There were only 46 seconds remaining to be played when the Oklahoma offense came onto the field in what had been a thrilling football game at Lincoln, Neb. last Friday. While 76,398 sometimes unruly fans at Memorial Stadium held their collective breaths, Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne, whose Corn-huskers were clinging to a 28-24 lead, stood nervously on the sidelines fearing he was about to relive a bad dream. "Oh, please, no," he thought. "Not again...."
Osborne's morbid reflections had two sources. One was Oklahoma's history of pulling out victories over Nebraska in the final moments: Oklahoma had won eight of the 10 games between the two teams, including a 31-24 victory in the 1979 Orange Bowl, since Osborne and Barry Switzer became rival head coaches in 1973. The other was more immediate: the 27-24 loss to Penn State on Sept. 25 that, it turned out, ruined Nebraska's chances for a perfect season. On that day, as on this one, Nebraska seemed to have the game put away, 24-21, when Penn State took over in the final 1:18 and drove the length of the field for a touchdown. With that, Nebraska's hopes of winning the national championship all but flew out the window. If Oklahoma scored now, the Big Eight championship and a berth in the Orange Bowl would take wing, too.
But Penn State was the irretrievable past and the Orange Bowl was the attainable future. Oklahoma was now. The Huskers and Sooners each had a prodigious offense, which suggested that in the end it would be defense that would win this one. Going into the game Nebraska held a 9-1 record and led the nation in total offense (523.9 yards per game) and rushing offense (395.5). Oklahoma, with an 8-2 record, was No. 2 in rushing offense (344). "People who have played us both give an edge to our offense and to the Sooners' defense," said Osborne before the game. But both attacks would be at less than 100%. Nebraska's Mike Rozier, a tailback who had rushed for 1,482 yards this season, had been limping around on a twisted right ankle all week; Oklahoma's sensational freshman tailback, Marcus Dupree, had spent several days in the hospital with a nagging cold.
Still, it was Rozier (pronounced ro-ZEER) and his fellow New Jerseyan, Irving Fryar, who got the Cornhuskers rolling to a 21-10 first-half lead, moving the football behind an offensive line centered by 292-pound All-America Dave Rimington. Rozier went slashing left and right off Rimington's haunches and looping wide on options for 96 yards in the first two quarters. But after two carries in the second half, Rozier had had it; he spent the rest of the game watching, and hoping, and freezing on the sidelines along with Osborne. "The cold [31° at game time] hurt worse than the ankle," Rozier said later.
His running—"It wasn't too hard with Rimington and our offensive line blocking for me, even with my bad ankle," he said—went a long way toward setting up the first Nebraska touchdown, which the Huskers' wizard of an option quarterback, Turner Gill, scored from 14 yards out on fourth-and-one before Oklahoma ran a play. The Sooners' Scott Case had initiated the Nebraska drive by fumbling away a punt on his own 44.
Gill, a junior from Fort Worth whose abilities as a shortstop made him the White Sox' second-round draft choice in 1980, was so coveted by Oklahoma that Switzer promised to tailor the Sooner offense around him. "Turner Gill would just have been a tremendous quarterback for our kind of game," says Switzer. "He does everything so well."
But so does the Sooners' Dupree, who was averaging 7.3 yards per carry and had made such an impact—he'd made one run of at least 63 yards in five of the six previous games—that Switzer had seen fit to declare the 6'3", 233-pound freshman better than Billy Sims, Oklahoma's '78 Heisman Trophy winner. Switzer also pronounced that "Marcus Dupree came in here with E.T. He's from another world." Which may be true, depending on what one thinks of Philadelphia, Miss.
"Gee," said Nebraska Defensive End Tony Felici, "I've never played anybody from outer space before. I wonder how it feels to tackle somebody like that?"
It couldn't have felt very good, that's for certain. When Oklahoma finally did get the football, Dupree carried on eight of the Sooners' first 12 plays, running around defenders, through defenders, and carrying them on his back. He'd picked up 31 of Oklahoma's 62 yards on the Sooners' first touchdown drive, including the final two to tie the game. That proved just a teaser for what was to come.
Oklahoma gained a 10-7 lead, with a second-quarter field goal. And, worse for Nebraska, Rozier was now hobbling and his replacement, Roger Craig, was bobbling, so the Huskers had to look elsewhere for their offense. Although Nebraska has a reputation for having had an unimaginative, albeit powerful, attack over the years, Osborne also has been noted for his bag of trick plays that he has used in big games. In 1976 the Bummeroosky, a play named after then Houston Oiler Coach Bum Phillips, in which a short snap in punt formation set up a running play, helped the Cornhuskers score against Missouri; in the 1979 Oklahoma game, the Fumbleroosky, which involved an intentional "fumble" that was designed to get the Sooners to chase the Husker quarterback in one direction while a Nebraska guard picked up the football and took off with it in another direction, resulted in a touchdown. This time Osborne reached in his bag and pulled out the Bounceroosky. On first-and-10 from his own 49, Gill threw what looked like a bounce pass into the artificial turf halfway between himself and Fryar, the wingback, who had swung wide, almost to the left sideline. A bounce pass is exactly what it was—Gill is a pretty good basketball player, too—as became obvious when Fryar fielded the ball like a shortstop taking a charity hop and hurled it downfield to Tight End Mitch Krenk for a 37-yard completion. That set up Fullback Doug Wilkening's two-yard touchdown plunge, and that made the score 14-10 late in the second quarter.
