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November 22, 1975
Undefeated and second-ranked Nebraska visited Norman to play the seventh-ranked Sooners (9-1) in the third meeting between coaches Tom Osborne and Barry Switzer. It would be Oklahoma's sixth game against a ranked opponent during the season, and it would be the first time Switzer would face a team ranked higher than his Sooners since tying top-ranked and defending national champ USC, 7-7, in his second game at the helm in '73, a span covering 30 games.
But he also had a talented team that was led by an experienced group of seniors, a collection that had posted a collective record of 41-2-1 in their four years in Norman. The group had also played a big part in an earlier 28-game winning streak and a 37-game unbeaten streak, the bulk of which was part of going 30-1-1 under Switzer, including claiming the '74 national championship. Among the senior leadership on offense were efficient quarterback Steve Davis, spectacular halfback Joe Washington and infrequently used split ends Billy Brooks and Tinker Owens, while the great Selmon brothers, tackle Lee Roy and middle guard Dewey, led the defense that also included end Jimbo Elrod, and all were strong candidates for conference and national postseason honors.
Ranked #1 in the AP preseason poll, defending national champion Oklahoma had mixed and matched big games and narrow wins, which resulted in losing the top spot early while building an 8-0 start, and then came the November nightmares. Against unranked Kansas, the Sooners were caught flat and were upset, 23-3, which ended those two impressive streaks and knocked them off their lofty #2 ranking to sixth. The following week at #18 Missouri, they needed Washington's 71-yard touchdown run on a critical fourth down-and-one play, and his subsequent run for a successful two-point conversion, in the final five minutes to take a 28-27 lead, and then they survived two missed field goal attempts by the Tigers in the final two minutes to escape with a win, and then fell another notch in the next poll. Now, a once seemingly unbeatable team came into their final regular season game not only searching for their identity, but also looking to salvage a season that had begun with reasonable hope for a repeat national title.
In Osborne's third year as head coach, Nebraska came into the season with a new quarterback, an offensive line that had never started a game together, and a rebuilt defense. They began the campaign ranked #7 in the preseason, and the squad had quickly jelled. The Huskers won a tough game in their opener over LSU, 10-7, before two easy wins were followed by a hard fought game against underrated Miami, coming back from a 9-7 halftime deficit to win, 31-16, improving to 4-0 and moving up the polls. Nebraska opened Big Eight play and handily shutout Kansas, 16-0, the same team that would go on to soundly beat Oklahoma, and then after a 28-20 win at Oklahoma State, the Huskers blew through their next four opponents winning by an average margin of 32 points, and inherited the #2 spot behind Ohio State when the Sooners lost.
Osborne brought to Norman his best Nebraska (10-0) team yet, and they had national championship aspirations. Despite injuries necessitating the rotation of his quarterbacks, senior Terry Luck and junior Vince Ferragamo, at various times during the year, it was the latter who would get the start against the Sooners. As the Huskers' chief weapon, Ferragamo, who transferred in from California and sat out the '74 season, was a noted and accurate passer, completing 66 of 109 passes for 1,007 yards and 12 touchdowns, against only two interceptions. He guided a balanced offense, averaging 265.6 yards rushing and 156.7 yards passing per game, that was among the nation's leaders in scoring, averaging 34.3 points per game, but whose leading rusher had gained a modest 686 yards, sophomore I-back Monte Anthony.
Osborne's defense also came in on a roll and was among the nation's best, permitting only 8.5 points per game. They had posted four shutouts, including their last two opponents to run their string to ten consecutive scoreless quarters. Leading the troops up front were senior middle guard John Lee, junior tackle Mike Fultz, and senior end Bob Martin, while leading tackler and junior linebacker Clete Pillen was right behind them, and then junior cornerback Dave Butterfield and senior safety (monster back) Jim Burrow anchored the secondary. And as a point of reference, in their shutout win over Kansas, the Black Shirts had held the Jayhawks' wishbone to only 121 yards rushing and 177 in total offense.
The Nebraska-Oklahoma series was a long and fabled one since the two schools had first met in 1912, and then became members of the same Missouri Valley Conference in '20. The league increased to six teams in '28, commonly, but not officially, referred to as the Big Six, and the two teams played each other every year, while the league expanded to the Big Seven in '48 and finally added an eighth team for '60, and four years later, officially shed the Missouri Valley tag and changed the name to the Big Eight Conference. Over those years, the two schools had played 54 times, with Oklahoma maintaining a slight five-game lead of 28-23-3. And since becoming members of the same league, the two schools had dominated the conference standings. The Sooners had won 20 outright conference titles and shared three others, coincidentally all with Kansas, while the Huskers had claimed 19 outright titles and shared just one, with Missouri, leaving just a dozen for the other teams to fight over, and Missouri had claimed eight of those, but only one in the 30 years since World War II, with four schools collecting just one each.
