How a goal-line stand restored OU football’s defensive legacy

How a goal-line stand restored OU football’s defensive legacy

Berry Tramel: A goal-line stand for the ages announced to the college football world that Venables’ mission, bringing big-time defense back to Norman, was not just ahead of schedule, but perhaps already had pulled into the station.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Oct 14, 2023, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Oct 14, 2023, 6:00am CDT

NORMAN — Brent Venables boarded the celebrating Sooner bus, sitting hard by the Cotton Bowl on Saturday afternoon, and soon enough had his defensive players’ attention.

Venables is nothing if not energetic and emotional. But this was different. This was Impassioned Venables 2.0.

“Probably the most energy he’s had since he’s been here,” Sooner defensive tackle Isaiah Coe said.

Venables called it a “moment.”

Some 90 minutes earlier, the 12th-ranked Sooners had upset third-ranked Texas, and while 34-30 sounds like the makings of a shootout, it was not. The Longhorns scored just 23 offensive points and produced just two offensive touchdowns.

And while the Dillon Gabriel-directed, 75-yard touchdown drive in the final 77 seconds won the game, Venables’ zeal had been branded long before.

On the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh snaps of the fourth quarter, in the north end zone, the burnt-orange end of the ancient cathedral, Oklahoma football was transformed.

All those years when everyone in this part of the country was asking if or declaring that Texas was back? The same question was valid of the Sooner defense. Would it ever be back?

A legacy of the Selmon brothers and Shoate, Casillas and Bosworth, Calmus and McCoy. A legacy of toughness embodied by the Oklahoma Drill, a workout so brutal that it’s been mostly banned on gridirons. A legacy that had been tarnished in the last decade as the Sooners became offense-heavy and defense-deficient. That legacy found its way home early in the fourth quarter of the 2023 Red River game.

A goal-line stand for the ages announced to the college football world that Venables’ mission, bringing big-time defense back to Norman, was not just ahead of schedule, but perhaps already had pulled into the station.

So Venables walked on the bus to deliver a message to his troops, talking like Jesus to Simon Peter: “Upon this rock…”

Coe wouldn’t divulge too much about Venables’ impassioned bus speech. But that’s OK. Venables was more than willing to share what he said.

“I got on the bus, and I’m like, ‘Y’all understand, we want to build our program on that?’” Venables said. “That’s mindset, attitude, physicality, toughness. Spot the ball at the one and put everything on who we are from a DNA standpoint, a standards standpoint on that series right there, and that should transcend in every part of our program.

“And you don’t give them an inch. You don’t concede anything.”

The dimestore psychologist in me thinks Venables might have gone home a happy man even without Gabriel’s game-winner. That goal line-stand was a gold-line stand — Texas had first-and-goal at the OU 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter, with the Sooners up 27-20, and UT’s four plays netted 0, 0, -1, 1.

The eventual victory meant Venables’ team went home happy, but that goal-line stand assured Venables that his 22 months of work transforming OU’s culture had taken root.

“To me, the win was really important from a credibility with our guys (standpoint) and moving forward and building the program the right way,” Venabels said. “But that was a moment that you want to capture and you don’t want that one to slip by.

“To me, that’s the standard.”

On a third-and-5 play from the OU 29-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers hit a wide-open Jordan Whittington on a slant pattern. Sooner linebacker Jaren Kanak dragged down Whittington at the 1-yard line, and the Longhorns seemed poised to tie the game at 27.

Then Oklahoma football showed that it had changed.

First-and-goal

From the OU 1-yard line, Texas lined up with Ewers under center, tight ends on each side and defensive tackles Byron Murphy II and T’Vondre Sweat inserted as fullbacks. That’s 670 pounds of blocking immediately in front of tailback Jonathon Brooks.

The Sooners countered with a 7-4-0 alignment. Billy Bowman was the lone defensive back on the field, and he lined up as the right outside linebacker, with Kip Lewis as the left outside linebacker, both behind a seven-man line.

