DALLAS — The football, that quirkily shaped item, fluttered as it took its happy ride in the humid air and the midafternoon sun with the puffy clouds and the 92,300 witnesses. It went obediently through the goal post with such precision that it’s possible it passed equidistant from each upright. If you watched it from behind its target at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, descending with nine seconds left near the matching white ponies and their famed Sooner Schooner, you might have sworn the ball appeared to be giggling.
Maybe. The ball Cameron Dicker kicked might have giggled for joy of being a 40-yard Texas field goal that provided a win over Oklahoma freighted with meaning and a sense of Texas as an accomplished work of self-restoration. It might have chortled over a baroque scoreboard that somehow managed to rest at 48-45 after Texas had led 45-24 with nine minutes left and 45-31 with six, before the damnedest, briskest comeback most people ever saw. Hell, it might have guffawed even at the poppycock notion that No. 19 Texas stands 5-1, with a fresh win over Oklahoma and three wins over top 25 teams, just five weekends after losing at Maryland, after which second-year Texas Coach Tom Herman said things really were different this year, and many people branded Herman a blockhead.
Evidently he’s no blockhead.
He and his players and coaches have seen to it that the nation must discuss them (even if that’s not their foremost objective), and he has coaxed Texas to relevance after a long sag. As a bonus, the Longhorns’ schedule luckily requires no further meetings with that dreaded two-season nemesis, Maryland.
With the ample Texas talk to come, then, it’s a credit to the game that happened at midday Saturday that it can elbow its own way into present and future conversations.
Herman: “What a college football game, huh?”
Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley: “One of the epic ones that people will be talking about for years and years and years.”
Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, the continuing revelation from Austin: “I still can’t put to words how incredible this rivalry is and to be a part of it. I really can’t.”
Breathtaking Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, who spent the day looking a tad less than transcendent before reminding everyone of his transcendence near the curtain: (Pause.)
He paused for an emotional while on the dais, as that rare person who never lost in high school (43-0) not so far from the Cotton Bowl (in Allen, Tex.), and who has a major league baseball contract (with the Oakland Athletics). He paused just after saying: “Hurts. Disappointing.” Riley patted him. Then Murray outlined his two harmful turnovers, including a crucial fumble in the backfield in the third quarter, and said Riley has “preached to me ball security in the pocket. . . . I don’t know how many times he’s told me that.”
Nothing had gone as planned. Oklahoma had the dazzling offense and Texas the good one, yet the Texas offense bamboozled and bulldozed Oklahoma. Texas’s punter did not appear on the field until the third quarter. Texas kept making third downs (6 for 14) and fourth downs (2 for 2). Ehlinger, the sophomore quarterback, drove the Sooners mad with running, rushing for 72 net yards and three touchdowns while passing for 314 and two more touchdowns. Often it seemed he would run hither just as the whole defense ran yon.
Then he had a formidable 220-pound wide receiver with the singular name, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who caught nine passes for 133 yards and, on a third and 21 in the third quarter, carried half the population of Norman and maybe even some of the dorms for a 19-yard feat of effort and heft that set up a fourth and two and, soon after, a touchdown.
“That, to me, was the play of the game,” Herman said. “The play of the game.” He said the coach chatter on the headsets went like this: “That’s a culture play, right there.”
Said Humphrey, “I take a lot of pride in it. . . . I feel like it shows you how tough you can be.”
Yet it was also this kind of day: You could descend to the field with eight minutes left through ample Oklahoma fans up on the concourse, their days apparently complete, their faces registering an accepted, absorbed defeat. Yet somehow they, so many of them, returned to the old bleachers for two closing, game-tying Oklahoma drives that went 67 and 57 yards and required a total of four hyperventilating plays: Murray looking downright futuristic on a 67-yard run up the left sideline, Trey Sermon making a catch and two rushes to cover 57 yards the next time.
“We knew we were going against a guy who could fly,” Texas defensive end Charles Omenihu said, and so the whole place seemed berserk at 45-45 with 2:38 left, and if it seems strange that so many adult moods swing over the vagaries of players so young, maybe the field goal laughed over that, too.
It happened because of what Herman found most impressive about Ehlinger: the calm, nine-play, 52-yard drive with three completions and three quarterback runs. “There was zero negativity. There was zero bad body language. There was zero hanging of heads,” Herman said, adding that Ehlinger “prepares like a pro.”
He and his teammates set up Dicker, who last year at this time trod the hormonal hallways of high school, also in Austin. “I really wasn’t that nervous, weirdly,” he said with his freckles and his sunburned cheeks.
“Honestly,” he said, “it came off my foot really well, and I saw it going through the uprights, and I kind of turned away because I knew it was going through, and so I didn’t really watch it go all the way, so I’m not sure. . . . It comes off your foot, and you know it’s a good ball, and looking up after I kicked it, I saw the ball and the path there, and I was just like, ‘Okay, cool!’ ”
Dicker, 7 for 10 this freshman year, had missed three in the previous two games, but, Herman said, “He corrected the technical,” and, “Our confidence in our kicker is sky-high right now.” Said Herman, “I think it bears noting that that was a true freshman deep snapper snapping to a true freshman holder holding for a true freshman kicker — in this game.”
Then he added, for effect, “Hellooo.”