It was at one of those $10-a-plate pregame bowl luncheons where much is said and nothing is said seriously that Bo Schembechler, narrating a brief highlight film of his Michigan football team, suddenly found himself narrating a blank screen. "This must be Oklahoma," he ad-libbed. The laughter from the luncheon crowd at the downtown Miami hotel all but drowned out Bo's hasty coverup: "They're so fast you can't see 'em."
Hardly anyone had seen the Sooners since they fell from grace and went on probation a couple of years ago. But now they are back—back on television, big as life in redressed red and newly cleansed white; back in the bowls and polls (both polls, not just the Associated Press), and back, with the heavens and the wire services declaring their glory, to the top as national champions. Michigan saw them, all right. Going thataway.
On a glittering Miami night fit for a coronation, Oklahoma Selmonized the Wolverines on defense with the brothers Dewey and Leroy and gave them some newtime religion in the person of Minister-Quarterback Steve Davis on offense and won the Orange Bowl convincingly 14-6. Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer said, "I hope the pollsters don't hold Michigan's two-yard touchdown drive against us," it having occurred late in the game after still another in a season-long series of Oklahoma fumbles to ruin a merited shutout. Only a man fresh out of solitary could have thought such a thing.
An hour before he left for the Indian Creek Country Club and the last round of Orange Bowl parties the next evening, Switzer got the word: Oklahoma in a twin landslide (AP and UPI), with Arizona State, the only major unbeaten team left at season's end, second; Alabama third; and woebegone Ohio State and its coach, Woody Hayes, fourth. Hayes was rendered speechless by his team's 23-10 fold up to UCLA in the Rose Bowl, the game that immediately preceded the Orange on New Year's Day and set the stage for Oklahoma's ascent. Oklahoma had a television hookup into its dressing room to catch Ohio State's descent. "I knew NBC would be selling our game as the national championship," said Switzer, "so I did, too [in a pre-game peptalk to the Sooners]. But, hell, they already knew it."
January 12, 1976
Thus the process that elevated USC as champion last year was reversed. Then it was Alabama tumbling from the top at Notre Dame's hand in the Orange after USC upset Ohio State in the Rose. Oklahoma, favored by six, was one of just a handful of teams to hold form in a fortnight of bowl games disastrous for favorites (Nebraska, N.C. State, Florida, Texas A&M and Ohio State). It did so by going about its business as usual, by being murderous on defense with Dewey Selmon plowing them under and Leroy Selmon notifying the next of kin, to use Bob Hope's line, and by making enough big plays and spectacular mistakes on offense to keep the 80,307 fans from nodding off.
The matchup of the two defensive giants did not live down to some of the more dire pregame predictions. A Miami News columnist foresaw the game as having just the right ingredients for tedium: a team, Oklahoma, that would not pass against a team, Michigan, that could not defend against the pass; the writer said he was attending just for the halftime show. And it might not have been as much fun for the non-Oklahoman were it not for the marvelously erratic beat of the Oklahoma wishbone. In the hands of a young devil-may-care (pardon the expression, preacher) quarterback like Davis, the ball tends to fly around, even if the passes are not always spiral or downfield. Oklahoma fumbled 58 times this year, 13 times in one game.
But Davis is not the discourageable type, not if being 32-1-1 as the regular Sooner quarterback lo these three years is any indication. As a licensed Baptist preacher, he is said to be a charged-up speaker; a stand-up, take-no-nonsense guy with a rock-of-ages chin and an enviable shock of brown hair. A man, Switzer likes to say, "with good connections." This is not to imply that Davis is more than human. A couple of seasons ago one of the Selmons got some snapshots from a girl fan in Michigan—at least Publicist John Keith says she was from Michigan, and it makes a better story—that included a number of breathtaking poses in a bikini. "Gee," said Davis as the pin-ups made the locker-room rounds, "all I ever get are Bible tracts."
Davis said beforehand his play had been "inconsistent" this year; he joked that he had been advised to "stop praying and start playing." Nevertheless, he was the honored speaker at an Orange Bowl breakfast, and delivered, on the 50-yard line, the pregame invocation—which was interrupted in mid-prayer by the public-address announcer's giddy if irreverent bulletin that UCLA was knocking Ohio State's block off in the Rose Bowl. "Shall we try again?" smiled Davis, and bowed his head.
It was his only intercept of the night. After a fitful start, the Oklahoma wishbone ripped through the vaunted Michigan defense for 345 yards, 282 by land and Davis' 63 by air on three completions in five throws, and quieted for a time those who have been saying that the once dread formation now has more wish in it than bone.
Early in the game, however, the Sooners were offered a boggling variety of stunts and slants by the smallish Michigan forwards, and instead of making a positive opening address the offense stammered. One Sooner lineman complained to his coaches that "when we look to block a guy he isn't there. We're calling audibles on an awful lot of plays." Oklahoma did not make a first down until its third possession.
But it is a highly sophisticated offense, this Oklahoma wishbone. "After you've seen something a few times, no matter how surprised you are at first, you find ways to handle it," said Larry Lacewell, Oklahoma's defensive coordinator. "It's a learning process finding out what to do and when to do it."
