The question of which teams would meet in the Sugar Bowl Jan. 2 was about as hush-hush a topic as Lyndon Johnson's hernia-scar operation. Even the Bohemian farmers near the Platte River and the slaughterhouse workers in Omaha knew last week that Nebraska had been invited. The beloved Cornhuskers had gone through nine straight games without a loss or tie (sorry, Ara), they had clinched the Big Eight championship, and the Sugar was the only major bowl left unprogrammed. Still Coach Bob Devaney, an impish Irishman, kept mum until his weekly Extra Point Club luncheon in Lincoln. In a crowded banquet room he accepted the formal invitation from a Sugar Bowl emissary and got on the phone (hooked up to a loudspeaker) with officials of New Orleans' Mid-Winter Sports Association, who told him, just as if the newspapers had not been assuming it for days, that undefeated, untied Alabama also had accepted a bid. Devaney hesitated a moment and then said, "I was afraid of that."
He was joshing, of course, just as he had been earlier when he said the opponent would be the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Nebraska's Big Red was anxious to play Alabama and avenge the 39-28 loss to the Crimson Tide in last season's Orange Bowl. Both teams had strutted into that game unbeaten, but Alabama came out with the victory and the national title. So the Jan. 2 rematch was a natural.
Nebraska again was cutting down opponents like a row of cornstalks. In the romp over Utah State, Safety Larry Wachholtz, only 5 feet 8 and 166 pounds, returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown, intercepted two passes and kicked a 39-yard field goal. All-America Middle Guard Wayne Meylan blocked punts against Wisconsin and Kansas State and turned them both into touchdowns. At Colorado, Nebraska trailed 19-7 at half time, but fought back to win 21-19. After Missouri was harvested 35-0, Coach Dan Devine said, "I never saw a team with so many big, strong running backs."
No wonder the president of the Mid-Winter Sports Association said, "Without Nebraska we don't have a good intersectional. The people in New Orleans want to see Nebraska in the worst way."
But before the Big Red could start plotting against Alabama, there was one more regular-season chore, the matter of a Thanksgiving Day game down in Norman against Oklahoma. There, before about 6½ million homes tuned in on TV, fourth-ranked Nebraska lost by one frustrating point to a team that was only No. 4 in the Big Eight—and a little sweetness went out of the Sugar Bowl.
Not that Nebraska coaches, players or fans had overlooked Oklahoma. All remembered the agony two years ago, when the Huskers were undefeated fat cats and already selected for the Cotton Bowl. A stopover in Norman resulted in a 17-7 defeat. Also, there were those millions of turkey-stuffed people to impress, not to mention voters in the polls. "It's the 10th game, and we've won nine already," said Meylan. "If we don't win this one it isn't a good season. I don't think anybody is looking beyond to the Sugar Bowl."
Meylan is one of the players who was most respected in advance by Oklahoma. He went into the game with 35 unassisted tackles, 36 assisted tackles and three blocked punts. It was too bad there were no statistics for havoc wreaked.
"The fact that Meylan is so good at so many things presents special problems," said Sooner Center Bob Craig. "For one thing, he has big, strong arms and can throw you around. He also has exceptional movement for his size.... You don't try to horse him out of there."
Meylan, 6 feet 1, 237 pounds, grew up on his father's navy-bean farm outside Bay City, Mich. And it was there, lifting weights under a tree, throwing fertilizer sacks around and hoeing in the bean fields day after day, that he developed his blacksmith's arms. Last year he could hardly wait for the Thanksgiving Day game to be over so that he could get home to the farm. His father had bought a new tractor, and to Wayne it had twice the allure that a diamond-studded Ferrari would have for almost anybody else. Meylan had another exciting trip planned after this year's Oklahoma game. One of the selectors of All-America teams was flying him back to New York City, his first visit there. He was not worried about meeting muggers—he happens to be Nebraska's intramural heavyweight wrestling champ.
