November 11, 1978
Top-ranked Oklahoma visited Lincoln to battle #4 Nebraska for the biggest game in the rivalry in seven years, and it was being billed as college football's game of the year. As one of only two major unbeaten teams left, along with independent and #2 Penn State (9-0), 27-3 winners a week earlier over previously undefeated and then #5 Maryland, the Sooners entered the game needing a win for another national championship shot in the Orange Bowl. A Huskers win would give them the inside track for the Big Eight title, and also keep alive their hopes of possibly playing for a national title.
Winning the last six straight against their rivals from the north, Oklahoma also came in with history on their side. Since the AP poll had started ranking teams in 1936, the Sooners took the field with the #1 ranking 41 times. In those games, they had posted a sparkling 39-2 record, losing only the '51 Sugar Bowl to #7 Kentucky and to #2 Texas in '63. In addition, Nebraska had never defeated a top-ranked team.
Since both head coaches took over prior to the '73 season and were in the same conference, the comparisons were inevitable. In his six years in Norman, coach Barry Switzer had already made his mark as one of the all-time winningest coaches, unbeaten in his first 30 games (29-0-1) en route to posting an unbelievable 60-5-2 record, a .910 winning percentage, and putting him four games ahead of legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson's pace. Switzer had guided the Sooners to conference titles each year, winning three outright and sharing two, and along the way, after finishing ranked #2 in his rookie year, had claimed both the '74 and '75 national titles, and a historic Arkansas upset in the previous Orange Bowl had cost him a third.
When Tom Osborne took over the reigns of Nebraska's program, high expectations had came with it. His predecessor, Bob Devaney, had won a pair of national championships in '70 and '71, solidifying the Huskers as one of the country's premier football programs. Heading into this showdown, Osborne had won at least nine games while also losing 2-3 each season, posted a 54-14-2 record, claimed a share of the '75 Big Eight title, and won four of his five bowl games. However, even with the success the Huskers were having, Nebraska fans demanded one thing, beat rival Oklahoma.
Osborne had yet to do that. This would be his sixth contest against Switzer, and he had yet to post an Oklahoma win on his resume, losing by an average of 20 points and only once coming within a touchdown of the Sooners, a 20-17 loss in '76. In fact, Nebraska had been unable to defeat the Sooners since the famous Thanksgiving Day "Game of the Century" in '71. As the showdown approached, the Husker faithful were getting restless, and word was spreading about having zero tolerance for any more losses.
Nebraska (8-1) came into the game on a roll, and for the first time in their history would face another top-ranked team in a single season. The Huskers had reeled off eight straight wins since losing 20-3 in their opener at Alabama, then the top-ranked team and now #3. Behind a strong offensive line featuring All-American senior tackle Kelvin Clark, unheralded senior quarterback Tom Sorley, red-shirted his sophomore season and in his first year starting, called the signals for a team leading the nation in scoring, averaging 46.5 points per game, and in total offense, averaging 515.2 yards per game. Their running game had sophomore fullback Andra Franklin leading the way for a gifted pair of I-Backs, senior Rick Berns and junior I.M. Hipp. It was a group that came into the game having just set a new conference record with 799 total yards against Kansas, not forgetting to mention reserve sophomore Craig Johnson, whose ten-carry, 192-yard performance in that game was good for a 19.2 average per carry, obliterating the previous school single game record.
The tough Black Shirt defense was permitting only 15 points per contest. Senior end George Andrews and junior middle guard Kerry Weinmaster anchored it up front. Lined up behind them was senior linebacker Lee Kunz, who was again the leading tackler with over 100, while senior Jim Pillen supported them from his monster back position.
In Norman, an experienced Oklahoma team that featured the majority of a stellar '75 recruiting class as seniors, began '78 by being ranked #4 in the preseason poll but by the end of September, they were #1. Then came convincing wins over #14 Missouri and #6 Texas to solidify the Sooners' spot, and after a one-point scare at Kansas, in which four offensive starters missed the entire game, easy wins at Iowa State, against Kansas State, and at Colorado followed. Now, Oklahoma came in with a perfect 9-0 record and two games away from an Orange Bowl date opposite Penn State (9-0) for the national championship.
