A Colorado man sat in the cold, the wind, the rain and the gloom of Lincoln, Neb. last week and pondered whether he would rather die slowly of strangulation or have a dagger plunged into his stomach. These are the alternatives, said Colorado's assistant athletic director, Fred Casotti, if a football team has to choose between Nebraska and Oklahoma as an opponent. "They both kill you with a lot of pain," Casotti said. "It just depends on which kind of pain you prefer—fast or slow."
When the bruising, efficient Cornhuskers had finally finished destroying Colorado by 31-7, Casotti stood up from his seat and said, "Well, now I've got to go back to Boulder and get ready to answer seven thousand questions about Nebraska and Oklahoma and who we think is the better. I still don't know. But I hope the Nebraska defense doesn't line up on the runway at the airport in front of our DC-9. We'll never get home."
After these weeks of the 1971 season, Colorado, a common opponent, presented the first opportunity to compare Nebraska, voted the nation's No. 1 team, and Oklahoma, No. 2. Colorado had lost to OU 45-17, and Nebraska Coach Bob Devaney admitted before last week's contest that this would be the Cornhuskers' first "emotional" game.
Wandering around Lincoln on Thursday night with a couple of journalists, and while stopping in at a couple of saloons to visit with friends, the easygoing Devaney said, "I just hope we can get down to that game with Oklahoma on Thanksgiving in good shape. It ought to be something worth seeing. But I'm worried about Colorado. We don't know how good we are."
If he really didn't know it already, Devaney found out two days later that his 1971 team was probably the best he has had, among a lot of good ones. Nebraska simply manhandled Colorado in its usual physical way with perhaps a little more spirit and enthusiasm than the big sod busters normally display.
There had been a warning that something like this might happen on Friday as the Nebraska players moved out of the wind and drizzle into the dining quarters for their lunch of cold cuts and salad. Huge brooding types with relatively short hair who like to wear their letter jackets, the Cornhuskers, hidden out there on the plain where the wind blows from Laramie to Lincoln—untouched—sort of bristled at the mention of Colorado. And then Oklahoma, in that order.
"Colorado took some cheap shots last year," said Dick Rupert, a fine guard. "We kind of remember that."
Larry Jacobson, who might be an All-America defensive tackle despite his boyish grin and horned-rimmed glasses, said, "Naturally, we think about Oklahoma now and then. But there's no doubt in our minds that we'll beat them. There just isn't."
Quarterback Jerry Tagge talked about Nebraska's nonstar system and how it does not bother anybody, especially him, the prime mover of the team.
"It's almost become a tradition under Coach Devaney that we don't have any stars on the team," smiled Tagge. "We just have a lot of good football players who concentrate and carry out their assignments."
Tagge said, "It's funny. We don't all pal around with each other much. We have married guys and fraternity guys and we live all over town. My roommate isn't on the team. We see each other mostly at practice and then we go off to do other things. I think our success can be attributed to the fact that we just have a lot of good players and good coaches and great fans.
"You know, as a kid you dream about playing on a national championship team. Now here we are, this bunch of clowns you see around the room."
The Colorado game was never actually close because Nebraska did what it does best—make the enemy look bad. The defense provided a couple of fumbles at Colorado's 16 and 25, and these errors were turned into touchdowns. And the offense proved it could run and throw with a marvelous balance on two beautiful drives in the first half of 65 and 75 yards, which put the game out of Colorado's reach.
Unlike Oklahoma, which stays exclusively with the Wishbone T, Nebraska shows the opponent a variety of offensive sets out of Devaney's I formation. Tagge, who has finally shaken Van Brownson as a compatriot quarterback and clearly has held the job all season, calls most of the plays himself, and expertly.
Against Colorado he seemed always to know what would work, whether it was running his I-back, Jeff Kinney, over Rupert's left guard spot, or throwing to his ends and backs when least expected.
"The thing about Jerry," said Rupert, "is that he listens to you. He trusts you in the huddle to tell what might work. If I give him a nod, he knows I'm handling my guy and he can run there."
Tagge's leadership and certainly his passing arm are very much the key to Nebraska's success. He hit 10 of 17 for 144 yards and a touchdown on Colorado, and he had at least three perfect tosses dropped by usually dependable receivers such as the swift Johnny Rodgers and Jeff Kinney. His percentage is way up there—.615—and he has thrown only two interceptions in eight games. No other quarterback who has averaged 10 completions or more a game can match these figures.
"We think our balance is just as impressive as Oklahoma's rushing," said Jacobson, the tackle. "They might gain 700 yards but they give up 500. We don't give up much, and I think our offense might be able to keep the football on them. I hope it can, anyhow."
Statistically, it will surely seem as if blazing Oklahoma has won the first comparison of the two top teams now that Nebraska has also whipped Colorado. Against a Colorado team that was in far better health than it was against the Cornhuskers, the Sooners outcomputerized Nebraska in every department, despite losing five fumbles.
Oklahoma rushed for 498 yards on Colorado while Nebraska rushed for only 180. And even though Tagge passed for 144 yards, Oklahoma's Jack Mildren chose that day a few weeks ago to hit three of four passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns.
"But this is misleading," Fred Casotti pointed out. "Nebraska had better field position because of its defense. It did what it had to do to win just as easily, like Devaney teams always do. And Nebraska sure bruised us more."
The Colorado players, for their part, felt that Nebraska was a slightly better team than Oklahoma, simply on its balanced offense and superior defense. Colorado Coach Eddie Crowder, naturally, wouldn't say which he liked better.
Casotti came close, however. "Nebraska is a lot more physical than Oklahoma. When they play on Thanksgiving Day, I figure Nebraska will dominate the game for 53 minutes. I don't know which 53, but for most of the day. But for those other seven minutes Oklahoma might score six touchdowns without Nebraska even touching them. But is six touchdowns enough? Who knows?"
Both Nebraska and Oklahoma have two more Big Eight games before they get down to each other in what will certainly be a thrilling day in the history of Norman, Oklahoma, and maybe even the rest of the football-conscious country.
Nebraska has to play Iowa State and Kansas State, and Oklahoma must face Missouri and Kansas. None of these teams figures to do anything more than help the speedy Sooners and the growling Cornhuskers improve on their statistics.
Last week Devaney brought up an item or two about the Oklahoma game that should give all those red-clad Cornhuskers a reason for some serious worry, even though the whole state is painted red and No. 1 signs are practically in the wash basins.
"People forget that we played a heck of a game last year," Devaney said. "It was 28-21 here in Lincoln, and they didn't know that Wishbone near as well as they do now. Also we didn't see much of Greg Pruitt. Now we have to go to Norman and they'll have all the folks in the stadium. I know they're better than last year. That's obvious. But I think we are, too. That's our hope."
So they move on. And the anticipation continues. And if an injury beforehand to some key player—Tagge or Mildren, Rodgers or Pruitt, for example—doesn't spoil things, Nebraska and Oklahoma on Nov. 25 may collide in that most classic of football duels: speed versus power, big plays versus ball control.
Football brains say speed usually wins. But they say defense usually wins as well. Oh, well. Ho hum. Another game of the decade, folks.