But it was the '59 game in which the Huskers pulled an upset in Lincoln, 25-21, which ended the Sooners' 74-game conference unbeaten streak that put Nebraska back on the map. Five years later, it was Oklahoma that had shattered undefeated Nebraska's dream of a perfect season, winning 17-7 in Norman. And few could forget the famous '71 "Game of the Century" between the #1 Huskers and #2 Sooners, which turned out to be the game for the "true" national championship, as visiting Nebraska won arguably one of the greatest games ever in college football history, 35-31, and went on to win it all, while Oklahoma finished #2. That was the game that could be said was the turning point in the series and thrust it into the national spotlight on an annual basis, as two highly ranked teams had met to decide a conference title, which also carried national championship implications.
The usual stakes were on also the line in '75. The winner would claim the Big Eight title and play in the Orange Bowl with a possible shot at a national championship. The loser had initially been earmarked for a Sugar Bowl date opposite a traditional Southeastern Conference team, usually the champion, where the Big Eight runner-up had gone three of the last four seasons, but here is where it got interesting.
The universally accepted recipe for the postseason was to play the highest ranked opponent possible, something that could help the two participating teams and also create a game of high interest for respective bowl officials. But reports surfaced that coach Bear Bryant of #5 Alabama (9-1), also running a wishbone offense and on their way to a fifth straight SEC title, was reluctant to campaign for a berth in the Orange Bowl opposite the Big Eight champion, a marquee game that could carry probable national championship implications, and his reasons were as clear as day, despite the somewhat sacrificial offering that he wanted to play the first game in the newly built Louisiana Superdome. In three of the previous four years, he had guided the Crimson Tide through an undefeated regular season, posting a 41-1 mark over that span, and was matched to play one game for the national title, only to lose on New Years Day each time, crushed by Nebraska (38-6) in the Orange following '71, and close games to Notre Dame the last two years in the Sugar (24-23) following the '73 season and the Orange (13-11) following the '74 campaign.
Bowl games were supposed to be a reward for a successful season and fun, but for the Tide, they were anything but that. So feeling that one game for all the marbles was putting too much pressure on his players, Bryant chose to stay put in the Sugar Bowl. Soon after, other startling news also served to thicken the plot.
As the champions of the host conference, Bryant had also worked behind the scenes to not play another Big Eight team, generally regarded as the nation's toughest conference, and a group he owned a career 3-4-1 mark against, but a tale of the past and the present. The Tide had won the '63 Orange Bowl against Oklahoma (17-0) and twice beat Nebraska in the '66 (39-28) and '67 (34-7) Orange's, but they had not won a bowl game since then. During that eight-year span, Alabama had been pounded by Missouri in the '68 Gator Bowl (35-10), Bryant's worst loss ever at Alabama up to that point, Colorado in the '69 Liberty Bowl (47-33), the 32-point loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl following the '71 season which became his new worst-ever loss in Tuscaloosa, and had tied Oklahoma in the '70 Bluebonnet Bowl (24-24). It served to partially shed light on why the '72 Tide, at the time undefeated and ranked #2, had bypassed an invitation to both the Orange Bowl, opposite Nebraska, and the Sugar, opposite Oklahoma, to play in the Cotton Bowl against Texas, a team ranked lower than both the Huskers and the Sooners.
In addition, Alabama began the '75 season ranked #2 in the AP poll, but a shocking and convincing 20-7 loss against visiting unranked Missouri in their opener, the margin of victory exceeding the total margin of his only four losses in the previous three seasons (eight points) combined, made the Tide winless in their last five games against teams from the Big Eight. Knowing that both the Huskers and Sooners were better than the now #18 Tigers, Bryant was opting for a game against a lesser team, and amid a storm of criticism that quickly spread. The net result was that Bryant, Alabama football and the Sugar Bowl were all lowered in the eyes college football fans around the country.
