LINCOLN — Six years’ worth of frustration gushed forth in Memorial Stadium when the bright lights on the scoreboards flashed the long-awaited final message on a raw, gray Saturday afternoon: Nebraska 17, Oklahoma 14.
The score was greeted with the greatest outpouring of pent-up emotion since the Cornhuskers severed Oklahoma’s 74-game conference unbeaten streak in the same arena in 1959. That was the last time the goal posts were torn down, as they were Saturday.
Goal posts come tougher these days. Grudgingly, they fell, as did the proud Sooners. The heavy steel uprights from the south end were last seen being carted off toward downtown Lincoln. Up north, the posts lay bent to the AstroTurf, still rooted in concrete.
Six long years. Good but not great. Memphis, Houston, Phoenix, etc. instead of Miami. No more “Little Red” sneers from Norman.
"I would say this was the biggest game we’ve ever had because of what it means,” Cornhusker Coach Tom Osborne said as the locker room rocked to the chant: “To the beach, to the beach, to the beach.”
What it means was a lock on at least a share of the Big Eight championship, an anticipated trip to the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1972 and, perhaps most important to most of the 76,015 in attendance, a good riddance to the Huskers’ Achilles heel after six straight losses to the Sooners.
After tumbling the fumbling top-ranked Sooners, Nebraska was still awaiting confirmation of its reservations to Miami New Years’ Day, but Osborne was emphatic in his Orange Bowl claim.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to be pretty mad if they wait another week to decide a formula,” he said.
An Orange Bowl official told him Friday, however, that “It would be very unusual if they didn’t take the winner of this game. But that was unofficial.”
The Orange Bowl selection committee is expected to meet Monday to announce the conference representative should be there be a tie. And the Huskers are expected to get the Miami nod.
Oklahoma, losing for the first time to match Nebraska with a 9-1 record, could still tie for the championship next week with a victory over Oklahoma State and a Nebraska loss to Missouri.
The Huskers won it on Billy Todd’s 24-yard field goal 3 minutes and 8 seconds into the fourth quarter, which should have signaled that things were looking up this day. Oklahoma had outscored Nebraska 80-0 in the final 15 minutes during the six-year drought. This time, it was the Sooners shooting blanks in the stretch.
But they were awfully loud blanks.
While clinging to the precarious 17-14 lead, the Huskers were backtracking rapidly toward their goal line twice in the final nine minutes. Only fumbles, it appeared, could slow down the fleet of Sooner quick-steppers. Billy Sims, who tormented Nebraska for both touchdowns and 153 yards, accommodated the Huskers at the NU 20 and 3.
The latter turnover — one of six Oklahoma lost while recovering three of its own — came with 3:20 remaining while the local faithful were dredging up memories of OU’s 85-yard comeback to win, 20-17, in the last 38 seconds here two years ago.
This time, the Huskers were the beneficiaries of the good fortune that has gone sour on them against the Sooners. Sims was nearing the end of a 17-yard gain, trying to fight his way to the end zone through Andy Means and Jeff Hansen. It was Hansen, who had earlier recovered a pair of fumbles, who made the lick that knocked the ball loose. It was monster back Jim Pillen who curled around the ball at the 3.
There was still ample time for the quick-striking Sooners. After all, they had bolted away from their 1-yard line earlier in the fourth quarter on a 47-yard run by fullback Kenny King on third-and-27 preceding the Sims fumble that defensive tackle Dan Pensick recovered.
“We caused those fumbles,” said Pillen, who matched Hansen’s two recoveries. “They haven’t been hit like that before. We showed we have the greatest defense in the world.”
Then, the Husker offense did its part by playing keepaway while the clock ticked away. Rick Berns, voted by ABC the game’s outstanding offensive player with 113 yards, ran off time with first-down runs of 14 and 9 yards, the latter coming on a nifty bit of reverse-field stepping.
Then Oklahoma helped keep the ball in Nebraska possession with a first-down via a personal foul against cornerback Basil Banks, who took a poke at offensive guard Barney Cotton and was ejected.
As Tom Sorley’s quarterback sneaks ate up the final seconds, the place came apart. Later, Osborne was hoisted onto his players’ shoulders amid the locker-room bedlam.
But there was no victory shower for the coach. “These guys are very well disciplined,” a joyful Osborne said.
Berns chortled, “This was the game of the century as far as I’m concerned — beating Oklahoma and Coach (Barry) Switzer. It was just a matter of which team was more consistent.”
It was Nebraska muscle vs. Oklahoma speed, and this time muscle won. But the Huskers’ 361-339 edge in total offense was as close as the final count.
Sims, who has emerged as a solid Heisman Trophy candidate, was as good as he was advertised, putting the Sooners on top with a 44-yard breakaway in the first quarter and catching up at 14-14 in the third on a 30-yarder.
The Huskers figured on that. Their objective was to keep the ball away from the Oklahoma sprinters, and they did, with an 82-63 edge in total plays.
Nebraska powered the middle with Berns, Andra Franklin (65 yards) and I.M. Hipp (62) for 250 yards rushing. Mixed in were 11 yards worth of timely Sorley passing on 8 completions in 19 attempts.
Berns scored the catchup touchdown on a 5-yard shot up the middle at the end of a 57-yard march in the second quarter to forge a 7-7 halftime tie. Hipp skipped 8 yards on a pitch play to finish a 50-yard drive following a David Overstreet fumble in the third quarter.
Hipp’s touchdown put Oklahoma behind for the first time this season.
Afterward, Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer was lamenting his team’s penchant for fumbling and complaining about the Husker fans for throwing oranges on the field and for hassling him and his players on the way off the field.
“It was just a case of too many mistakes, turning the ball over too many times. If we hold the ball, we win the title.”
