Few people will ever be fortunate enough to walk through the tunnel and onto the manicured Cotton Bowl field. Even fewer are fortunate enough to do it on the day of the Red River Rivalry.
For the Texas football team, the experience — as I’m sure is also the case for the Sooners team — is a wholly unique one. It transcends football for a brief moment as they sprint into the coliseum-like atmosphere.
“This rivalry is bigger than any of us,” said senior tight end Blaine Irby. “Walking down the tunnel and seeing the crowd split in half is a special feeling...It’s a game you don’t ever forget.”
For the Longhorns that have been in this situation before, the allure doesn’t ever go away, but the bigness of it all does. It is that transition from wide-eyed doe to hawk-like focus and intensity that can only come with age. Landry Jones, the Sooners’ Heisman-caliber quarterback, has played in this game twice already and judging by his 1447 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, it is safe to say he will walk into round three with a determined purpose unable to be hindered by the grandeur of the maroon and burnt orange painted stadium.
Leading the Texas team, however, are two quarterbacks who understand this game from a theoretical perspective, but not an experiential one. Case McCoy and David Ash know that the eyes of the state they represent are on them, but will they be able to put their own blinders on and focus solely on the task at hand?
“I was shocked by the environment,” said senior linebacker Emmanuel Acho of the first time he played in the rivalry. “It was crazy. It matches the intensity of a national championship game.”
The weight of this game, especially for either team’s quarterbacks, can feel like it extends beyond the realm of the gridiron. For years, each school’s fans have boasted about how many of the other team’s fans have ended up in the hospital. Presidents have attended this clash of the titans, and have even had the privilege of leading the coin toss at the beginning of the game, which is funny because who would ever guess the leader of the Free World would take a back seat in attention to a bunch of collegiate athletes? So the fact that Case McCoy, 20, and David Ash, 19, will have the weight of the world on their shoulders on Saturday is something they can’t avoid whether they want to or not.
“You just have to let them know what to expect,” Acho said. “That is one of the jobs of a leader. You have to let [the freshmen] know what they are going to see.”
Explaining things to them is one thing, but asking them to execute amid the intensity is entirely different. The two quarterbacks have played well thus far, and in many respects, have surpassed expectations. That type of coddling and pat-on-the-back mentality works against any other team and in any other game, but for Texas-Oklahoma, there is only one expectation from either side: Win at all costs.
Texas head coach Mack Brown will tell you that for him, the game is all about having fun. And it is, no doubt, a fun time — until your team loses. Then it’s a year of scrutiny until you have to a chance to come back and redeem yourself. It isn’t enough to just have a good game. What do you remember more: Sam Bradford having a record day against Texas in 2008, throwing for 487 yards and five touchdowns? Or Texas winning 45-35? Bradford went on to win the Davey O’Brien and Heisman trophies that year, and could have easily been a top pick in the NFL draft that year, but he decided to play one more season.
“My three years here have been probably three of the best years of my life,” Bradford said at the time of his announcement. “ I feel there’s no need to cut this experience short.”
I’d venture to guess that playing to win in the Red River Rivalry (as well as the National Championship) one more time was a significant part of his decision- making process.
If McCoy and Ash help Texas to a victory Saturday, the burnt orange nation will lift them on a pedestal to forever be immortalized as heroes for accomplishing something that not many Texas fans expect to happen. Texas coaching legend Darrell K. Royal once said “The biggest games at Texas are the ones that you lose.”
With all due respect to coach Royal, a loss in the Red River Rivalry is the biggest of the big. And McCoy and Ash, and even the rest of the freshman squad, it would be a long year until they could have their chance at it again.