According to excellent analysis by former Sooner stars Teddy Lehman and Gabe Ikard, both now part of the OU radio broadcast crew, Lewis and Bowman would have to cover any potential pass receivers on their side of the end zone, while edge rushers Dasan McCullough (left) and Trace Ford (right) would have responsibility for a potential pass in the flat.

In the interior, as the ball was snapped, Coe, OU’s right defensive tackle; nose guard Da’Jon Terry; and left defensive tackle Jacob Lacey all won their one-on-one battles, giving left inside linebacker Jaren Kanak a lane. Sweat, leading Brooks through the hole, had to go meet Kanak. But that left Lewis unblocked.

Lewis read the play quickly and darted through the gap and grabbed Brooks by the ankle. If Texas’ line had gotten more push, perhaps Brooks could have fallen or lunged into the end zone. But there was no room. Brooks twisted and got back to the 1-yard line. But no farther.

That was Lewis’ first defensive snap of the game.

“If you guys haven’t noticed, every time Kip’s been in the game, plays have been happening,” said Sooner star linebacker Danny Stutsman. “So I’m not surprised. He was ready for his moment. He got out there, had one of the biggest moments of the game and came through.”

A detailed breakdown of the goal line stand by Ikard and Lehman on the Oklahoma Breakdown
byu/TandemTuba insooners

Alumni game

Sooner defensive royalty was on the OU sidelines Saturday. Superman Roy Williams, hero of the 2001 Red River, high-fived Drake Stoops coming off the field after a catch. Stoops was a toddler when Williams played for Bob Stoops a generation ago.

Brian Bosworth, equal parts linebacking superstar and cultural icon from the 1980s, delivered the breakdown in the celebratory locker room after the game — “They know! We know! The whole world knows!”

OU defensive whizzes going back 40 years reveled in the performance of a defense that now has allowed seven touchdowns total in six games. The Sooners allowed seven offensive touchdowns just to Texas in a 49-0 beatdown last October.

“What a job,” Lehman, who scored the 2001 touchdown off Williams’ Superman play, said on his YouTube analysis with Ikard. “Awesome all the way across the board.”

This kind of defense has been long-sought for the veterans of Switzer and Stoops defenses.

Tony Casillas, the 1984 and 1985 all-American nose guard and who ranks with Williams as the greatest Sooner defenders this side of Lee Roy Selmon, was thrilled.

“I think they’ve heard the noise around ‘em, how bad the defense Oklahoma has played,” Casillas said. “So now they’ve turned it around, in that defining moment, stopping Texas on the goal line, and that was on Texas’ side. You do that, you just quiet ‘em. The confidence for your defense is just off the charts.”

Over the years, whether it was Mike Stoops’ defense (2012-18) or Alex Grinch’s defense (2019-21), OU defenders of yesteryear just shook their heads. Some, like Bosworth, made their disgust public. Others kept mostly quiet but wondered what had become of such a proud tradition.

Then the pride returned on a memorable Saturday in the Cotton Bowl.

“There’s been this outcry, ‘let’s play some freakin’ defense,’” Casillas said. “At one time, Oklahoma was known for playing defense. Kind of hurts the defensive players. They get tired of hearing that. There’s such a joyous celebration right now, because Coach Venables has identified and addressed it.”

Brian Hall was an OU cornerback under Switzer. He’s still remembered for another goal-line stand, against Nebraska in 1984. His tackle of Husker tailback Jeff Smith on a fourth-and-goal sweep from the 1-yard line helped preserve the Sooners’ eventual 17-7 victory.

Hall said he’s long been a Venables fan — even thought Georgia should have hired away Venables from Clemson, though the Bulldogs’ choice of Kirby Smart has worked out OK — and loves what he saw from the Sooner defense.

They’re very well-coached, they get lined up defensively, very few busts,” Hall said.