They also came in with an offense that was second in the nation behind Nebraska, averaging 40.4 points and 483.1 total yards per game, and their multi-option wishbone rushing attack was the most potent in the nation, averaging 417 yards per game. But turnovers were a natural by-product of the wishbone, and Oklahoma had lost 23 fumbles and thrown seven interceptions in their nine games. Paving the way was a big offensive line, anchored by All-American candidate and senior guard Greg Roberts. At the helm was the experienced, elusive and dangerous All-Big Eight senior quarterback Thomas Lott. Behind him, senior Kenny King was the lead fullback in front of a pair of young speedsters, sophomore David Overstreet and star of the show and junior Billy Sims.
The favorite for the upcoming Heisman Trophy, Sims was leading the country in both rushing and scoring. He had rushed for over 100 yards in each of Oklahoma's games, with the exception of Rice, when he left the game at the end of the first quarter. Coming into the Nebraska game, he had also rushed for over 200 yards in three consecutive games, tying an NCAA record. The 221 yards he gained the previous game against Colorado was the most ever allowed a single player by a Buffalo team.
All week long, the talk was that the Huskers wouldn't be able to move the ball against Oklahoma's tough defense, a unit that had allowed roughly 14 points per game. It featured three All-American candidates, senior nose guard Reggie Kinlaw and a pair of linebackers, junior George Cumby, red-shirted a few years earlier, and senior Daryl Hunt, both having been named to several post-season teams in '77. Additionally, senior end Reggie Mathis and junior cornerback Darrol Ray would probably be named All-Big Eight selections.
The game time weather was typical for a November afternoon in Lincoln. It was cold and wet, with a brisk wind blowing at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. There were 76,015 screaming fans in the stands, the 99th straight sellout at Memorial Stadium, and millions more would watch the national telecast on ABC-TV. It would be the Sooners in the white jerseys with crimson numbers against the scarlet red of Nebraska.
Oklahoma won the opening toss and Switzer decided to play the percentages, choosing to take the wind. He wanted his defense to come out and set the tone early. Also, if the game did come down to a field goal, he had complete confidence in his All-Big Eight kicker, von Schamann, the best in school history.
Nebraska took the opening kickoff, but could not move the ball, punting after just three plays. Oklahoma could fare no better on their initial drive, as two run attempts and an incomplete pass forced their punter onto the field.
The Sooners' defense held once again, and the offense kicked into gear. Behind Lott, they moved the ball to the Huskers' 44-yard line. On the next play, Sims shot over right tackle and through the Nebraska defensive line, then twisted and turned his way into the end zone, leaving the defense looking at the back of his #20 jersey. The extra point by senior Uwe von Schamann was good, and Oklahoma was up 7-0 with just over eight minutes left in the first quarter.
The Huskers' ground game was starting to make progress on their next drive. It came to an abrupt end when Sorley's pass bounced off of junior tight end Junior Miller's hands and was juggled, leaving cornerback Basil Banks to bat it away, and it popped into Cumby's hands. Fortunately, the Sooners could not take advantage of the opportunity, were hit with a 15-yard holding penalty, and were forced to punt.
On the first play of their next drive, the Huskers started at the 17-yard line and continued their self-destructive ways. Berns started up the middle and then took a shot from junior end John Goodman, fumbling the ball, and Banks recovered at the Nebraska 14-yard line. The Sooners went to work to seize a golden opportunity to break the game open. Three plays into the drive, Nebraska's Kunz separated Lott from the ball attempting an option pitch at the eight-yard line, and senior safety Jeff Hansen pounced on it, dodging a bullet.
As the game moved into the second period, after a 26-yard Nebraska punt, Oklahoma pounded the ball across midfield. However, Lott pitched wildly towards Overstreet, and again Hansen recovered at the Nebraska 43-yard line.
The Husker offense finally got moving in the proper gear, using a series of running plays and passes. Included were a key third-down, play action seven-yard pass across the middle to Miller, and an 18-yard screen pass to Berns, who barely eluded senior tackle Phil Tabor's diving attempt, that moved the ball to the nine. Moments later, after Oklahoma jumped offside and the officials moved the ball halfway towards the goal, Berns carried the honors, bursting up the middle from the five as the crowd went wild. Billy Todd kicked the extra point, and the game was now tied 7-7 with 10:06 left in the half.
The two teams traded a few short drives for much of the rest of the half. However, with only 12 seconds to intermission, Oklahoma had the ball in its own territory. Looking to run out the clock, Overstreet lost the ball, and Nebraska recovered at the Sooner 28. If they worked fast, the Huskers could capitalize.
