Oklahoma 24, Texas 27

October 11, 1997 | at Dallas | Attendance 75,587

For the first time in 29 years, both participants in the annual Red River rivalry game entered the contest unranked among the top teams, and neither had a winning record for the first time.

Oklahoma second-year coach John Blake had promised that his football team would learn from their mistakes, and based on last year's error-filled 3-8 campaign, mostly costly turnovers and special teams' breakdowns which led to the Sooners' first-ever eight-loss season, and first Oklahoma team in 60 years to go winless at home, they figured to be among the smartest teams in the Big 12 conference. They entered the '97 season picked to finish fourth in the South Division, the same spot where they ended a year ago, and Blake returned seven offensive starters and six starters on the defensive side of the ball from a team that upset Texas, the eventual conference champion. But the Sooners remained a young team, evident in the fact that no Oklahoma player made the preseason all-conference team.

Oklahoma does, however, have some special players. Few teams could boast a more productive running back than sensational sophomore DeMond Parker. He started only two games in '96, yet led the team with 1,184 yards and a scary 6.6-yards per carry, and was named the Big 12's freshman of the year. Fellow sophomore quarterback Justin Fuente started eight games and threw for 1,271 yards, just the second freshman in Sooner history to pass for more than 1,000 yards in a season,and eight touchdowns, but also tossed 10 interceptions.

Defensively, safety Gana Joseph was the Big 12 defensive newcomer of the year in '96. Martin Chase and Kelly Gregg formed a tough interior line combination, and linebacker Travian Smith could contend for all-Big 12 honors.

The Sooners played a tough non-conference schedule and split the four games, before a three-point loss in their conference opener to Kansas. Oklahoma (2-3) appeared possibly headed back towards a .500 season, but they had a long way to go, starting with Texas.

In Austin, fans began the year still talking about last year's 37-27 upset over #3 Nebraska in the Big 12 conference championship game. But sixth-year coach John Mackovic, who owned a 39-23-2 mark, and his players knew the Longhorns still had progress to make if they hoped to match the Huskers' success of recent seasons. Despite its conference title, Texas finished just 8-5 in '96, and they needed to develop some consistency if they were to live up to it billing as the favorite in the Big 12 South again.

Unfortunately, the Longhorns had lost some horses and there were some holes to fill, namely losing an entire starting secondary, the starting unit of the receiving corps, an All-American offensive guard, and their top two tailbacks. But Texas did return 12 starters, six each on side of the ball, and five Longhorns had been named to the preseason all-conference team, among them defensive tackle Chris Akins, sophomore linebacker Aaron Humphrey, and senior kicker Phil Dawson. But that list also included two key offensive performers, elusive senior quarterback James Brown and junior running back Ricky Williams, who was being moved from fullback to tailback, similar to the maneuver two decades that allowed Earl Campbell to win the Heisman Trophy in '77.

However, Mackovic's good young team, despite their high aspirations, had once again stumbled out of the gates in '97. After two blowout losses, 66-3 to UCLA, after which they became the highest-ranked team in the history of the AP poll to drop from the poll in one week, and most recently 42-16 at Oklahoma State, they were in disarray, and Texas (2-2) again entered their annual showdown disappointed. They came into the game allowing 265.8 rushing yards per game, ranked 106th among 112 Division I-A teams.

In front of a 52nd straight sellout of 75,587, and for the first time this season, Texas scored on its first possession. They drove 34 yards and capped it with Dawson's 43-yard field goal. And for the first time this season, the Longhorns forced an opponent to punt on the first two possessions.

They ran that to three straight possessions, but Texas could not keep the Sooners down forever. They finally broke through via Parker's seven-yard touchdown run, and after Jeremy Alexander's extra point, they had the lead, 7-3, after one period.

It was Williams who answered the challenge, who had a career-high 249 yards in a 38-31 victory over Rice but had been held to 79 yards last week against Oklahoma State. His burst from a yard out, and Dawson's gig, put the Longhorns back in front, 10-7.

It looked as if Texas would end the half leading by that score as Mackovic refused to stop the clock in the final minutes of the half. But with 25 seconds left, the Longhorns tried one last play instead of just taking a knee. Williams fumbled, however, and Alexander tied the game with a 31-yard field goal, and that is the way they headed to the locker rooms.

In the third quarter, it was Williams again who mirrored his earlier score, again penetrating the end zone form a yard out, and Dawson made it 17-10. And the struggle headed to the final 15 minutes.