It’s funny. About 15 years ago, a reporter reminded Hall of something he had forgotten from that 1984 Nebraska game. Teammate Tony Rayburn came up to Hall after that fourth-down tackle and told him he’d be immortal.

Turns out Rayburn was right. “People still remember it,” Hall said.

And OU’s goal-line stand Saturday in the Cotton Bowl will be long-remembered, too.

Second-and-goal

UT stayed with power football, but with an old-fashioned I formation: two tight ends, plus Sweat lined up on the right as a third tight end. A literal eight-man offensive line. 

The Sooners stayed with the 7-4-0 look, since the ‘Horns had no wideouts.

Ewers took the snap and pitched the ball to Brooks, sweeping right. Brooks had the option to cut up through a gap or run to the pylon. But Lewis zipped up to the line, maintaining leverage on the outside, prompting Brooks to run behind Sweat, who was downblocking on OU’s left defensive end, Rondell Bothroyd.

Texas’ right guard, Cole Hutson, was assigned to pull to the outside and push out McCullough, who was playing left edge, next to Bothroyd. But McCullough darted inside, and Hutson circled wide to find him. Murphy, the defensive tackle-turned-tailback, failed to neutralize McCullough.

McCullough grabbed Brooks, then held on as reinforcements soon arrived: Lewis, Bothroyd (who spun off Sweat), Stutsman and Lacey, who survived a double team to help push the pile in OU’s direction. Brooks was down at the 1-yard line.

I’ve got to get lower because No. 90 (Murphy) is a big dude,” McCullough said. “But I knew the snap was coming. It was really just aggression from there.”

McCullough’s versatility showed on the goal-line stand. He was involved in all four plays, playing two different positions and two sides of the line. A year ago, he was an Indiana freshman, playing in largely-meaningless games or against opponents that overpowered the Hoosiers.

Saturday, McCullough was in a border battle that will be recalled forever north of the Red.

“All four of those plays was just a mindset from the defense,” McCullough said. “Nothing crazy. It’s just a straight mentality that you’re not going to let them score. There isn’t a certain play call or perfect call. It’s just straight willpower. We weren’t going to let it happen.”

The longest yard

Mike Gundy tells the story of sitting around an Arizona resort several years ago with Bob Stoops, drinking “Diet Cokes” and “Sprites” at night between Big 12 meetings.

Suddenly, Stoops put his hands about three feet apart and said, “I tell you what, in college football, it’s tough to get that much,” Stoops told Gundy. “It’s tough to get one yard nowadays.”

Gundy agreed.

Goal-line stands still aren’t common. That’s in part due to offenses scoring long before they get within spitting distance of the goal line. And when they do get close, offenses aren’t likely to go all 1974 and try to bull their way in the end zone.

Spread offenses, shotgun snaps, offensive linemen who don’t fire off the ball. Short-yardage offenses aren’t built like they used to be.

Remember in 2010, when OSU’s offense rode high under quarterback Brandon Weeden, Gundy didn’t even have a quarterback sneak in the playbook.

Sellout Crowd’s Sam Mayes, an all-American guard at OSU in 2004, says offensive linemen no longer are built for goal-line offense. Lack of physicality in practice, lack of commitment to run blocking, just a general change in the way football is played.

We’ve seen teams of all ilk have trouble scoring from close in this season alone, including high-powered offenses like Texas’ and struggling offenses like OSU’s.

The Cowboys beat Kansas State 29-21 Friday night, kicking five field goals, but another kick was blocked after the Cowboys had a first-and-goal at the K-State 2-yard line.

“I came to work Saturday morning, then went home at 11, because I wanted to watch the games,” Gundy said. “I normally don’t get a chance to do that. So all I did was watch games all day Saturday. How many games did you guys watch, and we watched, that teams couldn’t get one yard?

“We gotta find a way to score touchdowns. But it’s hard to get a yard or two, unless you’re the Philadelphia Eagles.”