Sorley quickly hit junior split end Tim Smith with a 24-yard pass, moving the ball to the four-yard line with just six seconds left. Osborne called on Todd, and Nebraska set up for an easy 21-yard field goal attempt. However, with Sorley holding, the lefty's kick hit the right upright of the goal post, bounced away, and the two teams went into the locker rooms knotted at seven.
It was familiar territory for Nebraska, who had not held a lead over Oklahoma at the half since 1969. The Huskers held the statistical edge at the break, rushing for 191 yards and passing for another 58. The Sooners had accumulated 142 yards on the ground, but had nothing to show for their only two pass attempts in the half.
As the second half opened, both teams took awhile to get in the groove, trading "four-and-out" drives on their first attempt. Oklahoma's next drive had a familiar end to it, as junior tackle Dan Pensick leveled Overstreet and he lost another fumble, leaving it for Husker sophomore lineman Derrie Nelson to pounce on at midfield.
The Husker offense went to work. Sorley connected with Miller on a 33-yard pass play, barely over the outstretched arms of Mathis, bringing the Huskers down to the Sooners' 17-yard line. From there, the offensive line cleared the way for Hipp. Carrying three consecutive times, he scampered the remaining eight yards and into the end zone for Nebraska's first lead of the game, and Todd's extra point made it 14-7 with 9:25 left in the third quarter.
Oklahoma was in uncharted waters, unaccustomed to the position they found themselves in. For the first time all year, they trailed in a game.
The Sooners came right back when they got their hands on the football at its 27. They needed seven plays to march the length of the field, and did so in less than two minutes. Faced with a third down-and-four, Lott ran the counter option and scampered 23 yards to the Husker 44. Also during the drive, Oklahoma was faced with a fourth-and-one at the Husker 35 when Pillen grabbed yet another Lott fumble, but an off sides penalty allowed the Sooners to retain control. On the next play, Sims followed King and Overstreet through a hole inside the right tackle and was off to daylight, high-stepping his way into the end zone. His 30-yard jaunt, and point after, tied score 14-14 with 7:47 remaining in the quarter, silencing the crowd.
The Oklahoma defense stuffed Nebraska on their next possession, forcing a punt. The Black Shirts regrouped and returned the favor, as the Sooners punted with time winding down in the third quarter. With one period to go, history was again not on Nebraska's side, for they had not scored a single point in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma since '71, being outscored by the Sooners over that stretch, 79-0, and the two teams had not played a tie game in over 40 years, since a 0-0 contest in '37.
Nebraska's offense was able to break down the Sooner defense on their next drive. Faced with a third down-and-ten at the Oklahoma 43, Sorley connected with senior split end Frank Lockett on a 13-yard pass play to keep the drive alive. Bending, but not breaking, the Sooners' defense survived five straight running plays, including Franklin's 12-yard burst to the Oklahoma 24 on a third-and-ten. But the Huskers' 12-play drive stalled at the eight-yard line, and Osborne again sent his field goal team in for another easy attempt. Not to be denied, Todd connected from 24 yards away as Nebraska reclaimed the lead, 17-14, but there was still 11:51 left in the game. Sensing victory, and with the partisan crowd cheering wildly, the Huskers turned up their intensity.
On the ensuing kickoff, Oklahoma's freshman quarterback recruit, Kelly Phelps, fielded the ball near the ten-yard line. He danced along the near sideline, and then cut back towards the middle of the field, when almost out of nowhere, Husker junior linebacker John Ruud slammed violently into him. Phelps' arms turned to noodles and the ball sprung loose. As the Sooner return man fell on the ground, Nebraska jumped on the ball around the Sooners' ten-yard line and started celebrating. In a controversial call, officials ruled that Phelps had been down, allowing Oklahoma to retain possession, even though television replays showed otherwise.
When Sooners' center Tabor lined up over the ball at the 19, the end zone seemed even further away than 81 yards against a fired up Nebraska defense. The journey was made longer when they were penalized five yards for illegal procedure, and then Andrews broke through and sacked Lott for a 12-yard loss back at the two. Amid the noise and confusion, a delay of game penalty pushed Oklahoma back even further, albeit to the one-yard line, and they were about as far from their destination as the could possibly be.
Faced with a crucial second down-and-28, Lott took the snap and stuffed the ball into his fullback's belly. With Tabor, Roberts and company clearing a hole, King burst straight up the middle and then veered left into the secondary. He was finally brought down, but not before he had rambled for 46 yards. Just that quickly, the tide had turned and Oklahoma was back in business near midfield.
