Thirty tackles for Clete ... It was Pillen's biggest day as a Husker and this tackle of Skip Taylor was an indication of his aggressiveness. RICH JANDA / THE WORLD-HERALD
LINCOLN — And then there was one again. Nebraska, the preseason favorite, stood atop the standings Saturday as the fittest in the Big Eight Conference survival war. At least for the moment.
Oklahoma State and Colorado, which went into the weekend tied with the Cornhuskers for the ticket to the Orange Bowl, fell back into the ticket to the Orange Bowl, fell back into the scrap heap with three other league brethren who have three wins and two losses.
The Huskers took care of Oklahoma State in typical NU-OSU fashion, getting in the last punch in a 14-10 bash before 76,272 fans for a 4-1 league record.
Missouri did its part for the Nebraska cause by bouncing Colorado, 16-7.
The news that it was again leading the chase to Miami touched off a few moments of unrestrained celebration in the Husker dressing quarters. Then the realities of life in the Big Eight began to sink in again.
'A Big Step'
"It's great to be back on top, except we have to go to Iowa State Saturday, and we have to play Oklahoma yet," Coach Tom Osborne said. "We could just as easily have lost today and to Colorado. That's the way it is in the Big Eight, but this was a big step in the right direction."
To which center Tom Davis added this amen: "We still have to win the rest or today won't make any difference."
And quarterback Vince Ferragamo: "Our season starts next week... just like every week. We can be 2-0, or 0-2."
And tight end Ken Spaeth: "We are up there right now, but..."
But Monte Kiffin, whose bend-but-don't break defense bent and bent and bent against the charges of Poke halfbacks Terry Miller and Skip Taylor, apparently didn't get the word.
"We may be back in the whole picture," Kiffin grandly announced. The whole picture he was looking at was the national championship, which became more muddled Saturday with top-ranked Michigan losing to Purdue.
— "If we get a shot at Pittsburgh and win the Orange Bowl. . . well, it's kind of fun to think that way anyway," Kiffin said.
Such dreaming could be permitted Saturday after the Oklahoma State heart-stopper.
It fit in perfectly in a series that has seen participants beat each other up and the Huskers somehow winning.
The Cowboys' winless frustration thus was stretched to 15 years. Eight Nebraska victories have been by 10 points or less, and there has been one tie.
Oklahoma State had come from behind the previous two weeks in victories over Oklahoma and Missouri, but Saturday, it was the Huskers who overcame a 3-0 halftime edge and a 10-7 Cowboy lead in the fourth quarter.
The bouncing runs of Miller, the Big Eight's leading rusher, created the most stir the first half, when the Cowboys played ball-control keepaway. The second half, it was Nebraska's Ferragamo, who is best in the league at what he does best.
That is passing. Vince had but 66 yards on five passes the first half while the Huskers were trying to overcome a 37-yard Abby Daigle field goal in the second quarter.
But he tormented the Poke secondary, which was also a league leader in pass defense, for 169 yards and two touchdowns the second half.
There were two major reasons why the Huskers didn't rely on their potent passing game much earlier.
Monte Anthony gained 15 yards on each of his first two carries, which convinced the Huskers they could move on the ground. But the Pokes never again allowed such yardage.
The biggest factor, however, was the lack of opportunity. The Cowboys put together two drives that were brutally efficient, if not spectacular.
The first carried 75 yards on 18 plays, all on the ground. On four of the five first downs, the Pokes took three plays. The march consumed seven minutes and seven seconds.
But it ended on the Husker 12 when quarterback Charlie Weatherbie failed to gain with a sneak on fourth down and a yard to go.
The second lengthy sortie took 16 running plays and 7:24 to cover 70 yards.
It concluded on the Husker five-yard line with middle guard Jeff Pullen curled around a fumble that Taylor had lost on a pitchout after the Pokes had made it to the three.
Both teams suffered such quirks of fate. The Huskers had taken their opening drive to the OSU 14 before freshmen linebacker John Corker intercepted a pass. Two plays later, Weatherbie lost a fumble.
Then Husker split end Bobby Thomas made a spectacular catch and run to the Poke two-yard line, where he fumbled away to Milton Kervin.
