The Oklahoma-Texas rivalry has been turned upside down.
When OU and Texas meet for the Big 12 championship Saturday, thousands of Sooner fans will flash the “Horns Down” symbol from the time they step out of their hotels to when they become seated in AT&T Stadium.
OU players won’t have that luxury on the playing field.
Lincoln Riley won’t allow players to perform the hand gesture during the game. Monday, he’d said he would ask the Big 12 conference if the gesture would result in a penalty; earlier this season, West Virginia was flagged twice for it.
The league’s response convinced OU’s coach it wasn’t worth the risk.
“They just told us we can’t do it. We could be subject to a flag. They said they’re not gonna overdo it,” Riley said. “They’re not gonna be looking for it and looking to call it, but for us, we’re not gonna do it.”
Could OU really be penalized? There’s wiggle room.
The Big 12 released a statement referring to NCAA rule 9.1, essentially leaving it up to officials about what would constitute a penalty.
“If in the judgment of on-field officials, any action by game participants deemed an ‘Unsportsmanlike Act’ is subject to penalty in accordance with college football rules,” the league wrote.
Under NCAA rule 9.1, “taunting, baiting or ridiculing an opponent verbally” is prohibited, as are “acts that provoke ill will or are demeaning to an opponent.”
OU players have long flashed the “Horns Down” symbol. Former Texas coach Mack Brown wasn’t always a fan of it, and it’s been a hot topic this season with other teams.
Texas coach Tom Herman was critical of the gesture after the West Virginia game, when Will Grier used it while running a two-point conversion that beat the Longhorns. Herman said he considered it taunting.
After the game, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger wrote in a since-deleted tweet, “I remember every single team/player that disrespects the rich tradition of the University of Texas by putting the Horns down. Do not think it will be forgotten in the future.”
The fervor adds to an already emotional OU-Texas rivalry ahead of the teams’ first-ever Big 12 title clash. Facing what’s sure to be a heated game — Texas won the October meeting 48-45 in Dallas — Riley limited media access to one day this week to limit outside noise.
His players took to it. Some used bullet points during Monday’s availability, when talk shifted to the Longhorns. Sophomore linebacker Kenneth Murray stuck to a script that the game is more about winning a title than beating Texas. He used the word “championship” 22 times in a 13-minute interview session.
OU quarterback Kyler Murray chose not to comment when asked if he respected Ehlinger’s game — the two exchanged words after the game in Dallas — and that drew its own reaction altogether in Austin.
“Ol’ boy doesn’t like losing,” Texas defensive end Charles Omenihu said of Murray. “But you lost, so it is what it is. His comment yesterday … I’m not surprised he said that. If you know him or know how he is, it’s not surprising. To be honest with you, I really don’t care. It’s funny to me. I saw it, and I started laughing. It’s very, very funny.
“I’m probably going to laugh after this, and go look at it and laugh some more.”
While Texas players have been more outspoken, the program chose to not make defensive end Breckyn Hager available. The senior defensive end’s recent postgame comments that “OU has no defense” and “it’s 11:12 and OU still sucks” drew a league reprimand.
The Big 12’s move to muffle Hager and limit usage of “Horns Down” has drawn a massive reaction from fans and former OU players on social media who feel the rivalry is being watered down.
Wednesday, former OU fullback Dimitri Flowers tweeted a photo of himself using the hand gesture, saying “I must have gotten lucky because this [wasn’t] a penalty … [I’d] still do it every time I touch that field too.”
But for current Sooners, who could potentially earn a College Football Playoff berth with a win over Texas, any additional penalty may not be worth it. Plus, OU is on high alert for this type of action.
Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb’s “Dragon Ball Z” celebration after a touchdown resulted in a penalty at TCU, which was enforced on the kickoff and helped set up a 99-yard kick return for a touchdown.
Riley isn’t interested in taking any risks.
“I know a lot will get made on the outside about the rivalry, and that it’s OU and Texas,” Riley said. “But I think still because it’s a championship game and all that’s riding on it overshadows that, in my opinion.”