In a game that was clearly featuring the two tailbacks, the one thing Williams had that Parker did not was a passing threat. With Williams softening the Sooners defense, Brown was efficiently completing about half of his passes, including a 19-yard touchdown to junior wide out Bryan White. Sophomore kicker Kris Stockton's extra point gave the Longhorns a 24-10 lead with 8:10 left.

Down by two touchdowns, the Sooners had to play catch-up, and in a hurry. And without much of a passing game, that made things more difficult, as Fuente was having a miserable day. But Parker broke loose for a 48-yard touchdown, and Alexander pulled Oklahoma to within seven points, 24-17.

Texas answered when Dawson kicked a 51-yard field goal, which gave him a school-record 14 straight, and a ten-point lead, 27-17, with 4:57 left. With time winding down, and on a Sooner drive that was kept alive three plays earlier when a quarterback sneak by Eric Moore converted a risky fourth down-and-one from the Oklahoma 29, Parker took off again down the left sideline, this time for a 66-yard score with 2:42 left. Alexander's point after brought the Sooners to within a field goal, and shades of '96 could be seen when Oklahoma erased an 11-point deficit in the game's final 7 1/2 minutes.

However, it was a different year, and it was not to be. Texas went to their proven workhorse. Williams, fighting for tough yards, kept the Horns' drive alive with runs of six, five, seven, 12, and 19 yards, gaining 49 yards and two first downs on their final possession, and at crunch time. After that, they simply ran out the clock, and there was nothing the Sooners could do.

When the gun sounded with a misty twilight falling on the Cotton Bowl, Oklahoma's Parker and Texas' Williams shook hands. Never in the previous 91 games of this rivalry, which has included some of college football's greatest running backs, had one back run for more than 216 yards until this game. But in that instant, the palms that carried the ball 71 times for 514 yards and five touchdowns connected. It was a fleeting moment, but one that will live forever in Oklahoma-Texas history.

Parker and Williams supplied the marquee match up that was uncharacteristically missing. In one game, they provided the rivalry's two best rushing performances, which had belonged to Oklahoma's Greg Pruitt with his 216 yards in 1971, and two of their school's best. Williams fell short in the personal duel, with two touchdowns and 223 yards gained, the second-best performance in school history behind his effort against Rice, and the fourth-best against the Sooners, averaging 5.6 yards on a school-record 40 carries. Meanwhile, Parker scored all three Sooners touchdowns and rushed for 291 yards, just three short of Pruitt's school rushing record of 294 set against Kansas State, also in '71, and averaged 9.4 yards on 31 carries. It was just the third time in NCAA history that two running backs from opposing teams had rushed for more than 200 yards.

The big running numbers were evidence that neither Oklahoma nor Texas were the same as they used to be. The Sooners showed another reason for its demise by committing 10 penalties for 74 yards. Flags ended several of their drives, and several Texas scoring drives were kept alive by Oklahoma penalties.

But it was the Longhorns who walked into the tunnel with a 27-24 victory. "I think if we lose this game, our season's almost over," Williams said. "I made it a point to make some good runs. People said I didn't step up in big games. I think this was my best game."

"I would trade all the yards for the win," Parker said, his white #33 shirt soaked from the effort. "It was like a dagger in the heart."

It seemed like a different Texas team than the one that got pounded by UCLA and Oklahoma State by a combined 89 points. Despite surrendering 402 yards, the Longhorns played with emotion, and they ebbed and flowed, but were determined to stay afloat. They made mistakes with five dropped passes, and Williams had three fumbles, two of which were recovered by the Sooners, but this time, they overcame the miscues.

Brown completed 14 of 28 passes for 188 yards and one touchdown. The offensive line, maligned in their two losses, opened huge holes for Williams, and White, after dropping two passes, caught three for 52 yards, including the score. And little-used senior receiver Courtney Epps came through with four big catches totaling 51 yards. It allowed them to celebrate a victory that improved their record to 3-2, and 1-1 in the Big 12.

The Sooners struggled, too. Fuente and backup Eric Moore completed just five of 17 passes for 81 yards. Oklahoma was penalized 10 times for 74 yards, and two of those kept Texas scoring drives alive. But they did not commit a turnover, and persevered despite being down. Regardless, the Sooners dropped to 2-4, and 0-2 in the conference.

"I'm not disappointed with the team; they tried to win," said Blake afterwards. "They fought the best they could."

Source: Jeff Linkowski

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