NORMAN, Okla. — He doesn’t wear a bandana under his helmet in the style of Thomas Lott and his initials aren’t J.C as in Watts. He can’t throw passes as well as David Humm or Vince Ferragamo.
He has spent most of the season on the bench while the Nebraska team has gathered the momentum of a runaway boulder.
None of that mattered Saturday as Mark Mauer turned in a performance equal to any Oklahoma or Nebraska quarterbacks of the storied past in directing the Cornhuskers to a burden-lifting 37-14 victory over a longtime nemesis, Coach Barry Switzer and his Oklahoma Sooners.
“Everybody is really happy,” said Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne. “We have taken so much guff over this game. We have nothing against Oklahoma at all. They have a great football team. We’re just proud we were finally able to beat them down here and play well.”
The win was Nebraska’s first over Oklahoma at Owen Field since 1971 and only the second in its last 10 tries against the Sooners. “I can finally smile after an Oklahoma game,” said Husker center Dave Rimington.
Smiles weren’t the only signs of celebration. Osborne received a victory ride off the field on the shoulders of his players and was wet at his postgame interview session from being tossed in the shower.
The win also set up an Orange Bowl showdown between second-ranked Clemson and fifth-ranked Nebraska that could have national title implications.
Stan Marks, president of the Orange Bowl, expressed that view in talking to Osborne from Miami in a phone hookup.
“We’re delighted to have two teams in the top five,” said Marks. “We believe we may have a shot here at the national championship.”
Osborne responded with a quip. “We’re glad to be coming back and we’re glad not to be playing Oklahoma, too.”
The reference was to 1978, the last time Nebraska beat Oklahoma, when the Orange Bowl arranged a rematch with the Sooners in Miami.
For certain, Clemson will be in the national championship picture with its No. 2 ranking and 11-0 record.
Osborne, calling it a “10 percent chance,” isn’t counting out the possibility that his 9-2 team might be voted No. 1 after the results are in from the New Year’s games.
“We really think it’s a slim chance,” said Osborne, “but it is a chance.”
A chance is also what Mauer had Saturday and he took advantage of it to finish what had been a difficult season personally in a burst of glory on center stage.
“It was definitely real nice for me, especially the way things have gone this year, to have the opportunity to do some things I wanted to do all year,” said Mauer.
Mauer had been the Husker starting quarterback when the season opened and received considerable fan criticism as the Huskers struggled through a 1-2 start.
Sophomore Turner Gill’s brilliant emergence was a key as the Huskers put together a winning streak that now stands at eight games and played their way to a Big Eight Conference championship and Orange Bowl berth.
Mauer was forced back into his starting role when Gill was injured last week and ruled out of the Oklahoma game. He responded with a near flawless direction of the Cornhuskers that rolled up to 462 yards.
“Mark Mauer had a great day,” said Osborne. “For a guy who hadn’t played much in a long time, we were very pleased with the poise and competitiveness he showed. Barry Switzer said afterward I ought to tell Mark he had a great ballgame.”
Mauer completed 11 of 16 passes for 148 yards and one touchdown to complement the hard running of Mike Rozier, Roger Craig and Phil Bates. Rozier had 109 yards, Craig 102 and Bates 75.
Craig’s total pushed him over the 1,000-yard mark for the season at 1,060. Rozier has 947 yards.
Osborne also expressed pride in the way Mauer has conducted himself this season under difficult conditions. He noted that Mauer didn’t enjoy easy playing circumstances when he was the starter.
“Today we controlled the line of scrimmage. Mark had a lot better chance to operate than he did in a couple of other games he played,” said Osborne.
“I think he’s been tremendous this year because he’s not been bitter. He has been booed, he got some very nasty letters. He’s been criticized and I think unjustly. I think he responded in tremendous fashion.”
Mauer and the Huskers responded in impressive style when the game started with a show of Oklahoma lightning. The Sooners scored first in the opening three minutes and Nebraska retaliated by scoring the first three times it had the ball.
Gary Lowell intercepted a Mauer pass on the fourth possession but fumbled. Craig recovered and the Huskers marched in for another score that left them leading 24-7 at halftime.
By that time some Sooner fans in the crowd of 74,087 at Owen Field had already decided they had seen enough and headed for the exits.