For Oklahoma, the scary thing about Meylan was that he might not be the best of Devaney's linemen. Offensive Tackle Bob Pickens, 274 pounds, could block a threshing machine and was an Olympic wrestler in 1964. Defensive Tackle Card Stith has made more tackles than Meylan, and Offensive Guard LaVerne Allers is just as talented.
Skill and brawn, however, were not left to do everything by Nebraska; superstition has its semiserious place. The football coaches were careful to repeat previously successful rituals. Two nights before the game—it had to be two—Devaney and several of his assistants met with friends at the Elks Club in Lincoln to consume chicken-liver hors d'oeuvres. Later, with their wives, they met in Line Coach George Kelly's basement for cocktails, turkey and ham sandwiches and pumpkin-cream pie. Nor was the lucky-penny board neglected. The first lucky penny was found before a 1962 victory, and there had been 31 pennies since, plus some dimes and a brass button, all now taped to a piece of cardboard and taken to all games. The night before the Oklahoma game a member of the Nebraska staff found a battered penny in the hotel parking lot.
Oklahoma had no good-luck charms to speak of, but it did have the lean, mean look of a half-starved guerrilla band. Coach Jim Mackenzie worked his players so hard last spring that collectively they lost 1,437 pounds in seven weeks, and no one quit or died of malnutrition. The skinny Sooners started with four straight victories, but Notre Dame took them apart in the fifth game 38-0. Still, Mackenzie said, they worked themselves like galley slaves in practice the following week. And they labored just as hard after close, deflating losses to Colorado and Missouri.
On Thanksgiving afternoon the stands were full of Nebraskans who had forsaken TV and turkey and traveled 450 miles to witness the hoped-for 10th straight win. They were decked out in red hats, red socks, red dresses and red everything else, including red faces after the first play of the game. Oklahoma's Eddie Hinton returned the kickoff 59 yards, but a fumble on the second play from scrimmage killed that threat. Early in the second quarter Nebraska ended a drive from its own nine with a 28-yard Larry Wachholtz field goal that just dribbled over the crossbar. Then it was Oklahoma's turn. The Sooners went ahead 7-3 on a 48-yard touchdown pass from Bob Warmack to Hinton, who made a fine leaping catch, and Mike Vachon's extra-point kick. Throughout, Oklahoma's offensive linemen were rudely rejecting the attempts of Wayne Meylan (or anyone else) to get into their backfield. Often they were double-teaming Meylan.
Nebraska finally put together a complete drive in the third quarter, moving 80 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown, but a bad pass from center enabled Sooner Bob Stephenson to block Wachholtz' extra-point try. Nebraska 9, Oklahoma 7. An Oklahoma field goal would win the game. The team got close enough early in the fourth period, but Mike Vachon's 23-yard boot was wide to the left, and he went back to the sideline looking for a suicide pistol. Coach Mackenzie told him, "Forget it! We'll give you another chance."
Mackenzie was almost wrong, but, on a gutty drive from their own 24, the Sooners took the ball deep into Nebraska territory. Three times on the drive they faced long yardage on third down, and three times they made it. With 48 seconds left Vachon got his other chance. His aim was true this time. He kicked the ball through the goalposts from the 11-yard line. The Okies led 10-9. As it had done so often this season, Nebraska came straight back upfield, but the drive, like three others this day, ended ignominiously, this time with an interception. The loss was the third in three tries against three different coaches for Bob Devaney's teams at Norman.
Among Oklahomans, after the upset, there was happy chatter about a possible postseason excursion of their own. It is not to be, unfortunately, and there is still Oklahoma State to play. But Mackenzie was not thinking of other games. "Fifty-four million people watchin' this one," he said, "and it's gettin' near recruitin' time."
In the Cornhusker dressing room a disappointed New Orleans representative insisted, "As far as I'm concerned, they're still Big Eight champions, and they'll be received as well as ever." He gave Devaney a Sugar Bowl invitation engraved in metal and mounted on polished wood. The original idea was to make the presentation before a joyous, and undefeated, Nebraska squad. But as their coach accepted the plaque, the tired, gloomy athletes did not even look around.