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TX-OU 1968: Bad To The 'Bone

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When Texas went to Fayetteville in October of 1965, the Horns were riding high on the hog. Texas was #1 in one poll - #2 in the other. From the start of the 1961 season until that Saturday, Texas was 44-3-1. They had taken up permanent residence in the Top 5, with one National Championship and two near misses.

Arkansas drove the length of the field late in the 4th quarter to secure a dramatic 27-24 win. That loss did more than ruin the Horns perfect record. It exposed the weak underpinnings of the Texas program. The leftover talent on the 1963 National Championship squad was finishing up, and the young talent on hand was average at best. Royal later admitted that he had been split in too many directions after 1963, and recruiting became about numbers rather than quality. Texas signed 67 players after the 1963 season, and not a single one of them ever made consensus All-SWC.

From the 1965 Arkansas game until the beginning of the 1968 season Texas was 15-11, and there were rumblings from the fan base about the game passing Royal by.

Royal began to turn the talent drain around with the class of 65, which included players like Bill Bradley, Chris Gilbert and Loyd Wainscott. But it was the recruiting class of 1967 that would put the final touches on the rebuilding process. It was led by the most highly sought after running back in the nation – Bridge City's Steve Worster.

Worster
Fans would chant "Woo Woo" when Steve Worster broke through the line.

How good was the recruiting class known as the Worster Bunch? A confidential poll of SWC Head Coaches taken for Texas Football for the 1967 recruiting class revealed that Texas has signed seven of the top eleven recruits for 1967 as well as 12 of the Top 22 recruits.

People like Eddie Phillips, Cotton Speyrer and linemen Jim Achilles, Mike Dean and Bobby Mitchell, as well as defensive players like Bill Zapalac, Scott Henderson, Bille Atessis, and Greg Ploetz. Defensive back recruits included Danny Lester and Freddie Steinmark. They would top off what was a third straight excellent recruiting class.

The Wishbone

Even with the increase of talent, 1967 was another disappointing 6-4 season. Going into the summer of 1968 , Royal took a look at his assets and determined that he needed to find a better way to utilize all of them. He turned to offensive coordinator Emory Bellard during that summer and instructed him to study ways to get his three top runners (Chris Gilbert, Ted Koy and Steve Worster) involved in the offense and on the field at the same time.

There is another key. Royal wanted an offense that would be as effective either to the tight end or the split end side of the formation. Bellard determined that the only real run offense that could be successful towards the split end side of the formation was the triple option.

Homer Rice is credited with coming up with the triple option while at Cincinnati, and of course Bill Yoeman took it nationally while at Houston. But Yoeman used two split backs and two wide receivers.

Royal wanted something more along the lines of the triple option that Gene Stallings had run at Texas A&M in 1967 out of the I formation, but again, he wanted another back in there. Bellard came up with the Y-formation, with Bill Bradley at quarterback, Worster at fullback and Gilbert plus Ted Koy at halfbacks

This all came about after spring training, so Bellard gathered up some ex players and his son, and worked on it during the summer. Royal especially liked the idea of the loaded feature of this option -- there was a lead halfback blocker no matter which side the play ran.

This is where The Law of Unintended Consequences came into play, and for Texas it turned out to be a good thing.

Royal had wanted a formation that would be equally aggressive to either side of the line. What they discovered –very quickly- was a fast wide receiver made the formation even deadlier.

Speyrer
Cotton Speyrer gave Texas the deep threat that made the Wishbone explosive.

If you have a wide out that the defense must respect i.e. Cotton Speyrer, then a lot of the time you are running the basic 'bone play with 10 offensive men on 9 1/2 defensive men. You have one player on Speyrer, and a Safety over the top who has to respect him deep, and therefore be ready to go away from the run.

The Bone made its debut against Yoeman and the Houston Cougars, and the game ended in a 20-20 tie. As a matter of fact it was at a loss to Tech that brought about two shifts – one in the formation and one in personnel – that would unleash the Wishbone.

Tech led 28-7 (they would eventually win 31-22), and after another screw up, Royal decided to bench QB Bradley and insert James Street. He grabbed Street by the jersey pushed him towards the field, and said:

"Get in there...hell you can't do any worse."

The week after the loss to Tech, Street got the start against Oklahoma State. It was a very big deal in the media. Bill Bradley had been the most widely heralded recruit in Texas history. Nicknamed "Super Bill" in High School, he had already been featured in Sports Illustrated before he ever hit the 40 Acres. But Bradley didn't adapt to the Wishbone very well, and Bellard had an interesting take on it. Bellard believed that Bradley felt so much pressure to live up to the hype that he couldn't relax and let his teammates carry some of the load. He said Bradley could run the 'bone very well in practice, but come game time, he would press, and try to make a big play every down.

1st bone
When Street joined Gilbert, Worster and Koy, the Wishbone started to click.

Street on the other hand, let the game come to him. A fierce competitor, he also had a knack for making the right decision on the option. Street was also a much better deep passer than given credit, which made the offense even more explosive.

