Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer was at ease at home last Friday night, drinking a beer and gazing up at a Tiffany-style lamp inscribed "OU Sooners." Assessing his team's chances for the next day's game against undefeated Nebraska, he said, "We haven't played close to our offensive potential, and our defense clearly isn't as strong. We just don't have as many good players, and we're more likely to make mistakes than they are. Last year I thought we were the best team. This year Nebraska is."
So why was this man chuckling? "Because it reminds me of 1976, when Nebraska had a better team," Switzer said. "Everybody knew it. Just before the game one of our players, Scotty Hill, gave a prayer and ended it by saying, 'And Dear Lord, please don't let the best team win.' " Hill's prayer was answered that afternoon as the Sooners triumphed 20-17. "I'm praying," said Switzer, "for another miracle."
Sure enough, the miracle arrived the next day in the form of a lights-out performance by Sooner Running Back Billy Sims, who has had trouble this year living up to expectations after winning the Heisman in 1978 as a junior. Junior Quarterback Julius Caesar Watts, who also had a big day, chortled and said, "He was the old Billy Sims today, only better." True. He crashed for 247 yards in 28 carries against the hallowed Husker defense, which had been leading the nation by giving up only 67.2 rushing yards a game; Sims got 113 in the first quarter. Which left Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne muttering, "I didn't think he could gain that many on us." Said Sims, "This is the first game all season I've really been pumped up for." When the scoreboard lights stopped blinking and the fan hysteria was put away for another year, Nebraska had been whipped 17-14 by an Oklahoma team that heretofore had been prone to make clunking sounds on Saturday afternoons.
Understand that even when Oklahoma (10-1) is not so good, it's still terrific. It's just that Switzer's mood goes sour when talk turns to fumbles (the Sooners fumbled 53 times this year and lost 36, a school record). But the machine purred on Saturday before a crowd of 71,187 in Norman, and so Oklahoma heads for the Orange Bowl and an encounter with undefeated Florida State. Nebraska goes to the Cotton Bowl for a far sterner test, against Arkansas or Houston. When Oklahoma Cornerback Mike Babb intercepted a Nebraska pass with 1:56 to play to squeeze the last bit of air from the Huskers, Sooner Assistant Coach Bobby Proctor jammed an orange into Babb's mouth. Seeing Proctor afterward, Babb shouted, "That sure tasted better than a cotton ball."
December 3, 1979
For Nebraska, however, the taste was especially bitter. This was the fourth time since 1964 that the Huskers had gone to Norman undefeated and returned to Lincoln defeated. The loss also meant that Oklahoma won the Big Eight title again, the seventh time in Switzer's seven years that his team has won or tied for the championship. Still, there was an element of equity, for in 1978 Nebraska beat Oklahoma to destroy the Sooners' national-championship hopes; this year the situation was reversed.
And the main reason for the Huskers' downfall was Sims. "I asked myself the other night how Sims could not get the Heisman again," Switzer said. "And I know the answer. It's because people have made him out to be more than he is. They expect him to rush for 200 yards every game, forgetting that 100 yards is a great, great day for anyone. Also, he makes it look too easy. A great play for him is just another ho-hum. There will never be another player like him at Oklahoma."
How does Billy describe his running style?
"I'm not sure."
"Yeah, that's it."
It certainly was on Saturday. Sims had sidled over to Switzer at Thursday's practice and promised, "Coach, I'll get this one." He set about backing up those words midway through the first quarter when, on a 23-belly play off right tackle, he glided 68 yards for a touchdown. But Split End Freddie Nixon was called for clipping—an attempted block Sims didn't even remotely need—and the run was reduced to 53 yards, the TD disallowed. Said Sims, "The hole was there. I hit it pretty quick, juked a guy and there I was—until disaster hit. I knew it was too good to be true." Worse, the Sooners were unable to crank up again and get any points on the board during that possession. But the vision of that run was proof anew that Assistant Coach Bill Shimek knew what he was doing back in 1975, when he spent 77 nights in a Texarkana motel just to be close to Sims' home in Hooks, Texas and to get Billy to Norman.
With 11:33 to go in the half, Oklahoma finally got a 31-yard field goal by Michael Keeling and went ahead 3-0. But the Huskers came right back. Quarterback Jeff Quinn raced 24 yards up the middle to the Sooner 11, and then, on the next play, threw a scoring pass to Jarvis Redwine, who was all alone in the right flat. Nebraska led at halftime 7-3.
As the intermission ended, the Sooners ran out of the dressing room, each one slapping an overhead sign: PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY. Which they then did. With 10:35 left in the third period, Watts threw a 58-yard scoring pass to Tight End Forrest Valora. Said Valora, "I just smiled past the safety." That put Oklahoma in front for good.
Nebraska probably lost the game on discouraging back-to-back plays in the third quarter. After driving to the Sooner 18, the Huskers were stopped and kicker Dean Sukup was summoned to try a 35-yard field goal into a swirling wind; he missed to the right. On the next play Sims fumbled and Monster Mark LeRoy recovered on the Oklahoma 25. Again Nebraska could generate nothing.
All the while Sims was driving the Huskers crazy. It was fitting that early in the fourth quarter he made the game's decisive play—a 71-yard run off left tackle to the Nebraska 8. Again, he was the consummate football player who was born to run—even now, with a bruised and slightly gimpy right knee—doing what he was fated for. Said Watts, "When Sims gets into the secondary, it's a nightmare for them." Four plays later, running the option the way it looks on a chalkboard, Watts turned it up the middle for three yards and, as it so happened, the winning touchdown. "Any time you score points and throw a TD pass," said J.C., "you can go to the mirror and say, 'Look at me. I contributed.' "
Nebraska scored a little more than three minutes later on a gimmick play. Quinn took the snap from the center, then gently dropped the ball on purpose. That allowed Right Guard Randy Schleusener, who pulled, to come around, scoop up the "fumble" and go 15 yards for a touchdown. But Nebraska's hopes were shattered for good by the Babb interception, and when the game ended Sims went hollering into the locker room, "Which way to the beach?"
The frustration for Nebraska was enormous. The Huskers always seem to come into this game thinking they will win, while Oklahoma shows up certain it will. Defeat hurts all the more because the conservative Huskers—in the mold of Coach Tom Osborne—view the Sooners as a loosey-goosey, undisciplined group of ruffians. Says Switzer, "Being loose is not lack of discipline. It's being free to express themselves as individuals." No Sooner embraces that freedom more strongly than the coach himself.
Example: all year his offensive guards and tackles had been guilty of jumping offside. Abruptly last week Switzer called the linemen together, pulled a .38-caliber snub-nosed pistol from his pocket and proclaimed, "You guys have jumped offside for the last time." The players seemed to get the point. Joked Switzer later, "What they didn't know is it was loaded."
Meanwhile, the time is nearing when Billy Sims is going to help load up some pro team, assuming he can whip his tendency to fumble, and that doesn't bother him all that much. "I fumbled in every game in high school," he says cheerfully.
So is he a star?
"Naw, I'm just Billy Sims." Which is, of course, the same thing.