This narrow win hardly breathed life into the increasingly apathetic Texas fans. The Longhorns had already racked up two losses on the year and were forced to change quarterbacks. Couple this with a few disappointing seasons in the rear view, which included big losses to the Sooners, and the Longhorns entered the Red River Shootout as enormous underdogs.
If you think I’m writing about this year’s installment of the Longhorns, you wouldn’t be far off. In fact, aside from the title of this article and a quick revelation of who that middling conference foe was (it was Rice (yeah, the Iowa State of the old SWC)), there’s no reason to think I’m writing about anything else. But, of course, I am.
I’m writing about the 1989 Longhorns, an unranked, unheralded, and greatly overmatched team that went on to upset No. 15 Oklahoma as 17-point underdogs; a feat this year’s squad would no doubt like to duplicate.
For those who remember, or haven’t completely blocked it out, the late ‘80s Longhorns were mired in recruiting scandals and NCAA sanctions. The entire SWC had caught the sanctions bug in the late ‘80s, which led to in-state recruits accepting offers from SEC and Big 8 teams. Though the Longhorns weren’t hit as bad as others, they were still over a decade from returning to prominence. In a word, the Longhorns stunk.
Dave McWilliams was in his third year as head coach, and in his third year of leading an unranked Texas team to victories over New Mexico and Rice, but losses to Oklahoma and Texas A&M. In 1988, the Longhorns began the season ranked No. 3 in the AP Poll (the first time the Longhorns were ranked inside the top 10 since 1983), but dropped like a lead balloon when they lost to BYU 47-6 in the first game of the season. The ’88 Longhorns went on to finish a disappointing 4-7.
The Longhorns limping out of the gate to start the ’89 season was practically preordained. Starting a sophomore quarterback in Mark Murdock (think Chance Mock but with nicer hair and bigger shoulder pads), who shared playing time with senior Shannon Kelley the year before, the Longhorns were swept off Folsom Field 27-6 in their first game of the season against No. 14 Colorado.
(NOTE: This Colorado team finished the regular season undefeated and ranked No. 1, but would lose to No. 4 Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. So, in retrospect, this was hardly a devastating loss for the Horns.)
Texas bounced back the following week, trouncing a horrid SMU team (thanks to the NCAA “death penalty” in 1987), only to lose their next game to Penn State 16-10.
After a 1-2 start, McWilliams decided a change was needed. Perhaps it was the below-.500 record, or perhaps it was Murdock’s 39.68 completion percentage. Either way, McWilliams gave freshman Peter Gardere the starting QB gig against Rice. The shakeup worked, and the team rallied to defeat Rice 31-30 on a game-winning drive orchestrated by Gardere.
Now, Gardere was hardly the answer most Longhorn fans were looking for. I mean, if you squinted maybe he looked a little like John Elway, but his statistics were closer to Garrett Gilbert’s. Gardere finished the ’89 season with 13 interceptions to just five touchdowns. In fact, Gardere finished his career tied with the most interceptions of any QB in Texas history. And though he drew a lot of ire from Longhorn fans, he finished his career 4-0 against Oklahoma, the only QB on either side to accomplish this feat.
(ANOTHER NOTE: And Oklahoma was ranked while Texas was unranked in all four matchups that featured Gardere at QB. So, Gardere not only beat the Sooners four times, but he beat the Sooners four times while they were gunning for national titles and Texas had hit rock bottom. This is beautiful.)
North of the Red River, Oklahoma just closed the curtains on the Barry Switzer era; an era that included three national titles and 15-straight ranked seasons. Though questions surrounded new head coach, and previous defensive coordinator, Gary Gibbs, the Sooners were still one of college football’s marquee programs.
Oklahoma entered the Red River Shootout with a 4-1 record and ranked No. 15. Their lone loss coming at the hands of an Arizona team that went on to defeat three other ranked teams that year. The Sooners offset this loss by maintaining a 40-point margin of victory in their four wins. Add to this Oklahoma’s four-game win streak against Texas, and it’s safe to say the Sooners earned, and the Longhorns deserved, their status as 17-point favorites.
Luck plays a bigger role in sports than any winning team would roundly admit. Yet, luck is also a two-way street; a player must have the presence of mind to cash in on that luck when it does pop up.
The Longhorns scored arguably the most bizarre eight points in Texas football history just that way.
In the first quarter, the Sooners fumbled a punt that flew right into the hands of backup linebacker Mical Padgett, who had the presence of mind to cash in on his luck and ran the ball 44 yards for a touchdown. On the ensuing extra point attempt, the Sooners blocked Wayne Clements kick, but Clements collected the ball and threw it to the end zone for a two-point conversion. This gave the Longhorns a 15-7 lead.
Clements tacked on six more points in the second quarter, and the Longhorns had a two-touchdown lead at 21-7 going into the half.
This is about the time an underdog will get the silly notion that they can pull off an upset and, for lack of a better term, freak out. And in the third quarter, the Longhorns did nothing to diffuse such fears.
The Oklahoma defense tightened and the Longhorn offense never crossed midfield in the third quarter. The Sooners would cut the lead in half on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Steve Collins, and a 30-yard field goal early in the fourth would make it 21-17.
Naturally, the Sooners would take the lead on a slow, meticulous touchdown drive late in the fourth, thus slapping sense back into Longhorn nation.
The game plan was easy, keep it close and things might break your way at the end. However, the exact opposite happened. Things broke the Longhorns’ way early, and it took gutsy play from a freshman QB to secure the victory.
With Texas down 24-21 with 3:42 left in the fourth quarter, Gardere, Texas’ all-time winningest quarterback against the Sooners, went 5 for 5 on the game-winning drive, hitting Johnny Walker for the decisive touchdown pass.
Longhorns win 28-24.
The implications of college football games are greater than anyone truly knows. All it takes is one game for a fanbase to rally, or 10-year-old football prodigy to decide he wants to go to Texas. The 1989 Red River Shootout was important on many levels.
Riding their new-found reverence, the Longhorns would go on to defeat the No. 7 Arkansas Razorbacks the following week. A victory that likely kept Arkansas from playing for the National Title in the Sugar Bowl.
Though the short-term implications would end with that unlikely victory, the Longhorns eventually returned to the upper-echelon of college football in the mid ‘90s. How much we can thank the ’89 Longhorns, no one knows.
This year’s team faces similar circumstances: an unproven quarterback, a frustrated and fleeing fanbase, and a game they are not supposed to win.
"You go into (the Red River Shootout) ready to play," Gardere said. "You never know what can happen."
Let’s hope history repeats itself.