It was all set up to be the perfect coming out party for first-year head coach Tom Herman and the Longhorns.
For a long-struggling program with nothing but seven years of frustration to dwell on, this was the stage where things could have changed. Texas already had its so-called moral victory in a double-overtime loss to then-No. 4 USC a month ago. After that, the narrative changed.
And amid the atypical shadows that overwhelmed the Cotton Bowl deep into Saturday afternoon’s AT&T Red River Showdown, the entire outlook for the Longhorns could have changed.
But a few crucial mistakes by the Longhorns in the closing minutes dampened any hope of a signature win. Texas walked off the field on Saturday with the only thing that mattered — a 29-24 loss to No. 12 Oklahoma.
“Much like week three, there’s no moral victories, especially when it’s against these guys,” Herman said.
The Longhorns came out flat on Saturday and spent much of the first half just trying to find their bearings. Oklahoma sprinted out to a 20-0 lead in the second quarter and took a 20-10 lead into halftime.
Texas’ defense struggled throughout the first half, giving up big plays and missing tackles, while the offense sputtered. The Sooners outgained Texas 342 yards to 139 in the opening 30 minutes. Oklahoma senior quarterback Baker Mayfield gave Longhorn defenders fits. Texas’ pass rush struggled to get home, and even when it came close, Mayfield’s elusiveness prevailed.
“We were tired,” junior linebacker Malik Jefferson said. “They had us on the ropes.”
The Longhorns didn’t grab the lead until there was 8:01 left to play in the game. Deep in Oklahoma territory, freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger scrambled to his right but couldn’t find an open receiver. Instead, Ehlinger did what he’s become accustomed to doing — made a play. The true freshman put his foot on the gas and sprinted into the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown.
“Sam just has that passion,” sophomore safety Brandon Jones said. “He’s just an animal on the field.”
An extra point put Texas up 24-23. The coming out party started to feel tangible.
But on the ensuing possession, Mayfield and Oklahoma quickly quelled the Longhorns’ hopes. Tight end Mark Andrews broke free down the sideline, and Mayfield hit him for a 59-yard touchdown pass.
“That was definitely a coverage bust,” Jefferson said. “I think guys had their eyes in the wrong place.”
Oklahoma went for two but failed to convert, and the Sooners were back in front at 29-24.
With just under seven minutes to play, the game was back in the hands of Ehlinger.
On a 1st-and-10 at Texas’ 46-yard line, Ehlinger was tackled to the ground hard and hit his head as he bolted out of bounds for a two-yard rush. The hit knocked Ehlinger out of the game for five plays, as sophomore Shane Buechele filled in at quarterback.
By the time Ehlinger returned to the field, Texas faced a 2nd-and-17 at Oklahoma’s 38-yard line. On 4th-and-13 from Oklahoma’s 34, and with the game hanging in the balance, Ehlinger was forced to scramble for what seemed like an eternity, only to eventually throw the ball away for a turnover on downs. Oklahoma had it back with 1:52 to play, with Texas’ hopes of winning all but officially over.
After the game, the talk from the Longhorns (3–3, 2–1 Big 12) was very similar to what it was following the loss a month ago to USC.
On Saturday at the Cotton Bowl, a lot could have changed. But Texas still left wondering when the coming out party will happen.
“Oh, we’re so close,” Jefferson said. “Everybody sees it, and they know it. (We) had people so nervous on the other side of the ball. It was crazy.”