DALLAS – The crimson side of the Cotton Bowl was mostly empty, Sooner fans shuffling off into the sunlight, wondering exactly where their national championship dreams had gone.
And then they didn't. Texas used busted plays, bumbled coverage and a whole lot of hope to storm back for a 45-35 victory and a celebration in a half-empty stadium. Heck, Texas beat them like they used to beat Texas.
It's one thing for OU to lose when the Longhorns had Vince Young going for them. The Sooner fans could begrudgingly accept that. It's entirely another watching the 'Horns win due to better heart, better toughness and, indeed, better coaching, of all things.
Mack Brown, who once had this game work like an albatross on his reputation, knew the feeling of a half-empty stadium, of fans grumbling about bad decisions and silly mistakes. He'd been on the other side – a 65-14 humiliation back in 2003, a 12-0 one the next year, all part of a five-game losing streak and six in the past eight years.
He paid no mind to it now. He was at his end of the stadium, the full one, the one overflowing in burnt orange long after No. 1 OU was finished. He faced his worshippers, cued up the band and with his arms linked with his players sang a victorious rendition of "The Eyes of Texas."
Texas beat Oklahoma. Mack Brown outcoached Bob Stoops. The 'Horns made the Sooners blink first. All of a sudden everything had changed, including the rankings; including the possibilities.
"Now we're looking at a bigger goal," Brown said.
The road to a BCS title game promises to be long and laborious. Texas (6-0) has a remaining schedule that would make an SEC team nervous. The next three weeks see ranked opponents – Missouri and Oklahoma State in Austin, Texas Tech up on the South Plains. There's a later road game at ranked Kansas and of course the Big 12 championship game.
For the 'Horns, just beating OU, just walking into the middle of the Texas State Fair and winning this old-fashioned rivalry in a newfangled way had to be enough.
Brown is a gentleman of a leader, a player's coach through and through. He recruits insane talent to the Forty Acres every February, and while he consistently wins with it, he doesn't always consistently maximize it. The reputation in the NFL of Brown alumni is that they've been coddled.
He's never apologized for his personality, and he won't start now. After the game he hugged his players, smiled with pride at their celebration and even draped a comforting arm around big Roy Miller. You can see why guys want to play for him.
And you can see why when games get blown and seasons get booted, everyone wonders if Mack Brown is tough enough for Texas.
Well, here's tough for you. The 'Horns trailed throughout in this one. They sat and watched Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford torch the defense to the tune of five TD passes. Texas was down 21-10 at one point, 28-20 at another and 35-30 in the middle of the fourth.
In the past, some of Mack's teams would have given in. Some years early, some years late. Oklahoma's success in this series was its ability to keep pressing.
Only this time Texas kept pressing back. They returned a kick for a score, connected on a couple of long passes, hit a big run. Every time OU did anything, the 'Horns did it right back. Finally Oklahoma cracked. It got nervous. It took bad penalties, made worse decisions on defense and kept giving the 'Horns life.
Stoops was so rattled in the third quarter that despite being up two points and facing fourth-and-6 at his own 48-yard line, he tried a fake punt anyway. It failed.
He knew his team couldn't hold the 'Horns, and even with the lead he had to try something daring. Only then, later in the game and trailing now, the sting of that failure in his head made him decide against going for it on fourth-and-2.
"Yeah, I probably should have," Stoops said. He was trying to explain how the first mistake influenced the second. It was the kind of circular explanation Brown was famous for here, a coach with a thousand-yard stare trying to explain how and why it all went so wrong.
"The early penalties hurt quite a bit," Stoops said. "Jumping offsides … late hits on the quarterback …"
What could he say? His team showed up top-ranked and virtually unchallenged, and now it needs a miracle just to win the league.
Brown meanwhile wouldn't stop talking about his guys. Yes, maybe he loves them too much, but on a day like this, after a performance like that, who can blame him? You can coach a long time and not get this kind of togetherness. Even Heisman-contending quarterback Colt McCoy would rather talk about his offensive line than his 22-of-28 passing.
"That's how he is," Brown smiled.
Back in 2005, when Brown first shed the big game demons of doubt, the 'Horns were known for Vince Young, whose singular talent could make up for all kinds of mistakes. This team doesn't have a Young; it does have its own persona.
"This team would be known for its heart and character and toughness and playing together as a team," Brown said. "There's not an individual on the team."
That's how Oklahoma used to win. That's how Oklahoma used to make the other coach panic midgame and then question the very essence of his program post. That's how Oklahoma used to send the other half of the stadium home early before they sang the alma mater.
That was then. This is Texas.
- Mack Brown
- Vince Young