NORMAN, Okla. — Oklahoma's football resurgence claimed its latest victim Saturday, splattering Nebraska's unbeaten season and scrambling the Huskers' place in the national championship race.
In a performance that illustrated just how far back the Sooners have come in just 19 games under Coach Bob Stoops, Oklahoma handed top-ranked Nebraska a 31-14 defeat before 75,989 at Memorial Stadium and an ABC national television audience.
In doing so, third-ranked Oklahoma finds itself with the inside track to Miami's Orange Bowl, where the national championship will be decided early next year. Not a bad position to be in, considering the Sooners had bottomed out in losing 22 times in 34 games under Stoops' predecessor, John Blake.
"We're starting to get that winning feeling back," said Oklahoma linebacker Rocky Calmus, one of the leaders of a defense that held Nebraska scoreless in the final three quarters. "It's exciting, especially for our older guys who have been working so hard.
"They were here through the hard times, and their hard work has paid off so far."
Saturday's win, which improved Oklahoma to 7-0 and 4-0 in Big 12 Conference play, should vault the Sooners to the top of the Bowl Championship Series standings, not to mention the national polls. Oklahoma stood second in the BCS standings entering Saturday's renewal of a rivalry that once was one of the most intense in college football. The teams had not met since 1997 because of the league's scheduling format.
Oklahoma appeared destined for another fall to the Huskers — Nebraska had won the last seven meetings, the final two by a combined score of 142-28 — after NU's first 11 offensive plays yielded 167 yards, two touchdowns and a 14-0 lead less than seven minutes into the game.
That made what transpired the rest of the way even more dramatic as the Sooners picked themselves off the mat and handed Nebraska its first loss in eight games this season, snapping a 13-game winning streak in the process.
The Sooners held Nebraska without a point for the final 53 minutes and 11 seconds, turning an offense that had looked unstoppable on its first two possessions into a predictable unit that misfired repeatedly in the final three quarters. The Huskers' final 59 plays yielded 161 yards — 6 fewer than their first 11 had produced.
Its offense neutralized, Nebraska was unable to stop Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel from polishing his Heisman Trophy credentials by passing for 300 yards and leading a second-quarter blitz that produced 24 points.
That allowed the Sooners to take a 10-point halftime lead, and the Oklahoma defense produced the only points of the second half when redshirt freshman Derrick Strait intercepted an Eric Crouch pass and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown.
"We got off to a good start, but we knew they had potential to come back and score very quickly," Nebraska Coach Frank Solich said. "We needed to put more points on the board than what we did.
"We did some good things early in the game, executing well and moving the ball. Oklahoma stepped it up, and then we needed to step it up again. We didn't do what was needed to turn this game around and get it done."
And that could leave the Huskers chasing long-shot hopes for a national championship. Clemson's loss to Georgia Tech whittled the Division I-A unbeaten ranks to three — Oklahoma, 8-0 Virginia Tech and 7-0 Texas Christian.
Undoubtedly in the coming days, scenarios about how the Huskers can play their way back into the title picture will begin sprouting like midsummer weeds in a Nebraska cornfield. The Huskers probably aren't out of the championship race, but they did allow Oklahoma to snatch destiny from their hands. The title issue mattered little to a group of Nebraska players and coaches who were struggling to piece together what went wrong in the final three quarters.
But that mattered little Saturday afternoon to a group of Nebraska players who 10 months ago set playing for the title in Miami as this season's holy grail.
"As far as the big picture, maybe the national title is there, maybe it's not," Nebraska rush end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "We're not too worried about that right now. We just have to take it one game at a time from here. We need to re-evaluate ourselves and try to keep improving."
Said Solich: "There's a lot out there (to play for), the players know that, we know that, everyone in our conference knows that. But those possibilities will only be there if we play our best football. And the way to do that is to go back to work, learn from this loss and not dwell on it."
That might be difficult, given the fact that Saturday's game opened with a bang and ended with a thud for the Huskers. Crouch had the Huskers up by two touchdowns before many in the 10th-largest crowd ever at Memorial Stadium — the largest since seating was reconfigured to its current format — had settled into their seats.
The junior tossed a 39-yard scoring pass to Matt Davison on the game's sixth play to put Nebraska ahead 7-0. After Oklahoma was forced to punt, Nebraska went on a 91-yard scoring drive that featured a 43-yard run by Willie Miller and Crouch's 37-yard touchdown run at the 8:11 mark of the first quarter.
"Scoring right away was a big boost for us," Crouch said, "but then Oklahoma found a way to shut that down."
The numbers underscore the dramatic twist the game took after Nebraska's first two possessions. Crouch completed his first three passes for 62 yards on the first two drives. He was 9 for 24 — the 27 attempts were his season high — for 71 yards the remainder of the game.