Another Husker fumble, by fullback Dodie Donnell, set up Daigle's field goal.
The "breaks" kept balancing each other out in the third quarter. OSU nose guard Richard Allen blocked a 35-yard field goal attempt by Al Eveland, but the Huskers got the ball back when cornerback Ted Harvey recovered frosh quarterback Harold Bailey's fumble.
Then Willie Lester snagged another Ferragamo pass at the Poke 15 and hiked it back 19 yards.
Finally, Nebraska put together a string of seven plays, including four complete passes, to cover 75 yards and produce a 7-3 lead.
Split end Chuck Malito caught three of the four, including the final one for 34 yards after he had eluded cornerback Kirven.
"I thought I'd catch up with the ball, but I didn't know whether it would be up in the first row of the bleachers or not. The ball hung up there for the longest time," the splendid splinter said.
Malito's touchdown catch came on a high dive in the right corner of the end zone, but receivers Coach Jerry Moore said a 21-yard reception he made en route to the winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter was "probably the greatest catch I've ever seen."
Malito went high over the middle to swipe the ball from two defenders. Six plays later, Ferragamo drilled a six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ken Spaeth, who was in turn drilled back out of the end zone and out of bounds by Gary Irions and Lester.
Spaeth had to be revived after his winning catch but said, "It was worth it. I lost my wind, and I didn't feel too steady. But it was good."
Spaeth's touchdown was necessary for the Huskers because the Cowboys had just rambled 80 yards on nine plays. The lone Weatherbie completion came in the drive and it covered 34 yards to Sam Lisle. The ball was underthrown, and Lisle won the jump ball with cornerback Harvey.
When Oklahoma State again faced fourth and one on the Husker 15, Nebraska countered with the same defense that had stopped Weatherbie in the second quarter. This time, however, Miller shot through a gap over right tackle and skipped easily into the end zone.
But the game had taken a Nebraska turn when Ferragamo started cooking with his passing, and Husker defensive adjustments cooked up at halftime broke up OSU's 3-4-5-yard consistency.
Mainly, the Huskers quit firing the defensive ends so hard, which had allowed the Pokes to break containment on pitchouts, and brought up monster back Kent Smith for faster support.
Miller still finished with 149 yards on 30 carries, and OSU outrushed Nebraska, 291-121. The final statistics were as close as the score — 356-325, Huskers.
As usual, the Cowboys took it down to the wire.
After Husker punter Randy Lessman dropped his average to 44 yards with a 10-yard popup to the Husker 31, Daigle missed a 44-yard field goal attempt.
The Cowboys gambled on fourth and 19 with a reverse at midfield with a 3:14 left, but Ron Pruitt and Pullen stopped Taylor for a three-yard loss.
However, a lost fumble by Berns at the OSU 39 in the last minute gave the Pokes one more chance.
Again it was split end Lisle against Husker cornerback Harvey on a tossup by Weatherbie. Harvey won the rematch for an interception that preserved the victory in the last 13 seconds.
In summary, Osborne said the obvious. "That was tight," he said. "There were a lot of big situations and we were at a point several times where it looked like we were in a good position to throw it away.
"The first quarter seemed to be ours except for scoring, and the second quarter seemed to be theirs. Miller and Taylor are awfully good backs, and it was hard for us to keep them from getting four yards a carry.
"It was almost a replay of the Missouri game for a while."
He was referring to the 34-24 loss in which the Huskers committed six turnovers. Nebraska had three fumbles and two interceptions Saturday, but the Cowboys neutralized those setbacks with three fumbles and one interception.
"Vince did a good job of bringing us back, but we had some shaky plays. We think we can throw on anybody."
Husker linebacker Clete Pillen had the busiest day of his career with 30 stops, 14 unassisted. Nobody else was close. His fellow linebacker James Wightman had 12 tackles and monster Smith 11.
Oklahoma State end Lorenzo Turner, who once signed with the Huskers, had 10 stops.
Next up for the Huskers is Iowa State, a team that has a victory drought against Nebraska going back 15 years. The Cyclones are included in the five-way jam for second place behind the Huskers.