Oklahoma turns back the clock in Red River triumph

DALLAS — Let’s set the scene for Oklahoma: The Sooners and their second-year coach are in need of a signature win, with the rival Longhorns providing a golden opportunity. A smooth, lefty quarterback delivers the victory that springboards him into the Heisman Trophy race and the team into the national title discussion.

The year is 2000, coach Bob Stoops and QB Josh Heupel have dismantled Texas 63-14 and end up winning it all that season.

On Saturday, the Sooners didn’t blow Texas out of the water in their 34-30 win. But a year after suffering the biggest loss to the Longhorns in school history, a 49-0 humiliation, this year’s lefty signal-caller, Dillon Gabriel, landed a devastating knockout blow with a five-play, 62-second game-winning touchdown drive that delivered a statement of its own: The Sooners have their swagger back, and it feels an awful lot like it did 23 years ago.

Echoes of 2000? Don’t take our word for it. Listen to someone who was there.

“It reminds me a little bit of that, 1999 to 2000,” Oklahoma coach Brent Venables said Saturday afternoon. “No offense to these guys, but we had a bunch of misfits back in 2000. We didn’t know how good we could be.”

Venables was a second-year Oklahoma assistant in 2000. He had arrived with Bob Stoops a year before, taking over a humbled Oklahoma program that had gone 5-6 the year before under John Blake, the last season of Blake’s 12-22 three-year tenure.

Venables was also a first-year head coach in 2022, who went 6-7, the Sooners’ first losing season since Blake’s last. He took over after the shocking departure of Lincoln Riley for USC and the transfer of several key players, including Caleb Williams, who won the Heisman Trophy last season, and Spencer Rattler, another former starting QB. Then Texas happened. Fairly or not, it’s the kind of loss that starts raising questions about whether the Sooners had landed the right coach.

Venables just coached in his 15th Red River Rivalry. He knows the rules at Oklahoma. Start 0-2 against the Longhorns and those questions start getting louder. That hasn’t happened since Gary Gibbs lost his first two in 1989 and 1990.

The 2022 Sooners lost at home to Kansas State and Baylor. They were blown out by TCU on the road early in the year and lost four games, including the Cheez-It Bowl against Florida State, by a field goal. They ranked 122nd out of 131 nationally in total defense. But most importantly, they were humiliated at the Cotton Bowl.

“My hands are all over that, and the players that played for us last year, they were hurt from that too,” Venables said. “Ultimately, my job as a leader is to get the best out of them, and I did a very poor job of that.”

These Sooners started the season at No. 20 with a lot of questions. Venables said before the season that 76% of his roster would be first- and second-year players. The defensive line alone added six transfers. The Sooners signed seven ESPN 300 defensive recruits, their most since the rankings began in 2006. The defensive line came up big in a dramatic goal-line stand, stuffing Texas four times at the 1. Peyton Bowen, one of the gems of that recruiting class, forced a fumble on a big hit on Quinn Ewers in the third quarter.

The Sooners are now 6-0 and look more like the Oklahoma that won six straight Big 12 championships before that run ended last season. Baker Mayfield was on the sideline Saturday throwing the horns down on the stadium video screen, and the Sooners took Texas’ best shot and conjured another helping of Sooner Magic. There’s a swagger back to these Sooners.

“That [2000 team] was a group, they were tough as all get-out and they’d raggedy up and they just came every day and went to work. And these guys have been exactly that. We’re a little shinier in some spots,” Venables said, glancing to his right to star linebacker Danny Stutsman. “But also, I think the parallels are that you didn’t know how good we can be.”

There’s a belief now in Norman. That’s the hard part in any coaching change. Like in 2000, Venables has returned the Sooners to the top 10 and they will now be back in the national conversation. Amid a struggling Big 12 field, it looks as if the Sooners and Longhorns are on another collision course for December in a conference title rematch.

At midfield Saturday after the game, Venables put on the golden hat and handed it off to his players, with a sense of gratitude.

What a difference one game makes.

“There’s no limits on what this team can do, and no excuses either,” Venables said. “We’ve got everything that we need.”

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