If the Big Ten showdown in Ann Arbor was notable for its departure from tradition, the Big Eight climax down in Norman was equally remarkable for its reversal of roles. Nebraska, which had gone undefeated partly because it was tighter than Scrooge, began handing out gifts like a department store Santa Claus. And Oklahoma, which for much of the season had a tendency to give opponents everything but the final score, gleefully began cramming its pockets with all those unexpected goodies. The result was a 35-10 Sooner victory, a share of the conference championship and a trip to the Orange Bowl. And if that were not enough to celebrate, the game marked the end of a three-year exile during which Oklahoma had won 31 games and a national championship without appearing in a postseason bowl or on television. America, you have no idea what you've been missing.
For most of the season, bobbles, bungles and just plain offensive inconsistency had been as prominent in the Oklahoma wishbone attack as a Joe Washington sweep. Errors caused the loss to Kansas three weeks ago and made games against Miami, Colorado and Texas unnecessarily close. "We forgot what it was like to really bear down," Steve Davis, the preacher quarterback, said early in the week. "Eve made mistakes and taken chances I shouldn't have all season. Critics talk about our young line, but Eve got to do well for the offense to succeed and Eve been forcing things. People have been writing me letters saying I should stop praying and start playing, but Ed rather try to do both."
Nebraska certainly seemed the kind of opponent that would require both. The Cornhuskers, in winning 10 straight games, had been models of efficiency, committing only 14 turnovers (to Oklahoma's 31) and prompting Quarterback Vince Ferragamo to say, "It's probably the main reason we're unbeaten."
So Ferragamo commited two of his team's four fumbles and threw both of its interceptions, and the Oklahoma offense cashed them in like $100 poker chips. "Nebraska did not know how to react when everything started going against it," said Davis after he had scored two touchdowns and rushed for 130 yards. "We've been in that hole before."
The Sooners started out in that same hole again by fumbling on their first two possessions. The second one, and a third later on, set up a 24-yard Nebraska field goal and a 32-yard touchdown drive. But the Cornhuskers were giving up the ball with even greater regularity, and after sticking close for three quarters—they trailed 14-10—they collapsed completely in the fourth.
Oklahoma Middle Guard Dewey Selmon recognized signs of panic. "You can tell when a team is getting down on itself," he said, "and that's what happened to them. Their offensive line got real quiet toward the end and their fullback [Tony Davis] started getting violent. When a team loses its poise and cool, you know you've got them."
Part of the Cornhuskers' frustration was their inability to score quickly. A grind-it-out offense like theirs is good for pulling away, not catching up, and Johnny Rogers has not returned a punt for them since 1972. "We haven't really been challenged this year," Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said a few hours before his hopes for a national championship were dashed. When Oklahoma presented that challenge with a ferocious defensive charge and an opportunistic offense, Nebraska sought a reserve strength that did not exist.
The Cornhuskers' first turnover halted a scoring threat at the OU 15 and the second set up a second-period touchdown, which Davis scored on fourth and one to put the Sooners on top 7-3. Nebraska I Back Monte Anthony had a similar one-yard opportunity at the end of the half but he couldn't make it. "We knew exactly what was coming," said Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer.
Oklahoma was still leading 7-3 at half-time, and Switzer told his players that they could win if they did not start fumbling again—which is exactly what Fullback Jim Littrell did on a handoff exchange shortly after the kickoff. Anthony covered the last seven yards for Nebraska in four straight carries to give the Cornhuskers a 10-7 lead.
When Oklahoma was held to 14 yards in its next two possessions, Sooner fans began to contemplate the joys of the Fiesta Bowl, whose invitation the team had voted to accept if it lost this game. Which it certainly was doing.
Nebraska had declined a similar invitation if it lost, only to change its mind after the game. But at this point the Cornhuskers gave the Sooners the lift they needed. Ferragamo was rolling out when Leroy Selmon crashed into him, the quarterback going one way, the ball another. Oklahoma recovered. In an eight-play sequence that started near midfield, Davis carried five times around right end, finally sending Fullback Horace Ivory off right tackle for the touchdown.
"The key to the game," Switzer would say later, "was our ability to move the ball after the defense got us good field position." Five minutes into the fourth quarter a fumbled punt recovered by Lee Hover gave Oklahoma possession at the Cornhusker 13. Two more plays to the right behind the blocks of Tackle Mike Vaughan and Guard Terry Webb set up Elvis Peacock's short scoring jaunt to the left. That made-it 21-10 Oklahoma, and the two touchdowns that followed were merely adornments. The Sooners were on their way to the Orange Bowl and, should Ohio State slip, back in contention for the national championship.