It also left Nebraska and Oklahoma understandably confused and disappointed, and in a sort of pickle by being in jeopardy of being shut out of other bowls, as they were quickly filling up. Contractually, the Orange Bowl was obligated to take the Big Eight champion, and usually, another bowl was lined up to take the loser, but since the Sugar was pulling strings behind the scenes, an atypical scenario was playing out. Because of probation, Oklahoma had not been to a bowl game in three years, and they would welcome an invitation to play just about anywhere. With the five-year old Fiesta Bowl in Tempe offering a bid to the Big Eight runner-up opposite the Western Athletic Conference champion, the Sooners had already confirmed that they would go there if they lost, but not to be viewed as a sign of conceding the game against the Huskers. Conversely, Nebraska had not offered the same response, and they had basically shunned the Fiesta representatives, making the game against Oklahoma even bigger for them.
In front of a sun-drenched crowd of more than capacity, which after the estimated $5.3 million Memorial Stadium expansion was finished before the season increased seating to almost 71,000, the Oklahoma seniors would make their final appearance on Owen Field, and they were introduced one by one before the game. Following the coin toss, which the visitors won, senior Tony DiRienzo kicked off, and the '75 edition of the rivalry was under way.
Nebraska took the opening kickoff and began at its 20-yard line. Ferragamo guided the offense 67 yards down the field, but they stalled at the Sooner 13, and senior Mike Coyle came on to attempt a 30-yard field goal. He missed, and fortunately, the home team had dodged one.
The Huskers quickly had an opportunity after Washington coughed up a fumble at the 38. Nebraska began to drive, and faced with a crucial passing down, Ferragamo threw a pass over the middle for his wingback, but junior defensive end Mike Phillips stepped in front to intercept the ball as junior cornerback Jerry Anderson punished the receiver with a leveling hit.
The Sooners started fresh from its 15. Unfortunately, senior fullback Jim Littrell fumbled the ball away at the 32, and Nebraska was in close again. The Huskers needed five plays to move closer, including a 13-yard Ferragamo completion to senior wingback Tom Heiser. Faced with a third down, and needing to get to the one, Ferragamo lofted a screen pass to halfback Tony Davis, but Anderson came up and aggressively tackled him at the six, five yards short. The visitors were forced to settle for Coyle's 24-yard field goal, and a 3-0 lead, with 3:18 left in the opening period.
On Oklahoma's next possession, Nebraska's Black Shirt defense continued to stifle the Sooners' offense, and Burrows returned Owens' flat punt across midfield to the Sooner 38. From there, Ferragamo dropped back to pass, but an awesome rush by blitzing junior safety Scott Hill blindsided and buried the Husker quarterback, forcing a fumble, and Lee Roy Selmon pounced on the loose ball at the 42. It was a rarity, for Nebraska had lost only 11 fumbles in their previous ten games. Because of the tough Oklahoma defense, the Huskers had fared little on the last three possessions after their opening march.
The Sooners' wishbone went to work under Steve Davis, and they finally began to click. They converted three different clutch third down situations as they marched toward the end zone, which included an 18-yard screen pass from Davis to Washington that moved the ball to the Nebraska 26, and a few moments later, the opening period ended with the Sooners driving. At the other end of the field, they earned a tough first down-and-goal at the one-yard line, where three times they attacked the Black Shirts' front line, and three times they failed to punch it across. Then Davis did the honors himself on a fourth down play from the one, faking a handoff to Littrell and ducking his head into the end zone to cap the 13-play, 42-yard drive and put the Sooners in the lead. DiRienzo's extra point made it 7-3 at the 11:30 mark of the second quarter.
It remained close throughout the rest of the period, with neither team able to sustain a drive, but then Nebraska threatened in the waning seconds. With the Sooners' defense in a confused state, Ferragamo connected with junior split end Chuck Malito for a 44-yard completion that put the Huskers on the Oklahoma 16. Then, a pass interference call on cornerback Sidney Brown set things up at the one with just seven seconds showing on the clock, good for one last play. Anthony hurdled into the middle of a pile, but he dove too soon, and the Sooners' Anthony Bryant and the Selmons hurled him back, and with no timeouts left, the remaining two seconds quickly disappeared. The Oklahoma defense had once again stopped the Huskers while in close, adding to the earlier stands at the 13 and eight, and they carried a 7-3 lead into the locker room.