Osborne acknowledged that: “Of course the turnovers helped. But they have a high-risk offense, and I’m sure the weather and the hard-hitting had a lot to do with the fumbles.
“The key to beating Oklahoma is being a better football team. It was pretty even today. This is as good a team as we’ve had in a long, long time.
“Oklahoma popped a few long plays, but they didn’t consistently 4, 5 and 6-yard us. In contrast to other years, our defense was good enough to hold us in there.”
The Sooners passed only twice, both incomplete, and their 339 rushing yards fell 176 below their national lead.
There was nothing mystical in the Blackshirt remedy. “We just played our same defense,” said osborne. “The last few years, maybe we’ve fooled ourself by trying to do too much.”
“A lot of times,” defensive end George Andrews said, “when you put in a lot of new defenses you hurt yourself more than the other team. We kept it very simple. That’s why we were so aggressive. We didn’t have to stop and think about what we had to do.”
Although Sims escaped for major yardage, King got nearly half of his 95 yards on the 47-yard run and Thomas Lott, the ever-dangerous quarterback who gained 143 yards on Nebraska last year, managed but 44 on 17 carries.
“Our big people up front were the difference,” Osborne said.
Defensive tackle Rod Horn, one of the biggest, said, “We just stayed calm today. Last year, we would have been screaming and yelling at each other in that situation (near the end). This year, we’re a year older.”
Would OU have scored if not for the late fumbles? “Not in my mind, they wouldn’t,” Horn said. “But we’ll never know. We weren’t ready to give it up.”
Center Kelly Saalfeld said he had heard Sooner middle guard Reggie Kinlaw say, “I wasn’t that good,” in a television interview. “That made me mad. I think they were a little surprised we were that physical. I think we showed them as a team,” Saalfield said.
“Ask those guys (Sooners),” offensive guard Barney Cotton said. “They’ll tell you it was won in the trenches, both offensively and defensively.”
Before it was won, however, the dramatics swung back and forth. There were enough bizarre developments to keep ABC’s national television ratings at a peak to the end.
As George Andrews said: “There was so much that happened out there, I can hardly remember it all.”
Among the more notable:
— A couple of controversial officials’ calls that had Osborne fuming. The first was the lack of a pass interference call when Berns was decked by linebacker Daryl Hunt on a pass over the middle in the first quarter. The second came on the kickoff following Todd’s field goal when John Ruud’s vicious hit knocked out OU returner Kelly Phelps, and Husker Dan Lindstrom recovered the fumble. The official ruled Phelps had hit the sideline before he was hit.
— Oklahoma threatened to take a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter after Berns fumbled and Banks recovered on the Husker 13. Three plays later, linebacker Lee Kunz, whose 14 tackles trailed only Bruce Dunning’s 19, forced a Lott fumble which Hansen recovered at the 7.
— On the next Oklahoma series, Jimmy Rogers lost a wild pitchout at the Nebraska 43, and Hansen recovered again to ignite Nebraska’s first touchdown drive. The march included third-and-six completions of 7 yards to Junior Miller and 17 on a screen pass to Berns.
— With 12 seconds left in the half, Overstreet fumbled away to Pillen on the Sooner 28, and the Huskers were on the 4 six seconds later following a Sorley pass to Tim Smith. That gain went for naught when Todd’s field goal attempt hit the right upright.
— Nebraska’s nation-leading offense couldn’t come up with a yard on fourth down on a Berns dive on the OU 43 in the third quarter. But two plays later, Overstreet fumbled again when he was hit by Dan Pensick, and Derrie Nelson recovered. It was third-and-10 when Sorley lofted a pass up the middle over Reggie Mathis into the waiting arms of tight end Junior Miller for a 33-yard gain, and Hipp’s touchdown followed.
— Then it was Oklahoma’s turn at fourth-and-one. Lott fumbled on the sneak, and Pillen recovered. Hold it. The officials said the Huskers were offside. On the next play, Sims fled 30 yards to the tying touchdown.
— Potential disaster for NU was averted when an official blew dead a fumbled pitch from Sorley to Craig Johnson on the NU 20 on the series following the Sooners’ tie.
— Nebraska pulled a slick piece of deception en route to Todd’s winning field goal. Sorley had just rifled a 21-yard pass to Frank Lockett on third-and-10 and was up against a similar situation on the Sooner 36. Osborne ordered a timeout for one last play in the third quarter to take advantage of a wind that was gusting to 25 m.p.h. In the obvious passing situation, Sorley slipped the ball to Franklin, and the Alabama sophomore sailed 12 yards on a draw play.
— That drive reached the 13 with a first down after a Sorley sneak, but guard Cotton lost a shoe. He was tying it while his teammates huddled. A friend passed the word on the way by, but Cotton missed the snap count, jumped offside, and the drive eventually stalled.
“I thought I was going to be the goat,” Cotton said. But Todd saved him that label.
The Huskers had gone in uncommonly confident against the nation’s No. 1 team. Osborne had confided, “I’m glad we get to beat them on national television,” Husker Sports Information Director Don Bryant said.
Berns said he shaved his mustache to change his team’s luck, and, besides, his wife, LeJohn, was planning a trip to Miami all along.
“LeJohn and Sue Wurth (fullback Tim’s wife) have been going to a health spa every night. They wanted to trim down for the beach. I couldn’t let that money go to waste,” he said.
While the Huskers await official word on the Orange Bowl, there is still unfinished business with Missouri and the outright championship here Saturday.
“We think we’ve got Miami for sure,” tackle Horn said, “but we’ve got to finish this thing up right.”
|Yards per carry||5.6||4.0|
Nebraska is 38-45 all-time against Oklahoma.
|Iowa State||Oct. 7|
|Kansas State||Oct. 14|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 28|
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