Sooners see old nemesis in Texas coaching ranks
Texas is taking a ghost from Oklahoma's past into this weekend's Red River Rivalry game.
The Longhorns' new offensive coordinator is Bryan Harsin, the same guy whose aggressive and creative play calling led Boise State to a stunning Fiesta Bowl upset of the Sooners in 2007. No one who saw that game will forget one of the wildest finishes in bowl history, and one that launched the career of an audacious young assistant.
''There's no question it got everyone's attention,'' Texas coach Mack Brown said with the No. 11 Longhorns (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) getting ready to play No. 3 Oklahoma (4-0, 1-0) in Dallas on Saturday. ''Bryan was 29 when he was calling plays in that game ... Some people have a knack for calling plays.''
For more than a decade, the Sooners knew pretty much what to expect from the Texas offense. Players like Vince Young and Colt McCoy came and went, but offensive coordinator Greg Davis was the guy in the booth calling the plays for 13 years.
When Brown went looking for a play caller to replace Davis after last season's 5-7 finish, he wanted someone with the kind of courage and smarts Harsin put on display against the Sooners.
Now he's got THE guy.
Boise State had already grabbed national attention with a team good enough to get to the Bowl Championship Series game. Harsin then established himself as a true gunslinger with the three biggest plays of his career.
The first was a 50-yard hook-and-ladder pass dubbed ''Circus'' on fourth down with 18 seconds left for a touchdown that sent the game into overtime. The second was a halfback pass for a TD and he followed that with a behind-the-back handoff ''Statue of Liberty'' play for a 2-point conversion that won the game.
''I remember the Statue of Liberty play like the back of my hand,'' said Texas wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who was a high school sophomore when he watched the game on TV.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, whose team was caught flat-footed by the trickery, likely remembers it all too well. And he has seen some familiar things watching the Longhorns' early-season trick plays -- including wide receiver passes and flea-flicker throws for touchdowns.
''There's some things that are similar, some aren't. It's been a while now. Everybody has a track record of what they do. You see similarities,'' Stoops said.
Heading into his first Texas-Oklahoma matchup, Harsin deflects much of the praise for a game played almost five years ago.
''Really, we just put the ball in our playmakers' hands and they made the plays. It was more credit to our players than play selection. They made it happen,'' Harsin said. ''That was a long time ago and a different scenario, different time, different game, and it was fun ... But we are focused on this one now.''
Davis designed some of the most prolific offenses in Texas history, won a national championship in 2005 and played for another in 2009. But he also was a regular target of Texas fans who complained he was too predictable. Davis resigned after the Longhorns' first losing season since 1997.
The long partnership with Davis severed, Brown wanted new blood and hired Harsin away from Boise State. It started a buzz among Texas players and fans who knew only that he had beaten the Sooners with imagination and guts.
Senior running back Fozzy Whittaker remembers calling his teammates about Harsin when the hiring was announced.
''As soon as he came in and introduced himself and who he was and what he planned to do with this offense, everybody was all in,'' Whittaker said.
Harsin has certainly injected some razzle-dazzle into the Longhorns, using constant motion, misdirection and trick plays to keep defenses guessing.
The Longhorns' first touchdown pass of the season came against Rice on a reverse pass from wide receiver John Harris to Jaxon Shipley. Last week against Iowa State, another play started with a running back taking the snap, flipping it to a wide receiver who tossed it to the quarterback, who then threw back to the wide receiver for a touchdown. Harsin calls that one the ''Matrix.''
The trick plays work because the Longhorns practice them every day, building confidence to call them on Saturdays.
''He's got four or five of those that he runs every day,'' Brown said. ''The players get really excited. What's next? What's unique? What's he gonna show? He creates explosive plays sometimes by imaginative plays.''
Harsin said repetition builds his trust in the players to make the plays work, and he is flexible to making changes. Harsin said it was the players at Boise State who practiced the behind-the-back handoff on the Statue of Liberty play and convinced him they could pull it off.
Oklahoma players say they have to be ready for anything on Saturday.
''They do a lot of trickery stuff, and they're not afraid to do it either. Especially off the big play. If, say, they got a turnover or anything, a sudden change, they'll go for a trick play,'' Oklahoma nickel back Tony Jefferson said.
Unlike previous years, when Texas seemed to play it safe early in the season to hide plays from the Sooners, Harsin has been willing to open up his playbook.
That's been Harsin's pattern over the years. Back in 2006, Boise State ran the Statue of Liberty play in a regular-season game against Idaho and it presumably was on game film for the Sooners to study during bowl preparation.
Brown likes Harsin's approach because the trick plays are born out of a tough running game. A halfback pass or a pass off a reverse sweep only work if the defense is forced to respect the run and bites on a ball fake.
Texas is averaging 206 yards on the ground compared to 150 last season. Some of the biggest runs have come out of a wildcat formation -- Texas calls it the wildhorn, of course -- with Whittaker taking a direct snap.
''He's tough,'' Brown said of Harsin. ''He really wants to run the ball and when we don't, he's unhappy.''