It was a dramatic turnabout from the opening minutes when Oklahoma struck for a touchdown on its opening possession.
The most stunning thing was the manner in which the Sooners moved against the nation’s third-ranked defense. On the first three plays of the game, fullback Stanley Wilson gained 21 yards, quarterback Darrell Shepard kept for 18 and halfback Alvin Ross ran for 12.
On the sixth play of the drive Buster Rhymes ran 20 yards for the touchdown, the first scoring run against the Huskers this season longer than two yards.
Part of the problems Nebraska had early on defense were attributed by coaches to the Sooner wishbone.
“Stanley Wilson was also a problem,” said George Darlington, Husker defensive ends coach.
“One of the problems we have is it’s so hard to approximate the wishbone with our scout team,” said Osborne. “Everything happens a little faster and a little better in a game. Oklahoma looked awfully good on offense in the first half.”
So did the Huskers.
Nebraska’s first drive, aided by a 32-yard screen pass from Mauer to Rozier, ended in a 38-yard field goal by Eddie Neil.
Oklahoma was moving again the second time it got the ball but was thwarted when quarterback Kelly Phelps, subbing for Shepard who was injured on the previous play, fumbled his first snap and Rodney Lewis recovered for the Huskers at the NU 26.
Nebraska drove 74 yards in 10 plays and took the lead at 10-7 on a 19-yard sweep for a score by Craig.
“We were fortunate we were able to move and score early,” said Osborne.
“If we had been stymied two or three times in a row the momentum could have really gone the other way.”
Oklahoma’s chances for altering the momentum were lost a couple of times.
One came when Oklahoma’s Mike Keeling missed a 27-yard field goal early in the second quarter. Nebraska took over at the 20 and launched an 80-yard drive that produced a 16-yard touchdown by Bates and a 17-7 Husker lead.
The next break came when Lowell lost the fumble after his interception.
Craig recovered at the OU 35 and the Huskers added another touchdown, this one a 6-yard pass from Mauer to Mitch Krenk that made it 24-7.
Nebraska’s first-half success was aided by converting first downs on four of five third-down challenges. The Husker figure for the game was 7-for-11, a good roll by dice standards.
Nebraska kept rolling in the second half to hand Oklahoma its worst loss at home in Switzer’s coaching career. The 5-4-1 Sooners accepted a Sun Bowl invitation.
Oklahoma’s hopes of getting back in the game flickered briefly in the second half when the Sooners stopped Nebraska on its first possession and marched for a 1-yard touchdown by Shepard that cut the Husker lead to 24-14.
Nebraska struck back with 10 points on its next two possessions. Neil kicked a 37-yard field goal and then the Huskers got a break when Rhymes fumbled the ensuing kickoff.
Tim Holbrook made the hit for Nebraska and kicker Kevin Seibel the recovery at the OU 15. Three plays later, Bates got his second touchdown of the game on a 2-yard run that made it 34-14.
Neil produced the game’s final points with a 24-yard field goal, his third of the game.
The fumbles by Rhymes and Phelps were costly, but Osborne said, “I don’t think Oklahoma can say turnovers were the difference today.”
Oklahoma lost three fumbles. Nebraska’s only turnover was the Mauer interception.
“We had a goal of zero turnovers,” said Osborne. The Huskers did avoid fumbling. “That was a tremendous job of concentrating by our backs,” said Osborne. “It was a hard hitting game.”
In another historical footnote, the victory was Nebraska’s first in its final regular-season game since 1976 when the Huskers closed by beating Hawaii 68-3.
The accomplishments of Osborne’s ninth team have earned it a special place in his thinking.
“This team has probably shown as much character as any I’ve had,” said Osborne. He said it might not be his most talented but later revised his thinking to say it is about on par with his last three. After last season, Osborne said his 10-2 team was his best ever.
|Yards per carry||5.2||5.0|
Nebraska is 38-45 all-time against Oklahoma.
|Florida State||Sept. 19|
|Penn State||Sept. 26|
|Kansas State||Oct. 17|
|Oklahoma State||Nov. 7|
|Iowa State||Nov. 14|
Nebraska has played 13 games on Nov. 21. See them all »
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