Tom Osborne detected something out of sync at practice one day last week when he gazed across the field at his Nebraska football team doing calisthenics in preparation for the duel with No. 1 Oklahoma. What was wrong was that there among his players was some clown with a five-day growth of beard and a bottle of beer.
"I don't care if you warm up," said Osborne to the guy, who looked pretty loose, "but you'll have to do it on the sidelines." "Is this an official bust?" asked the intruder. Osborne assured him it wasn't, but when campus police showed up, asked the outsider where he was from and he replied, "Heaven," they made it official.
As it turned out, for Nebraskans, drunk or sober—and there were some of the latter—it was very definitely a weekend made in heaven. On a cold, gray and windy Saturday in Lincoln the No. 4-ranked Cornhuskers, a good but not great football team, went out and whipped Oklahoma 17-14.
Nebraska, which hadn't beaten Oklahoma since winning the national championship in 1971, now has a splendid opportunity to win the Big Eight outright for the first time since 1972, go to the Orange Bowl and maybe slip through the back door and into another national championship. The Huskers' record is 9-1, the loss coming at the hands of No. 3 Alabama in the first game of the season.
November 20, 1978
Considering all this, the behavior of the Nebraska fans was, well, raucous bordering on riotous. For several nights before the game, students staged mini-melees. Osborne and several of his players slipped away from a pep rally on the eve of the game because of the rooters' rowdiness. Osborne said, "I appreciate their support but it can be frightening." At the game, some among the crowd of 76,015—the 99th straight sellout in Memorial Stadium—threw oranges on the field and at one another, prompting the exasperated public-address announcer to scold, "We request the boys and girls do not throw oranges on the playing field." At game's end there was a full-scale assault on security officers and the goalposts by the delirious Husker rooters. The fans won.
This was not a football game Nebraska appeared likely to win. After all, the Sooners fumbled and lost the ball five times, including losses on the Nebraska 11, 38 and 22. Yet this seemed only to prove Oklahoma's vast supremacy in talent, because after eight fumbles (the Sooners had recovered three) it still appeared that they would win. Then came the last lost fumble.
Unhappily, this critical error was made by Billy Sims, the brilliant Oklahoma running back who thus ended up the afternoon as both hero and goat. The nation's leading rusher, with 1,397 yards going into the game, Sims kept the Sooners close with 153 yards worth of twisting, tackle-breaking runs as he scored both Oklahoma touchdowns. But he lost the ball twice.
The first came with 8:10 to go, the Sooners on the move and the ball at the Nebraska 22. This was bad enough, but Sims' second fumble was the crusher. It came with 3:27 left, after he had made a glorious, 17-yard run around his right end. But as he was being brought down by Jeff Hansen and Andy Means on the Husker three, the ball squirted loose and was rocking on the ground as Nebraska's Jim Pillen covered it. "I was running over, and the ball just popped up," says Pillen. "Nobody was around it."
Pillen is no stranger to heroics. He intercepted two Alabama passes in the fourth quarter last season to preserve a 31-24 Cornhusker win. In fact, this is a trait that runs in the family. In 1975 his brother Clete was in on 27 tackles against the Sooners.
Sims made no excuses. "I just fumbled," he said. "It was carelessness. We beat ourselves. Nobody beat us. When you make mistakes like we did, anybody can beat you." Barry Switzer leaped to the defense of his crestfallen star, saying, "He's a great football player. He made the game."
Still, the consequences of those fourth-quarter fumbles is inescapable. Had Sims hung onto the ball, especially the second time, Oklahoma almost certainly would have scored its third touchdown. In turn, this would have virtually assured the Sooners of their sixth straight Big Eight championship, buttressed their No. 1 ranking, and made Sims, a junior from Hooks, Texas, the hands-down favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. Sims might still win the Heisman—who else has 1,550 yards or has tied an NCAA record by stringing together three 200-yard games in a row this season as Sims did against Iowa State (231 yards), Kansas State (202) and Colorado (221)?—but Oklahoma will now need a lot of outside help if it is going to win anything.