Staying with their forte, the Sooners' wishbone continued to grind out yardage on the ground. The drive bogged down with a third-and-four at Nebraska's 46, but Overstreet raced around the left end on a pitch from Lott for ten yards. A few plays later, Lott optioned for 13 to move the ball down to the Nebraska 22-yard line. However, Sims fumbled the ball at the 20 while diving into the pile, and the Huskers thwarted a score when they recovered, ending the Sooners' 61-yard drive.
Oklahoma's defense needed to get the ball back into the offense's hands. They dug in on Nebraska's next drive and did not waver. Ineffective and unable to move the ball, the Huskers ran just three plays and punted the ball into the wind. The clock showed six minutes left in the game as the Sooners began with great field position at the Nebraska 47.
With Lott at the controls, the wishbone went back to work and put together another drive. On the Nebraska 39-yard line, Oklahoma faced a fourth down and needed two yards. With everyone thinking Sims would get the ball, Lott pitched to Overstreet, who broke off a 15-yard gain, and earned a new set of downs with the ball resting at the Husker 24. Oklahoma continued to run the ball as the clock was winding down, moving another four yards.
With the ball now sitting on the 20-yard line, Oklahoma lined up in position to score. Lott took the snap, faked to King up the middle, and ran an option to the right side. He pitched the ball at the last second to his trailing back, Sims. Billy eluded a couple of red jerseys, including sophomore defensive back Ric Lundquist, and broke free around the right end, heading for the end zone with the Oklahoma sideline cheering him along. As Sims twisted and battled through Blackshirt tacklers, Hansen shrugged his blocker aside and spun around to deliver a solid hit at about the six-yard line, knocking the ball loose.
With the pigskin unknowingly sitting right behind Sims, Pillen pounced on the fumble at the three, and a Nebraska victory was only 3:27 away. Berns blasted away for gains of four and ten yards. But after a pair of plays netted only two yards, the Sooners still had a flicker of a chance with only 1:16 showing on clock, as Nebraska was faced with a third down-and-eight at the 17. However, Banks was called for a personal foul and ejected, moving the Huskers 15 yards for the clinching first down, and sealing the victory.
Oklahoma called their final timeout, but it only served to postpone the inevitable. The Huskers did not really run out the clock, they celebrated out the clock, and the curse was finally over for Osborne. Fans were roaring at a feverish pitch during the final moments, and Berns celebrated by jumping up and down in the middle of the field while the stands emptied, showing appreciation for the Huskers by storming the field and tearing down the goalposts at Memorial Stadium.
Sorley had quarterbacked the offense efficiently, directing an attack that gained 250 yards rushing and 111 yards passing. However, it was the rugged running of Berns who chewed up both yards and the clock. He pounded the middle of the Sooner defense, carrying the ball 25 times for 113 yards and one touchdown. In doing so, he became the first Husker to cross the century mark against Oklahoma since Jeff Kinney's 174-yard effort in '71, coincidentally the last time the Sooners had lost to the Huskers.
"The big key was our defense", said Osborne afterwards. Nebraska rode an inspired and hard-hitting defense that somewhat held Oklahoma to 339 yards, all on the ground. They also took advantage of the Sooners' generosity, fumbling nine times and losing six of them. It was senior linebacker Bruce Dunning who led the charge with 19 tackles, while Pillen contributed eight tackles and two fumble recoveries. For their efforts, ABC and Chevrolet named Berns and Pillen the offensive and defensive Players of the Game. The two also received Big Eight Player of the Week honors.
"It was quiet (in the locker room)", said Osborne afterwards referring to halftime, "but nobody felt we couldn't win. We did some good hitting that first half and we just told the players to go out and do that again."
"I just fumbled. I don't know why, except that I just got careless while trying to get the extra yardage down there", said a somber Heisman hopeful Sims, who gained 153 yards and scored both Oklahoma touchdowns. "On that last one, I got hit twice from the side while I was trying to get loose, and the ball popped out. I could care less about the Heisman Trophy. I was thinking about winning the game, the national championship."
Meanwhile, Switzer could sum it up in one word, "Turnovers. We turned the ball over today, and you don't beat great teams like that. Nebraska is as good as any team in the country." It was almost amazing that a team could lose half a dozen fumbles during a game and get beat by only three points. But the Sooners were that good.
Source: Jeff Linkowski