With his choice to open the second half, Switzer elected to receive the ball, furnishing a mild surprise for a coach who usually preferred to play for field position. Early in the drive, Littrell lost another fumble, and Nebraska's Lee recovered at the Sooner 32. Behind two Ferragamo passes, a ten-yard toss to Heiser and a 13-yard connection to tight end Larry Mushinskie, they moved in. From the three, Anthony thrust up the middle and into the line three times before finally penetrating the end zone from a yard out on the ninth play of the drive to forge ahead. After Coyle's conversion, the Huskers had a 10-7 lead with 8:09 left in the third.
But just as Nebraska capitalized, so did Oklahoma, reversing a trend of third quarter possessions that had started at its 18, 18 and ten yard lines. Late in the period, Ferragamo was blindsided again, this time by Lee Roy who had broken through the middle, and again coughed up the ball, and Phillips recovered for the Sooners at the Husker 47. Davis needed just seven plays to drive the offense goal ward, and he gained 37 of those yards on quarterback option keepers behind lead blocks from his backs. From the five, junior halfback Horace Ivory went over huge 290-pound junior right tackle Mike Vaughan and into the end zone to regain the lead and give the offense confidence, and after DiRienzo's kick, Oklahoma had a 14-10 margin with 1:14 showing in the third. However, despite knowing that the Sooners had kept the Huskers off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter for three straight years, the game was anything but clinched.
Early in the final period, Owens punted the ball inside the Nebraska 20 and Burrows botched the catch, where the Sooners' swift Lee Hover recovered the fumble at the 13. Ivory, Washington and sophomore halfback Elvis Peacock needed only a shot apiece to stuff it across, the latter carrying the final three yards for the touchdown. DiRienzo added the extra point, and the home team was ahead, 21-10, with 10:10 left, and Oklahoma smelled oranges.
Usually, the Sooners had controlled things with their defense and had good field position, but those first three Oklahoma scores had come on the only times that they had ventured into Nebraska territory. The Sooners' defense continued their superb play, and the Huskers were going nowhere.
Later in the game, Ferragamo was back to pass, but his throw was intercepted by Anderson at the Husker 33 and returned it 23 yards to the ten. Two plays gained only three, but Davis scampered the remaining seven yards on the third play for another Oklahoma touchdown, essentially putting the nail in the Huskers' coffin. DiRienzo added the kick, and the Sooners had a commanding 28-10 lead with just 2:44 left in the game.
But Nebraska's generosity was not finished, and on the ensuing kickoff to Bobby Thomas, Hover hit him to cause a fumble, and freshman linebacker Greg Sellmyer recovered at the Husker 24. It took Davis and the offense five plays, and highly touted freshman halfback Billy Sims took a pitch for his first carry of the game and circled around the end for a touchdown with just 52 seconds remaining, his second of the season. DiRienzo's kick made the final count 35-10.
It was the three turnovers in the fourth quarter that had spelled doom for the Huskers, as Oklahoma scored on all three to make it five touchdowns via six Nebraska gifts. As such, the Sooners came away with a convincing and incredible 25-point victory over the second-ranked team in the land, and Switzer received a familiar ride atop the shoulders of his players. With their fourth win in a row over the Huskers, Oklahoma had the series' longest winning streak since they took 16 straight from '43-'58. More importantly, they claimed a share of the Big Eight title, and they were the ones who were off to Miami to represent the conference in the Orange Bowl.
"It's like a dream come true," said Switzer emerging from an unscheduled shower. "I can't believe what happened out there today. It's the biggest win I've been associated with. It wipes out the loss two weeks ago and a lot of other unfortunate things that have happened to us this season."
It was unusual the way things had gone. For much of the afternoon, poor punting by Oklahoma and Nebraska's solid defense had kept the Sooners pretty much bottled up. Davis, who bowed out of Norman with a 29-carry, 130-yard, two touchdown game, and the wishbone had failed to get past its 30 until the fourth quarter, and they ended up with 278 rushing yards on 72 carries.
But it was the Oklahoma defense that made the big plays when they had to and controlled the Huskers' offense, limiting them to 245 total yards, well below their average, and only 70 on the ground, a mere nine in the second half. The heroes were plentiful, starting with the seniors, but a pleasant surprise was the play of sophomore linebacker Bill Dalke, two years earlier the '73 Oklahoma high school athlete of the year while at Hobart High, who was all over the field an made an incredible 21 tackles. Nebraska's biggest threat, Ferragamo, had completed 13 of his 25 passes for 146 yards, but he threw two interceptions and also fumbled the ball away twice.
Source: Jeff Linkowski