In the 2021 Big 12 Championship Game, Baylor beat OSU 21-16, after turning back the Cowboys from a first-and-goal at the Bears’ 2-yard line with 1:19 left in the game.

Still, such golden goal-line stands are rare. 

Third-and-goal

Texas went back to the first-down formation. Fullhouse backfield — Ewers under center, Brooks at tailback behind 670 pounds of fullback.

OU stayed with the 7-4-0 — literally 11 players in the box — only this time the Sooners stunted. The defensive interior slanted to its left as the ball was snapped. That’s some guesswork, the football equivalent of guessing pitches.

The slant caused the Texas fullbacks to adjust as Ewers took the snap and handed to Brooks up the middle. Instead of straight-on blocking of OU linebackers, the defensive-tackles-turned-fullbacks were forced to help teammates. Coe beat his man, then got sacrificially crushed by Murphy. Terry beat his man and was accosted by Sweat.

But that meant the Longhorns needed four men to block two. And the hole that Brooks spied quickly was filled by the unblocked Stutsman. Think about that. OU’s top all-American candidate, a linebacker who plays in the middle of the action, went unblocked on such a pivotal play.

Stutsman grabbed Brooks’ legs, and within a split second, McCullough came from the other side to help. And just in case Brooks proved too feisty, right defensive end Ethan Downs had shucked the Longhorns’ star left tackle, Kelvin Banks Jr., and wrapped up Brooks, too.

Brooks would finish the game with 129 yards on 22 carries. But on third-and-goal, down he went at the 2.

Step aside, George Orwell

The 1984 OU-Texas game is remembered for Keith Stanberry’s end-zone interception that was ruled incomplete, though replays clearly showed Stanberry made the interception. Redeemed by the officiating crew, Texas’ Jeff Ward came on and kicked a 32-yard field goal on the final play of the game to forge a 15-15 tie.

What’s often forgotten is the goal-line stand that saved the game for the Sooners a couple of minutes early.

With about five minutes left in that game, and OU leading 15-10, Texas reached the Sooners 2-yard line, first and goal.

On first down, the Longhorns sent tailback Terry Orr over right tackle. Casillas wrestled down Orr at the 1. On second down, Orr tried right guard. Stanberry, from his safety slot, tackled Orr for no gain. On third down, Orr went via left guard, but again, too close to Casillas. No gain.

On fourth down, freshman tackle Kevin Nelson was sent around right end, but Bosworth hauled him down for a 2-yard loss. 

Barry Switzer eventually took an intentional safety, which set up the the final-minute drama and controversy, but for 39 years, that Casillas-led goal-line stand served as the best in OU-Texas history.

As soon as the 2023 Sooners turned back Texas on the goal line, I thought of 1984. So did Casillas.

“People forget about it because it’s been so damn long ago,” Casillas said. “It was pretty epical.”

Casillas recalls the huddle conversation after the Longhorns reached the 2-yard line.

“I just remember that we obviously get in the huddle and say, ‘This is a moment we gotta figure out what we need to do to stop ’em,’” Casillas said.  “We all can still reflect … it’s part of the history, everyone wants to make their mark.”

Oct 7, 2023; Dallas, Texas, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables celebrates with fans after the win against the Texas Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma coach Brent Venables celebrates with fans after the Sooners’ 34-30 win over Texas Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023 at the Cotton Bowl. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

Fourth-and-goal

Texas surrendered on he-man football. The Longhorns spread it out on fourth down.

Ewers remained under center, but with Brooks the lone running back. A split receiver to the right, a tight end offset on the right and two receivers split left, with Whittington on the line of scrimmage and Xavier Worthy just behind him.

The Sooners, too, went away from the 7-4-0. Four down linemen, McCullough at right outside linebacker, Stutsman at middle linebacker, Kanak at left outside linebacker opposite the tight end, two defensive backs left and two defensive backs right.

On the right, opposite Whittington and Worthy, were cornerback Woodi Washington and safety Billy Bowman. Washington’s assignment: take whichever receiver cut outside. Bowman’s assignment: take the receiver who cuts inside.

