Longhorns, Sooners carry sense of desperation into unique Red River Showdown

09 Oct By
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Quarterback Sam Ehlinger and the Texas Longhorns will face the Oklahoma Sooners for the 116th time Saturday in Dallas in a game each team must win to keep alive any realistic chance of winning the Big 12 championship (photo courtesy of texassports.com).

DALLAS, Texas — The annual AT&T Red River Showdown between Texas and Oklahoma is always a football game like no other, and this year's matchup is no different. 

It is always a contest with high stakes, and Saturday’s 116th rendition will be chock-full of urgency and the need for production, play after play. The clash will not be one for the timid.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no State Fair of Texas to navigate on the way into the venerable Cotton Bowl, and the attendance in "the old grey lady" will be capped at a little more than 25 percent of its 94,000 seat capacity — about 25,000 — with about 12,500 fans from each school. 

There will be no corny dogs or corn on the cob or fried Twinkies or funnel cakes for sale outside the stadium and no bands inside come Saturday, but there will still be plenty of fireworks on the field in what is expected to be a slugfest between two teams desperate for a win.

While most of the attention in the week leading up to this game has been focused on what won’t be on display in Big D, let’s center on what will be presented: neither team can afford to lose Saturday, so expect both to play with their proverbial "hair on fire."

Oklahoma and Texas were the teams most mentioned in the preseason as potential Big 12 Conference champions, but both have stumbled in the early going of their 10-game campaigns. 

The Sooners (1-2 overall, 0-2 in Big 12 play) have fallen the most, dropping from fifth in the preseason Associated Press poll to unranked (they would be 36th if the poll went that deep) after losing to Kansas State at home and at Iowa State the past two weeks. Oklahoma has not dropped three straight conference games since 1998, when it started 0-4 in league play.

No. 22 Texas (2-1 overall, 1-1 in Big 12 play) dodged a cannon ball two weeks ago in a stirring come-from-behind overtime win at Texas Tech before falling flat last Saturday at home in a loss to TCU. 

Despite UT's struggles the past two weeks, Longhorns coach Tom Herman said there is no panic on the team.

“In 2020, nobody in our building is going to panic after a Week 3, two-point loss at home,” Herman said Monday. “Now, that’s not saying we are burying our head in the sand to the tremendous amount of issues that we have to correct. We know we’ve got a ton of improvement that we need to make.

“The past few weeks definitely told us a lot that we didn’t know. We played how we should have played (in the season opener) against UTEP, and then these last two weeks happened.”

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Asked if the game has lost some of its luster because of the teams' recent struggles, Herman shook his head and said “this is still OU-Texas, and always will be.”

The Longhorns didn’t produce anywhere near their “A” game against either Tech or TCU and find themselves as slight underdogs for this Saturday’s tilt against their true remaining rival on the gridiron.

“We're in the right spots for the last two weeks but we have not made the plays that we need to make,” Texas defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “We'll continue to work on it and we'll continue to try and improve.”

The Texas offense has been, for the most part, the strength of the team. Through three games this season, senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger has completed 69 of 109 passes (63.3 percent) for 924 yards and 14 touchdowns to only two interceptions. He also has rushed for 130 yards and one touchdown to tally 1,054 yards of total offense and 15 total touchdowns.

Ehlinger’s 14 passing touchdowns, 92 points responsible for and 30.7 points responsible for per game are the most among all FBS players this season.

“I think the leadership ... we have to have guys step up in every area on offense and defense,” Ehlinger said. “I'm not trying to act like it's this one side of the football problem. We've all got to step up and have accountability to the team."

The Longhorns could have beaten TCU if they had scored a late touchdown rather than fumbling at the goal line. But Texas also needed a miracle onside kick to even have a chance to win against Texas Tech, so the Longhorns could easily be 1-2 rather than 2-1.

“We’ve got a lot of issues,” Herman said. “If we had punched that ball across and won the game against TCU, every single one of those issues would still exist. Our food might have tasted a little better. We might have gotten a little bit better sleep Saturday night, but all of those same issues would still be present.”

Oklahoma’s only win has been against Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponent Missouri State. The Sooners’ normally explosive offense, this year triggered by freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler, has made some mistakes late in games, but can be expected to improve this week with the sense of urgency this game invokes.

“There’s a lot of things we just have to improve on as a team,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said. “For the issues that we’ve had, there’s no magic pill and there’s no magic drill. There’s no this or that. It’s just about work.”

The Longhorns are the only Big 12 program with a winning record against OU and lead the series, 62-48-5. The series, which began in 1900, has been played in Dallas since 1912 and at the State Fair since 1929. Saturday marks the 93rd time the game has been played at a neutral site in Dallas.

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Steve Habel is a senior contributing writer for Horns Illustrated. He has covered Texas sports since 1989 and was this magazine’s senior editor for 24 years. You can follow him on twitter @stevehabel .