In Norman the week of the game, Sims was lounging around his dorm room talking of the Heisman ("If the voters look at the stats, I'm right up there") when a cricket scampered across the rug. He stepped on it, and his girl friend, Brenda Campbell, admonished him, "That's bad luck."
But deep in their hearts, the Sooners didn't think they would need any luck to beat Nebraska. With their big, fast wishbone backfield—Sims, Kenny King and David Overstreet, along with Thomas Lott, who really is a running back masquerading as a quarterback—it seemed as though they would sweep Nebraska dizzy. Even Lance Van Zandt, the Huskers' defensive coordinator, feared such a possibility. He fretted that Nebraska's secondary was simply not big enough or fast enough to plug any leaks in the Husker line, and that it would spend the afternoon being trampled or outrun by the spectacular Sooner backs. How did Van Zandt figure to stop Oklahoma? "Maybe if we had 12 guys on the field, that would do it." As it turned out, 11 was sufficient. The disciplined Husker defense, led by Linebacker Bruce Dunning's 19 tackles, outmuscled Oklahoma at the line of scrimmage, held the Sooners to reasonable yardage and generated that blizzard of fumbles.
Despite Oklahoma's 9-0 record, its defense seemed vulnerable up the middle. Certainly, it proved to be vulnerable up the middle to the Nebraska backs—especially slashing Rick Berns, who gained 113 yards on 25 carries. Rex Norris, the Sooners' defensive coordinator, lamented, "Every time you look up, he's running over you." But while neither side would admit it, both figured their defenses only had to keep the game close until their meteorlike offenses got a chance to light up the scorebard. Why not? Nebraska was first in the country in total offense, (515.2 yards per game) and scoring (41.3 points) and Oklahoma was second in the same categories, 483.1 yards and 40.4 points. While the Oklahoma backs had the glossier reputations, Osborne wasn't conceding much. "We have the best group of backs that we've had in 16 or 17 years," he said before the game, "but maybe only one that Oklahoma would have recruited." That's Berns. Most notable among the other Husker runners is I. M. Hipp, a onetime walk-on who as of last week was the second-leading rusher in the conference—and frequently second team at Nebraska because of a tendency to fumble that he has developed this year.
As the pregame hype grew more frenetic, it was increasingly apparent that Oklahoma had the psychological edge. The consensus was that Oklahoma wins each year just because it's Oklahoma. Osborne understandably sees it differently. "Oklahoma wins because it has better players," he said. "But the obsession with Oklahoma is getting to me. It's getting pretty hard around here for fans to appreciate a good year without beating Oklahoma."
It was fitting that two of the nation's leading coaches—Osborne with his 55-14-2 record and Switzer at 60-6-2—fretted about problems that turned out to be the very factors that would determine the game. And their darkest thoughts always came as they sat brooding over films in dark rooms. Gloomed Osborne, "They do a pretty good job of throwing everything at you but the kitchen sink until you finally screw up." Gloomed Switzer, "I'm damn worried about turning over the football. Look at that. They're as big as us."
In the Oklahoma dressing room before the game, each of the players was getting his ankles taped, as usual, with 20 yards of adhesive, which costs about $2.50. Sims, as usual, was also getting most of his body taped, which costs about $14. It's considered a good investment. Trainer Ken Rawlinson insists there's nothing wrong with Sims "but he just likes it." Sims, however, says he has to block so much in the Wishbone that he needs the extra shoulder protection, in particular.
Nearby, Switzer was spitting tobacco juice into a soft-drink can—an old Indian trick, he insisted. "Funny how a big game like this builds tension and affects so many people," he said. Then, reaffirming his own observation, he began to pace and holler. "They have no respect for our defense," he shouted. "None. They're going to run right at you. There will be 80 million people watching. That's 160 million eyeballs, give or take a few. Poise, keep our poise, no mistakes." Assistant Head Coach Don Duncan added, "Just remember who we are."
At first the Sooners did. Sims broke loose on a twisting, turning touchdown run of 44 yards with 8:09 to go in the first quarter. Then, still in the first period, Berns fumbled—the only blot on a brilliant day for the senior from Wichita Falls, Texas—and the Sooners had the ball on the Nebraska 13. But Lott fumbled on the Husker eight three plays later—the first of four charged to him—and Nebraska recovered.