Nebraska's first eight rushes produced 104 yards, an average of 13 yards per attempt. The Huskers' final 35 attempts yielded 91 yards — a 2.7-yard average — and left the nation's leading rushing team with a season - low total of 195 yards of 43 attempts (4.5-yard average).
"That's almost impossible," Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops said. "It's a great job of coaching and a great job of our players tackling. They were disciplined in being where they were supposed to be. They played the way they've been coached to play."
In directing Oklahoma to its 14th win in its last 19 games, Stoops improved his record to 4-0 against Top 10-ranked teams.
Three of the wins have come this month, as Oklahoma knocked off No. 10 Texas 63-14 on Oct. 7, stopped No. 2 Kansas State 41-31 on Oct. 14, and ended October with Saturday's win, Oklahoma's first in seven games at home against a No. 1-ranked team.
To celebrate, the fans tossed oranges on the field throughout the game and then tore down the goal post in the south end zone after it.
"You have to enjoy these moments," Heupel said. "They are the best of your life."
Heupel played a huge role in making that so. He completed 20 of 34 passes for 300 yards, including a 34-yard scoring toss to Curtis Fagan that tied the game early in the second quarter. Heupel also rushed for a career-high 46 yards in helping Oklahoma finish with 418 yards of offense.
The Sooners gained 192 of those yards in the second quarter as they first forced their way back into the game and then took control of it. After Oklahoma's second possession ended with a missed field goal, Heupel directed the Sooners to 24 points on their next four series.
He completed passes of 18, 16, 21 and 19 yards on a 74 - yard drive that ended with Quentin Griffin's 1-yard scoring run 47 seconds into the second quarter. Heupel marched the Sooners 80 yards on their next possession, completing 34-yard passes to Andre Woolfolk and Curtis Fagan on the drive.
The latter, which went for a touchdown, beat an eight-man Nebraska blitz.
"We came with a max blitz, and he just kept retreating," said Craig Bohl, Nebraska's defensive coordinator. "That's a very difficult throw with that kind of pressure coming at you and then to put the ball right on the money. Most quarterbacks aren't able to make that throw, but he did."
Meanwhile, Nebraska developed a bad case of the offensive sputters. Three of the Huskers' final five possessions of the first half were three-and-outs, and all ended with punts. The Sooners' blocked one, setting up Tim Duncan's 19-yard field goal that put Oklahoma ahead to stay with 6:06 left in the second quarter.
The Sooners' lead grew to 24-14 when Heupel needed just four plays to move Oklahoma 54 yards. He completed a 37-yard pass to Antwone Savage to set up Josh Norman's 8-yard scoring run with 2:41 remaining in the half.
Oklahoma's 118 yards rushing, on 35 attempts, were enough to keep Nebraska's defense off balance. "They certainly had us on the ropes at times," Bohl said. "I was pleased with how our players regrouped after halftime."
Nebraska limited Oklahoma to 121 yards in the second half, with four of the Sooners' seven possessions lasting three plays or fewer. Given an opportunity, Nebraska's offense couldn't capitalize as it was unable to move within 20 yards of the end zone.
"Some of the same plays that worked early on didn't, with the same effectiveness, when they were called later in the game," Solich said. "They stopped our running game, and we found ourselves in a lot of long-yardage situations. That's not what we want our offense to be in, and we struggled as the game went on."
Nebraska, which gained just 44 yards on 18 first-down rushes, also had two second-half possessions end with turnovers — Crouch's interception that Strait returned for a touchdown early in the third quarter and a fourth-quarter fumble by Matt Davison at the Oklahoma 20-yard line.
"The interception was a mistake by me," Crouch said. "I probably would have been smart to throw that one out of bounds. In a big game like this, you take a chance because you want to make the plays."
Despite the loss, Nebraska leads the Big 12 North with a 4-1 record. Kansas State fell to 2-1 with its loss at Texas A&M.
The Huskers will need to win their final three regular-season games — Saturday against Kansas, Nov. 11 at Kansas State and Nov. 24 against Colorado — to reach the Big 12 title game and possibly get another shot at Oklahoma.
"Oklahoma played a great game and deserved to win," Crouch said. "But this game reminds a lot of our loss to Texas last year. We beat ourselves, and it's always disappointing to walk away from a loss with that feeling.
"We know there are things we could have done better. We could have executed better. Those things just didn't work out, but we need to put this game behind us and move on."
|Yards per carry||3.4||4.5|
Nebraska is 38-45 all-time against Oklahoma.
|San Jose State||Sept. 2|
|Notre Dame||Sept. 9|
|Iowa State||Oct. 7|
|Texas Tech||Oct. 14|
|Kansas State||Nov. 11|
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