Oklahoma bids Nebraska farewell the only way a true rival could
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Good riddance? Nebraska and Oklahoma officials won't officially voice their pleasure to putting one of college football's longest rivalries in their rear view mirrors, leaving the wrath and vitriol to the politically incorrect comments of booster message boards. Officially or not, Nebraska can't be happy that its much-needed closure came in a 23-20 loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game.
With neither team entering the showdown with little more than national championship hopes for next season, their final meeting as conference mates didn't warrant "The Game of the Century, Part II" buzz. While the Huskers and Sooners did provide fourth-quarter drama, classic plays were at a minimum at Cowboys Stadium where turnovers and miscues weighed more than anything in the outcome. Too many things went wrong, be it Oklahoma's inability to score touchdowns inside the 10 or Nebraska's five fumbles (three lost) and dearth of offense (80 total yards) in the second half.
Nebraska's Roy Helu Jr. opened the scoring with a 66-yard touchdown run. Huskers fans raised their hopes more when Alex Henery sent a 53-yard field goal through the uprights and high into the netting behind the end zone. Huskers had even more reason to smell an upset when Courtney Osborne intercepted a Landry Jones pass that set up another Nebraska touchdown and a 17-0 lead. Unfortunately for Nebraska, subsequent turnovers gave Landry and the Oklahoma offense too many chances to rebound.
Jones' 49-yard touchdown bomb to Kenny Stills started a Sooners comeback slow in completing. The Sooners would not take their first lead until 3:03 was left in the fourth quarter. They needed arguably the game's most memorable play to finish off the Huskers. Facing third-and-24, Jones found Cameron Kenney down the left sideline for 23 yards, allowing the Sooners to sustain a drive resulting in Jimmy Stevens' 27-yard field goal in what turned out to be the game-winning points.
While those plays provided drama, the game lacked the color attached to the Oklahoma-Nebraska lore. There was no dazzling Johnny Rodgers punt return. No Bob Devaney, Chuck Fairbanks or Barry Switzer prowling the sidelines in white belts and red polyester. No Jack Mildren or Jerry Tagge under center back when that was the way every quarterback started a play. No Greg Pruitt, Billy Sims or I.M. Hipp taking the pitch and outracing defenders to the corner.
The 86th meeting of Nebraska and Oklahoma instead seemed more like a custody hearing. The causes and effects of the divorce having been vented by school and conference officials long ago, leaving Sooners and Huskers fans to wage a Cold War in which both schools claimed the high road.
For the record, Oklahoma walks away with a 45-38-3 edge in the series and a BCS bid to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Nebraska exits playing the role of the jilted partner looking for a fresh start.
That bad taste in the mouths of Huskers could be the bitterness of back-to-back championship game losses in the Cowboys' new stadium located just a few miles from the Big 12 headquarters that played an early role in the beginning to the end. In the eyes of Nebraska, the relocation of the former Big 8 offices from Kansas City to Texas was the first power shift and preference to a South division dominated by four Texas schools and conference holdovers Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Nebraska administrators quickly grew concerned that the life preserver offered to the strongest survivors of a leaking Southwest Conference would eventually drag them down into the turbulence. It turned out to be a premonition 14 years in the making -- 13 years if you count the controversial call in last year's Big 12 Conference Championship that put enough time back on the clock for Texas to kick a game-winning field goal.
Back when Texas was enjoying Southwest Conference home cooking, Nebraska and Oklahoma were kingpins in the Big 8's heyday. Their showdowns usually decided the conference championship and national title hopes while providing must-see TV every Thanksgiving weekend. The Huskers had won five Big 8 titles and national championships in 1994 and 1995 just before the Big 12 came into being -- a dominance that would be hard to maintain.
The annual Oklahoma-Nebraska shootout became one of the first casualties of a super-sized Big 12 alignment. Geography shifted the Sooners and Huskers into separate North-South divisions and an occasional regular-season meeting. As the popularity of Oklahoma's annual series with Texas heated up, Nebraska was left without a natural rival and seemingly out in the cold.
Nebraska's concerns resurfaced this offseason when the Huskers reacted to rumors and reports of Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M considering offers to leave them behind in an abbreviated Big 12 lineup. With Texas and Oklahoma reportedly entertaining Pac 10 overtures and Texas A&M pondering a new start in the SEC, Nebraska decided to take action of its own, seeking and accepting an offer to join the Big Ten beginning with the 2012 football season.
By the time Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and the rest of the Big 12 South decided to stay put, Nebraska athletic director Dr. Tom Osborne said his school couldn't be caught without a seat when the music ended on conference realignment. The Huskers' belief that Oklahoma was riding shotgun with Texas made the breakup more combustible. As a result, the Huskers head to the Big Ten next season, while Oklahoma -- seen by Nebraska to be an ally of power-hungry Texas -- remains in a Big 12 now reduced to 10 members.
Ten teams in a conference won't get you an NCAA conference championship license these days, so there will be no Big 12 Championship game in 2011. And there will be no Oklahoma-Nebraska game unless these two schools end up meeting in a future bowl game. Both schools have been reluctant to resume the rivalry any time soon while fans cling to whispers of a home-and-home series beginning in 2020. Until then, recruiting will most likely be the only battles these schools wage on an annual basis.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, for one, hopes to see the series continue after beating Nebraska.
"With this game, with the stakes as they were, and the last one, at least for now, it's really special," Stoops said.
Switzer, Osborne's recruiting foe and co-star in 17 Oklahoma-Nebraska games, said in the pregame buildup that the Huskers' move to the Big Ten will make the rivalry a thing of the past. Oklahoma will "always have Texas," Switzer said, and be fine in a smaller Big 12.
And to that, Nebraska politely says, "you can have them."