DALLAS — Junior running back T.J. Pledger bounced toward OU’s sideline, where a host of teammates and the coach in the white ball cap waited.
Reaching the end of the line of supporters, Pledger collided with the coach in midair, celebrating the Sooner starter’s second touchdown of the day in a game he finished with 131 yards rushing.
Pledger’s partner in the bump?
Oklahoma running backs coach and former OU running back DeMarco Murray, who ran over the Longhorns for 115 yards and two touchdowns in the same game 10 years ago.
In a contest where freshman Seth McGowan was absent and senior Rhamondre Stevenson remained suspended, Oklahoma (2-2, 1-2 Big 12) desperately needed a rushing explosion after struggling on the ground through its first three games.
On OU's day of dire need, Pledger and redshirt freshman Marcus Major delivered.
Improvement didn’t require much after Oklahoma’s first three games. The Sooners never collected more than 130 yards on the ground in any of those contests.
Everything changed Saturday, as Pledger used 22 carries to top OU's previous 2020 rushing limit and pick up his pair of scores, while Major turned 12 carries into 43 yards and another touchdown — the first of his career.
Collectively, they accounted for just under 40 percent of OU’s points in the contest, helping the Sooners narrowly edge the Longhorns (2-2, 1-2 Big 12), 53-45, in four overtimes.
As former Sooner running back Renaldo Works watched the game he used to play yearly on television, he was elated about what he saw.
“I think they complemented each other well,” Works said after the game. “I was excited about it. I was excited to see those guys win and to just hand Texas the loss one more time, and (I was) happy for those running backs to see them getting the ball.”
After averaging 122.6 rushing yards per game to start the season — good for No. 58 in the nation and No. 8 in the Big 12 — the Sooners shot up to 199 yards per game after Saturday’s performance.
OU owed its outburst to the efforts of Pledger, who had only 47 yards in a loss to Iowa State last weekend, and Major, who didn’t even register a carry in that game.
“They got better, which we're gonna have to continue to do in that room and every room,” OU head coach Lincoln Riley said after the game. “(They) had some really tough runs.”
But the benefit of the duo’s success went beyond jumpstarting OU’s ground game. They provided more balance to an offense that had been incredibly lopsided through its first outings.
The team that threw for at least 300 yards in an air raid through each of its first three games scrambled for 208 yards Saturday, while cutting its passing gains down to a still-healthy 261 yards.
The Red River Showdown is no stranger to exciting running back play. There’s the contest Murray took over in 2010 and Damien Williams’ 95-yard scoring trot in 2012. There’s Quentin Griffin’s six touchdowns in the 2000 massacre, freshman Adrian Peterson’s 225 yard game in 2004 and Joe Washington’s touchdown pass to Tinker Owens in 1973.
Much like Pledger and Major battled together Saturday, Works was tasked with spelling Griffin during that 2000 blowout. He compiled 14 carries for 50 yards as OU’s second-leading rusher in a rout that saw the Sooners balance 265 rushing and 289 receiving yards.
While the sun beat down on the Cotton Bowl once again — though it held a masked and socially distanced 25 percent capacity crowd because of COVID-19 — Pledger and Major joined Oklahoma’s anti-Texas tailback lore. Neither team was playing for rights to one of the top spots in the Big 12 as in 2000 on Saturday, but Works still saw the historic value of the outcome.
“The ranking and positions may be different this year but definitely it will go down as a heck of a game as far as running and how they did,” Works said. “I would put it up there as well.”
And if Oklahoma hopes to win out while steering itself back into the conference championship conversation, it’ll need more running performances like Saturday’s from the dynamic duo.
“They’re two young guys that are gonna continue to grow and get better and better, but obviously we took some big steps in the run game and still felt like we left a little bit out there,” Riley said. “But I’m proud of their fight. It was a little bit of a light room this week but they attacked it and made some big time plays.”