Early in the second quarter, after a 26-yard Husker punt, Lott again fumbled, losing the ball this time on the Nebraska 38, and Quarterback Tom Sorley guided the Cornhuskers back up the field. Sorley admits he's not a great quarterback but says, "I know what to do and when to do it." This march, with a 20-mph wind at his back, was a perfect example. The key plays were a drive-sustaining third-down play-action pass over the middle to 6'4" Tight End Junior Miller, and a 17-yard pass to Berns at the Oklahoma 10. Moments later, Berns crashed five yards for the score. "They were giving us the middle," said Berns. "All we had to do was take it. There was no reason we couldn't win but there was no reason why they couldn't win either."
Lucky to be tied-7-7 at the half after a field-goal attempt from the four by Nebraska's Billy Todd hit an upright—there were six seconds left in the second, quarter—Switzer tried to pep up his sagging charges. "They assault us and they gain," he said. "We assault them and we gain. I'm not concerned." He looked concerned.
With good reason. Switzer's team hustled out on the field only to resume its demonstration of advanced fumbling. This time it was Overstreet's turn; he dropped the ball at midfield and Sorley again marched the Huskers to a score, with Hipp running three straight times at the end of the drive and getting the touchdown. The extra point was good and Nebraska led 14-7. It was the first 'time in nine games this year that the Sooners had been behind.
There was a suspicion, however, that Oklahoma might just be a little slow getting going again in the 35° cold. And that seemed to be the case when Pillen pounced on still another Lott fumble at the Nebraska 35. But Nebraska was offsides, and the Sooners got the ball back. On the next play, Sims followed King and Overstreet through a hole inside right tackle—the same play he had scored on in the first quarter—and was off on a 30-yard touchdown gallop. Again the score was tied.
At the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth, Nebraska used 12 plays trying to score a touchdown—once getting as far as a first down on the Sooner 13—but had to settle for a 24-yard Todd field goal. That made it 17-14 and that was the difference.
The ensuing kickoff runback was a nightmare for the officials and the riled-up Husker fans. It was the dreadful kind of play that, had Nebraska lost, everyone would have looked at films of and cursed for years. They would have been justified. The kick went to Oklahoma's Kelly Phelps, who was tackled hard by Nebraska's John Ruud. Phelps fumbled and Nebraska recovered on the Oklahoma 11. Except it was wrongly ruled no fumble, Oklahoma's ball. After protesting to no avail, Osborne immediately gathered his dismayed players and told them, "They aren't going to take this game away from us. Now go out there and get that ball and we'll cram it down their throats." Thereupon ensued the two Sims fumbles which, to the biased rooters in the stands, only evened up matters.
Afterwards, Osborne was his usual perfunctory, low-key self. He answered a few questions at a mass press conference, then slipped away, in almost unseemly haste, to his private dressing room. When a visitor apologized for keeping him from the mobs of well-wishers outside, he said, "Naw, I just enjoy the players and the game of football. I'm not overly fond of the public relations and hoopla." And he reflected on what the win meant to him. "I know of the grumbling that I can't win the big one and I can't beat Oklahoma," he said. "But football players win games. Regardless, I knew I'd better beat them pretty soon. And I also know that a bad year around here is 7-4, and if that happened, there would be a lot of sentiment to get rid of me. But I'm not petrified about losing my job and I'm not unemployable."
The scholarly Osborne (he has a doctorate in educational psychology) started at Nebraska as an unpaid graduate assistant to Bob Devaney in 1962. It was Devaney, now athletic director and legend, who made Nebraska football great. And Osborne, demonstrating education was not wasted on him, was reluctant to be the first to follow Devaney as coach. But in 1969, after Nebraska had struggled by Kansas State 10-7, the two men were on the team bus returning to Lincoln when Devaney blurted, "Would you be interested in taking over when I quit?" "I probably would," said Osborne. In 1973 he did, and he has survived. This week he's surviving better.
As the shouting continued outside, Osborne was musing. "I guess some people kind of think of me as a stick in the mud," he said. Then he was off to have a cup of coffee—right, a cup of coffee. His practice-session intruder would have been more confused than ever.