The what and the when came in a sequence of two big plays midway in the second quarter, and turned forever in Oklahoma's favor the tide of battle. All week long visitors to Oklahoma practices had been impressed by the number of passes thrown. "We always practice this way," said Switzer, "but it doesn't mean we'll do it in the game. We start with the run, and go from there." The reason the Sooners pass so much in practice is obvious: just when you think they'll never pass in a game, they do it right. And when they do it right, it's bombs away. This season Davis averaged more than 23 yards a completion.
He had thrown only twice, completing one, when he set up housekeeping on the Oklahoma 20 after a second-period Michigan field-goal miss, the game still scoreless. From there he had another completion to Tinker Owens (his only receiver all night) nullified by a holding penalty. Then, two plays later from the 21, Davis passed again to the irrepressible Owens, this time slanting deep down the middle. As he went up for the ball at the Michigan 43, Owens wore Michigan's Dwight Hicks on his back, but he shielded him from the ball with his shoulders and, with Hicks' arms describing a halo over his head, came down with the ball at the Michigan 39. It was a perfectly lovely reception.
"We wanted to come right back with another big play," Switzer said later, and the play he chose is an old favorite of the Oklahoma coaching staff. It is "17-reverse" in the playbook, an end-around, and, according to Lacewell, "It saved our jobs in 1970 when we weren't doing too well and beat Iowa State with it in the last minute or so. I'm not kidding—it saved our jobs. I'm always yelling at our offensive coaches in the press box, 'Call the end-around, call the end-around.' With the same guy [Billy Brooks] we beat Texas with it last year. I love it."
Owens came out for a breath of air and Brooks replaced him at split end. Reverse-17 was waggled in by signal from the sidelines. Davis, following the blocking flow to the left, took off on an apparent keeper. Brooks pivoted and came back against the flow and on an arc outside of the advancing Davis. The play gets hairy at this point because in order to give Brooks more room Davis pitches the ball instead of handing it off in the classic reverse. (Picture having to toss, well, an orange from the window of a moving car into the front seat of another moving car bearing down from the opposite direction.) "We always do it that way," said Lacewell. "Makes it more exciting. Of course, we have fumbled it a few times."
Brooks took the flip chest high and was instantly confronted nose to nose by Michigan Defensive End Dan Jilek, who had looped in cautiously to guard against just this type of gullery. The only trouble was that in the swarming Michigan defensive scheme, at that precise moment, Jilek not only represented the first line of defense, he also represented the last. Brooks made an abrupt stop, did a perfect pas de chat, like a spider hopping sideways, and left Jilek groping. And suddenly Brooks was clear and sprinting downfield. When he squirted past the last reacting Michigan defender near the 20 he was free to the end zone.
With the Oklahoma defense creating earthquakes, it seemed sure at that point that one touchdown was all the Sooners needed. Consider the Oklahoma defense. Consider what Switzer said beforehand. "Talent," he said, "is our edge. Defenses will decide this game, and the thing we have on defense is superior people, like the Selmons and Jimbo Elrod."
In studying Michigan films, Lacewell determined that most of the Michigan running attack, on the legs of 1,000-yard rushers Gordon Bell and Rob Lytle, was concentrated to the side of the tight end. So he simply had Dewey Selmon, at nose guard, cheat just a hair to that side. And if anything, Dewey (257 pounds) outshone brother Leroy (256), who is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the National Football League draft next month. Dewey made 12 tackles and helped on one more, and with Leroy and Elrod and some fine linebacking completely shut down the Michigan attack after the first quarter. The line of scrimmage taken away, Bell and Lytle averaged barely three yards a carry, and the leading Michigan rusher turned out to be freshman Quarterback Rick Leach, mostly on busted plays.
To make up for the rushing deficiency, Schembechler let his Wolverines throw passes—20 in all, more than twice their average. And not one was completed until there were 31 seconds left in the game. More were intercepted (three) than were completed (two).
From the second quarter to the game's closing minutes, Michigan was unable to put two first downs together. Trailing 7-0, it did have a chance to tie the game in the third quarter when Oklahoma, up to old tricks, fumbled the ball away on its 26. Not to be outdone, Michigan gave it back moments later when Bell's third-down halfback pass fluttered safely into the arms of Oklahoma Safety Sidney Brown in the end zone. "I think he thought I was the receiver," said Brown.
Having adjusted their blocking assignments, the Sooners closed off debate with an old-fashioned 68-yard wishboner on the skirts of that interception, a 12-play drive bridging the third and the fourth periods. Davis did not complete a pass, but ran the triple option like the outstanding optioneer he is, getting eight, 12 and 16 yards himself, the last run helped along by a kicked fumble (see the fun he has?) that bounced out of bounds upfield. He got the touchdown on an option from 10 yards out.
Switzer did not get to sleep until dawn was pushing up over Biscayne Bay, sending fingers of light into his room at the Americana. He hobnobbed with friends in the hospitality suite, relived the game with coaches, signed autographs, told stories and nursed his Scotch, not wanting the night to end. He said the team had played much the way Oklahoma had in its last television game way back in 1973, a 27-0 victory over Nebraska. In the Orange Bowl dressing room, Oklahoma players had shouted, "Bring on the Dolphins!" but Switzer said it was the cry of honeymooners.
"We're going to fall off a little now," he said. "With the talent we're losing—the Selmons, Davis, Owens, Elrod—the next three years won't be what the last three were. Now we'll be on television and everybody will see us, and we won't be as good. It's ironic."
Nonetheless, it's nice seeing you again, Oklahoma.