The Game That Establishes the 'Bone

Texas made one other change in the Wishbone in the week leading up to OU. Bellard and Royal had decided that Worster was too close to the QB and needed to be moved back about a half a yard. He was getting the ball before the lineman could complete their blocks, and at too steep an angle. It made all the difference in the world in getting to the pitch option cleanly.

Texas was 1-1-1 going into the OU game, while the Sooners were 1-1. They had been blasted by Notre Dame and had beaten North Carolina State.

Texas moved the ball fairly well from the start, but miscues kept them from getting into the end zone. The Sooners had an excellent runner of their own, Steve Owens, along with a passing combination of Bob Warmack to Eddie Hinton. OU led 14-6 at the half.

Loyd Wainscott took over the game for Texas in the 3rd quarter. The defensive lineman first stripped OU QB Bob Warmack of the ball at the OU 35 to set up a short TD drive. Worster took it over from two yards out, and Gilbert scored a 2-point conversion on a triple option to make it 14-14.

The next time Texas got the ball they stalled out at the OU 37, but Happy Feller connected on a 53-yard field goal that hit the crossbar and then bounced over. Then a little later, after a brilliant Bill Bradley punt that was killed at the OU one-yard line, Wainscott sacked Warmack for a safety. Texas led 19-14.

But Warmack, Owens and Hinton weren't through. They moved 77 yards for the go-ahead score, and after missing on a two point conversion, OU led 20-19.

Texas started to move the ball about midway through the 4th quarter, but then Street tossed an interception at the UT 48, with only 3:51 to go in the game. Eventually Texas ended up with the ball on its own 15 yard-line with only 2:37 to go.

As in so many other times during his career, Royal - the man famous for disdaining the pass - would rely on it at the most crucial of times. Texas had used a play designed to get the tight end isolated on a LB only once that year (against Tech), but now Deryl Comer would make catches of 18, 21 and 13 yards to move the ball deep into OU territory.

Texas was so focused on getting into field goal range for Happy Feller since they only trailed by 1, that when Royal started sending in straight hand-offs to Worster, Street finally realized they were inside OU's 20-yard line.

Worster got the call twice in a row, and the touchdown run happened so fast that he didn't even realize that he had scored until the cannon went off. When Happy Feller kicked the extra point, to make the score 26-20, the clock showed 0:39 left in the game.

OU didn't quit. Warmack came back, and they got off four more plays. The game ended with the first UT interception of the contest - by Freddie Steinmark -- at the Texas 20-yard line.

Worster Run
Worster ended the 1968 OU game with 121 yards on only 14 carries.

So much came from that game -- national coverage for the new offense, renewed confidence in the team, momentum that would stretch for years.

As devastating as that 3-point loss to Arkansas had been in 1965, this win over OU would be the antidote that would help cure the mediocre doldrums that Texas had been mired in for three years.

Texas would finish the 1968 season with 8 straight wins and a dismantling of Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl. The Wishbone began to roll up sick offensive numbers, as Texas average 331 yards a game rushing and 448 yards total offense per game. The average score in those final 8 wins was 38-18. Senior Chris Gilbert finished with over 1,100 yards rushing, going over the 1,000 yard mark in each of his three varsity sesons.

Gilbert
The first year of the wishbone saw Chris Gilbert become the first back in NCAA history to gain over 1,000 yards rushing in each of his three varsity seasons.

Of course it was also the 2nd straight in what would be a 30-game win streak.

The Wishbone was a monster of an offense, and if Royal was Dr. Frankenstein to many defensive coordinators in the late 60's and early 70's, he would discover that the monster could be turned on Texas as well.

During his entire coaching career, Royal believed in sharing information with everybody. He believed that helping other coaches was a part of being in the fraternity, and spring practices after the Wishbone took off were a veritable NCAA coaches convention. Pepper Rodgers of UCLA came in. Bear Bryant had Royal and Bellard come to Tuscaloosa for a week to help install the Bone at 'Bama.

Royal even helped his alma mater. OU coach Chuck Fairbanks watched the birth of the bone as an effective offense, and decided to switch. Bellard tells the story of being stunned when Royal walked into his office and told him that Fairbanks was getting heat at OU and he wanted to switch to the wishbone. Royal said Sooner assistant coach Barry Switzer would be calling and Bellard was to help them with the mechanics of the offense.

Royal-Fairbanks
After the 1970 season, Royal gave OU coach Chuck Fairbanks some insights on the Wishbone.

"I shook my head," Bellard said, "Darrell, you got to be joking?"
He said, "No, I wanna help him." I said, "Well, I can admire your wanting to help somebody but I said, gosh darn, not them."

The Sooners came out in their regular offense at the begining of the 1970 season, but with a week off before the Texas game, they switched to the Wishbone. It didn't help that year as Texas won easily 34-9. But Fairbanks had a terrific option QB in Jack Mildren, and the Sooners would soon run the Bone to perfection. The 1970 win was Royal's last over OU.

Royal has since admitted that had he thought about it more, he probably would not have been as benevolent with the Sooners again.