And Ewers indeed passed. He took the snap, stepped back a yard and threw a quick screen to Worthy, who was cutting inside.

Whittington ran straight at Washington, which left Bowman free to immediately break as Worthy slanted inside to take the pass. Meanwhile, McCullough reacted quickly and also zipped towards Worthy.

Worthy, whose feet were straddling the 5-yard line when the ball was snapped, caught the pass at the 3-yard line and, sensing the fast-approaching McCullough, immediately straightened himself towards the goal line. But Bowman was fast approaching, too, and the 172-pound Worthy decided he didn’t want to try to win a collision with one Sooner, much less two. Worthy lowered his shoulder and dove, hoping the hits would come across the goal line.

The hits came before paydirt. McCullough grabbed the diving Worthy’s head as Bowman met Worthy’s back. The Longhorn was spun around and landed on his butt, short of the goal line.

OU ball on the 1-yard line.

Ikard called it the “ultimate compliment to a defense.” Texas tried bullying the Sooners for three plays, then gave up and threw a fourth-down pass.

“I saw a lot of physicality,” said OU defensive coordinator Ted Roof. “I saw a lot of fight. I saw a lot of strain. Billy’s a great player for us. Those situations come up, and great players seem to find a way to make a play, and he sure did.”

Venables foundation

Roof had a secret strategy for the goal-line stand.

“It’s called lining up and trying to whoop the man in front of you,” Roof said.

Getting off blocks. Getting hats to a ballcarrier so he can’t fall forward. Gang-tackling. You remember. All the things that go into playing good defense. All the things the Sooners once were known for and maybe are again.

The Sooners don’t have a Casillas or a Bosworth or a Williams or a Lehman. But maybe that goal-line stand attracts one or three. It’s fun to think about what Venables can produce when his style of football is instilled into even better athletes.

His one-year turnaround already is remarkable. Not every Sooner defender wears the stigma of OU’s wounded defensive reputation. Lacey transferred from Notre Dame, Terry from Tennessee, Bothroyd from Wake Forest, Ford from OSU, McCullough from Indiana. All in their first seasons in Norman.

But there are enough battlescars to know the mental and emotional toll the defensive slide has taken on those charged with reversing it.

“This was personal for a lot of us,” said Coe. “Half the guys on our team weren’t here last year, but some of us were. We went through that 49-0, and we felt like people weren’t respecting us.”

The same was true to some degree of Venables. His first season was a disaster, mostly in record. All five close games went against the Sooners, and the result was a 6-7 record.

But Venables kept talking about all those things he’s always talking about. Mindset. Attitude. Physicality. Toughness. You know the drill. All those things we roll our eyes at, until we see the seeds bloom in an ancient series that defines a regal program.

“That’s what Coach V prides us on,” Coe said. “They gotta go the full 99 yards, until the last blade of grass, so we’re going to defend as much as we can.”

That’s what the Sooners did. There weren’t many blades of grass between Xavier Worthy’s butt and the goal line on that fourth-down play. But there were enough.

So the celebration ensued. And that golden hat that comes off the Red River trophy and gets passed around like the Stanley Cup, was donned with as much pride by OU defenders as OU offensive players. That’s not been the case when the Sooners have won recent Red Rivers 55-48, 53-45, 48-45 and 45-40.

And when Venables boarded the bus, he wasn’t ready to yet leave the State Fair of Texas. What had happened on that burnt-orange end of the Cotton Bowl was too important.

“I got right back on the bus with our defense, and we had a moment,” Venables said. “I was like, ‘That’s what it’s about to me.’ You want to build a program on that.”

Upon this rock, Simon Peter was told. Upon the rock of old-fashioned defense, Venables is trying to rebuild OU football. Four plays early in the fourth quarter showed the construction is going strong, and the Sooners indeed had a moment.

Share with your crowd
Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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