By the time that old bugaboo, the fumble, caught up with Oklahoma's racehorse offense, it was far too late to help the undergunned and overwhelmed Nebraska Cornhuskers in this unusual rematch of the Big Eight co-champions. When Thomas Lott, the Sooner quarterback, was separated from the ball—Oklahoma's first fumble of the night—and it was recovered by Nebraska's Dave Clark at the Sooner 42, less than nine minutes remained in the game. And Oklahoma, after a 17-point third-quarter burst behind the running of Lott and Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims, held a comfortable 31-17 lead.
In Nebraska's 17-14 victory over the then No. 1-ranked Sooners last Nov. 11 in Lincoln, Oklahoma had fumbled the ball away six times. "We're looking for a little payback," Sims said. "I'm going to run like a crazy man. At least that's what it's going to look like. We're going to throw everything at them."
And that is just what the fourth-ranked Sooners did in their 31-24 victory. Spotting Nebraska an opening-drive touchdown on a 21-yard pass from Tom Sorley to Split End Tim Smith, the Sooners went nowhere the first time they had the ball, but then they went pretty much anywhere they wanted. At times, it seemed they would run clear back to Collins Ave. With Sims running for 45 yards, including the last three, in a 69-yard scoring drive, Oklahoma tied the game at 7-7 late in the first quarter. Subsequently, Lott, who claims he would be much happier as a running back, almost single-handedly provided the Sooners a lead they never gave up.
In that first game against Nebraska, Lott had thrown but two passes and completed neither. But midway in the second period in Miami he hit Split End Steve Rhodes with a 38-yard toss that put Oklahoma on the Nebraska three. A moment later Lott faked a handoff to half the state of Oklahoma, which had the Nebraska defenders spinning in search of the ball, and ambled nine easy feet for a touchdown.
January 8, 1979
The third quarter was all Sims and Lott, except for an exchange of field goals between Oklahoma's Uwe von Schamann and Nebraska's Billy Todd. Sims, who was to carry 25 times for 134 yards, got his second touchdown on an 11-yard burst. Then Lott, who ran 14 times for 74 yards, put Oklahoma ahead 31-10 on a two-yard keeper with 15 seconds left in the third quarter.
Deciding that they would have to do some scoring without benefit of Oklahoma fumbles, the Cornhuskers brought the score closer to respectability with 9:12 remaining, when workhorse I-Back Rick Berns completed a 78-yard drive with a one-yard plunge.
After Lott coughed up the ball on the Sooner 42 with 8:06 to play, the Huskers drove to the seven where Oklahoma rose up and stopped them. But the Nebraska defense held Oklahoma deep in its territory, forced a punt and the Huskers had one more chance, starting from their own 42. Sorley's pitching plus an interference call against Oklahoma put Nebraska on the two with three seconds left. Sorley lofted the ball to Junior Miller deep in the end zone as the gun sounded. But Oklahoma still had its "payback," and yet another claim went in for the suddenly vacant No. 1 spot.
"We are the best offensive team in the nation," Oklahoma's Coach Barry Switzer said. "And I would say Alabama is the best defensive team in the country. I do not know who deserves to be ranked No. 1, but we are as good as anybody." Especially when the Sooners manage to hang on to the football.