Commentary

Sooners survive hotly contested Red River Rivalry game

Originally Published: October 6, 2007
By Mark Wangrin | Special to ESPN.com

DALLAS -- DeMarco Murray wasn't exactly a nobody before Saturday, but the Oklahoma Sooners redshirt freshman was third on the depth chart at running back, not the kind of credentials that normally translate into a player becoming a big-game icon.

Funny thing about the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry, though: It has a knack for turning heroes into gods, yes, but it also allows virtual nobodies to be heroes.

On Saturday, Murray found a spot in that pantheon, rushing for 129 yards, including the 65-yard touchdown run that gave the Sooners a third-quarter lead on their way to a 28-21 victory over the No. 19 Texas Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl. Murray stepped up after an unspecified injury to starter Allen Patrick and hamstring cramps to star wide receiver Malcolm Kelly robbed the Sooners of their two biggest playmakers early in the third quarter.

"To turn around and watch DeMarco go 65, it gave us some momentum back," OU quarterback Sam Bradford said. "It was a spark."

Unlike in most of the recent games in the series, that spark didn't turn into a blaze. Murray's emergence was just part of the circus of the unexpected, not the least of which was that the game wasn't the smackdown many Sooners fans expected and Longhorns fans feared. Both sets of fans still were in their seats at the end, with the margin of victory in single digits for the first time since 1997.

Oklahoma, 5-1 overall and 1-1 in the Big 12, appeared ready to inflict the Red River Rivalry's typical one-sided outcome when, on the second play after a 35-yard touchdown pass from Bradford to Kelly broke open a 21-21 tie, Reggie Smith intercepted a tipped pass intended for Jamaal Charles and returned it to the UT 39. But the Sooners were flagged for an illegal block on the return and went three-and-out.

Demarco Murray
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDemarco Murray's 65-yard sprint will go down in the Red River Rivalry history books.

Texas couldn't move the ball, either, with quarterback Colt McCoy under-throwing Jordan Shipley on a fourth-and-6 at his own 24-yard line with 1:50 remaining. Then three Oklahoma runs netted 3 yards, and on fourth down, Garrett Hartley kicked a 38-yard field goal try wide left, only his second miss in six tries this season.

With only 19 seconds to go 79 yards, McCoy hit Quan Cosby for 17 yards, and with four seconds left, he passed to Nate Jones for 18 yards, but the Longhorns were flagged for holding. Time ran out before they could snap the ball.

"I just feel fortunate to be here, winning like this," OU coach Bob Stoops said.

McCoy, whose playing status after a concussion against Kansas State a week ago was the topic of Internet speculation that it was worse than advertised, completed 19 of 26 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked four times, not counting a blindside hit on a play wiped out by a false start, but he got up each time -- albeit a little slowly.

Both offenses exploited weaknesses in each other's defenses in the first half by going to their tight ends. Oklahoma used some long balls to the wide receivers and screens to both flats to open the middle near the goal line. Both of Jermaine Gresham's scores came when he released over the middle on play-action passes, finding the open space behind the linebackers in the back of the end zone.

Texas exploited Oklahoma's predominant use of Cover 2 zone by matching up Jermichael Finley with a linebacker and hitting him on slants and posts.

"All I had to do was beat the linebacker," Finley said, "and I knew I could do that."

Finley had three catches for 135 yards at halftime; after Oklahoma tightened the middle of its coverage in the second half, he caught only one pass for 14 yards on the first play of the third quarter. Finley's grab jump-started a promising Texas drive that led to a first-and-goal at the OU 8. After a delay-of-game penalty, Charles took the ball on an inside handoff out of the shotgun and broke through a hole over left tackle.

OU middle linebacker Curtis Lofton tackled Charles inside the OU 5, stripping the ball with his left arm. The Sooners' Gerald McCoy recovered at the 4.

"Curtis is a clubber," OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "He's very violent when he tackles. He's not a grabber -- he's got two meat cleavers for forearms."

Sam Bradford
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesOklahoma QB Sam Bradford has silenced critics who wondered how a freshman would fare under center.

Pinned deep, the Sooners didn't do much with that drive, but on their next possession, Murray ran a stretch play left, cut up, hurdled one of his blockers and outraced Marcus Griffin down the left sideline to put Oklahoma up 21-14 with 4:24 left in the third quarter.

After Texas tied the score on Vondrell McGee's 2-yard run on the first series of the fourth quarter, the Longhorns appeared to gain even more momentum when Murray watched the kickoff roll toward the sideline inside the OU 5 instead of picking it up. But it didn't roll far enough fast enough, so he picked it up, only to be tackled at the 6.

The Sooners, having established the run and passing to the flats to get the Longhorns thinking horizontally, put together a ball-control drive. On third-and-5 at the UT 35, though, Kelly blew past the Longhorns cornerback, who got no help from his safety, for an easy touchdown.

Kelly wasn't sure he was going to play after cramping up at halftime, but he saw something that promised more pain.

"Coach Stoops gave me that look that said, 'We need you,' " Kelly said. "It found a way to heal."

Now Texas has to find a way to heal a bigger wound. The Longhorns, who for the second straight game didn't force a turnover and are off to an 0-2 start in conference play for the first time since 1956, face former defensive coordinator-turned-Iowa State head coach Gene Chizik on Saturday at Ames.

"I couldn't be prouder -- and you have to be careful saying that -- at our guys and how they fought," UT offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "I think we saw tonight the kind of football team we have a chance to be."

Mark Wangrin is a freelance writer who lives in Austin. He has covered the Big 12 since 1996.

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