 75 yards to the end zone. Gabriel one-upped Williams, Quinn Ewers and Red River history, since it usually takes a quarterback at least one game to figure out the magnitude of this monster, in 75 yards over 1:02.
It boggles the mind still.
Here we interrupt the fairy tale for a reality check: Gabriel must settle into his second OU-Texas game sooner than the final 1:17.
He must not underthrow a wide-open Tawee Walker in the flat on third-and-goal right before halftime, or miss an available Drake Stoops on fourth-and-1 late in the third quarter and OU leading 27-20, or rush a third-and-6 throw to an available Austin Stogner with five minutes remaining and the score 27-27.
Don’t misunderstand. Gabriel did a lot to help win before his 75-yard drive into OU-Texas legend. He combined his arm with his legs like few OU quarterbacks ever have in the Cotton Bowl.
It’s just Venables’ “margin for error is small” comment resonates loudly in a game this big against an opponent this good.
It figures that Texas will be just as good Dec. 2. The game will be bigger.
That leaves Gabriel, like the rest of the Sooners, needing to make more of the simple plays en route to the heroic ones.
3 – Tighten up defensively
More nitpicking from a game OU should be proud of, nitpicking that Venables will tell you is necessary.
“There’s a lot more that was good than not, but we have to focus on the things that we can get better at. They will be the first to tell you there’s a lot, especially on defense,” he said Monday. “All things considered, we had too many busts, too many missed tackles, not enough urgency to execute with the precision and the timeliness that we have to have.”
Don’t get stuck on Texas’ 527 yards. To do so denies two things – the Longhorns’ offense stars several future pros, and the Sooners defended them inspirationally at several turning points, the goal-line stand most obviously.
This is more about Venables’ “precision.” OU needs to be more precise Dec. 2.
Take Texas’ go-ahead touchdown drive in the second quarter.
Jonathon Brooks shot to a 31-yard gain on third-and-3. It’s still a first down, but just a 10-yard gain, if safety Reggie Pearson makes his 1-on-1 open-field tackle after Brooks’ initial burst.
Four snaps later on fourth-and-2 at the OU 22, Texas tight end Gunnar Helm blew by Pearson and fellow defensive backs Gentry Williams and Billy Bowman to come wide open for the go-ahead score.
“OU’s eyes in the backfield on a short-yardage play,” Kirk Herbstreit said of OU’s secondary on the telecast.
OU’s eyes must be in the right spot not just at the right times in round 2 against Texas, but every time. Every play matters against the Longhorns, especially with a championship on the line.