Osborne had installed the Bounceroosky—otherwise known as Pro Left 91 Bounce Pass Left—only 13 days earlier. And when, he sent the call for it in from the bench, Fryar thought to himself, "Uh, oh." Fryar had several large responsibilities. He had to be sure he was behind Gill so that the pass would be a lateral. He had to be sure to field it cleanly because it would be a live ball. Then he was supposed to act as though he had thrown an incomplete pass so the defense would relax. "The big thing was for Irving to look disgusted, to make it look like a bad pass," said Krenk, who, along with his teammates, had enjoyed practicing the trick play. "It gave us something to look forward to."
"We worked on it so much, I figured we'd try it," said Osborne. "We probably threw it 20 times in practice and I think it worked on 19 of them."
Fryar starred on Nebraska's next series as well, with a clutch third-down pass reception, followed by a nine-yard run on a wingback reverse, which led to another touchdown run by Wilkening. Fryar came to Nebraska from Rancocas Valley H.S. in Mount Holly, N.J., best known as the home of the Harris brothers of Penn State fame. Fryar came in a package with Rozier, who hails from nearby Camden, via Coffeeville (Kans.) J.C. "Mike and I decided to go together," says Fryar. "Everybody from our area wanted to go to Penn State. Not us. We just wanted to be different. Nebraska is about as different as you can get from New Jersey."
And so it was 21-10 Cornhuskers when Oklahoma took the second-half kickoff. "We felt that if we held them, then scored right away, we'd break down their confidence a little bit," said Nebraska Linebacker Steve Damkroger. It looked as though that was happening when, on first down, Nebraska Corner-back Allen Lyday plastered Dupree, who was trying to sweep left end, for a one-yard loss. On third-and-11, Oklahoma Quarterback Kelly Phelps dropped back to pass. Nebraska's defense, fired up now, was blitzing. The linebackers were crashing and the ends were looping, guarding against a screen.
But Oklahoma had made a perfect call against such tactics. The left side of the offensive line pinned the blitzing defenders to the inside. Phelps brought the ball to his hip and handed it on a draw to Dupree, who flew through a giant hole at left tackle. Once past the line of scrimmage, Dupree cut toward the left sideline and ran away from everybody else, for 86 yards and the touchdown that made it 21-17. The TD was both a triumph for the Sooners and an embarrassment for Osborne, who had made a rare attempt at calling the defensive alignment. "I don't stick my nose in the defense too much," he said later. "But I told them we ought to blitz on that play. I don't think I do very well as a defensive coach."
Nebraska, however, came right back with an 80-yard touchdown drive, kept alive by an 11-yard Gill scramble on third-and-14 and a 15-yard penalty against Oklahoma for a late hit. Craig, going it alone with Rozier out, slanted over left end from the three for the score. It was 28-17 one moment, and, after a quick Sooner touchdown drive, 28-24 the next.
Both defenses stiffened in the fourth quarter, and there was still no telling how the game would end. "I was sure it would come down to whoever had the ball last," said Rimington. Oklahoma looked as if it might use up most of the final five minutes as it marched steadily from its own 34 to the Cornhusker 35. Had Oklahoma gone for, and made, a two-point conversion on its last touchdown, a field goal would have been enough for a tie. But a tie would have hardly been satisfying to Switzer—or to the folks back in Norman, for that matter. Then suddenly, with 2:56 to go and the Sooners facing a second and six, Switzer eschewed the time-consuming running game—Dupree had managed to rack up 149 yards, but was tired and on the bench much of the last quarter—and called three straight passes, none of which was anywhere close to the mark. Phelps, a 37.5% passer coming into the game, had completed four of six in the first half, but he connected on only two of 13 in the second against a more determined Nebraska. "Our defense really saved our bacon," said Osborne. Even Phelps didn't understand why he was ordered to throw. "I don't want to say it was a bad idea or anything," he said later. "Myself and a few other offensive players thought we should have run the ball right then."
Oklahoma got its last chance after Nebraska failed to make a first down, taking possession at its own 28 with only 46 seconds and no time-outs left. Still, Osborne couldn't purge the memory of the Penn State game or all those other Oklahoma scuttlings from his mind. Happily for the Huskers, Phelps is no Todd Blackledge. He threw two more sorry incompletions. Then he floated a screen pass toward Fred Sims, but Scott Strasburger, a rarely used defensive end from Holdrege, Neb. who turned down a scholarship to Dartmouth to be a walk-on at Nebraska, read the play, stepped in and intercepted the ball. "We worked on that play all week," said Strasburger. "It's one where they let the defensive linemen go in. I saw the fullback coming and I knew right away what it was. I just wanted to grab the ball. I didn't know whether to fall down or run. I kept running." He was tackled one yard short of the Oklahoma end zone by Phelps.
Instantly the Red Hordes—thousands of victory-crazed Nebraska fans—swarmed the field. The partisan crowd, which had distinguished itself throughout the game by throwing oranges on the field—one university policeman was knocked out and sent to the hospital—tried to mug Strasburger for the ball, but he held on to it with all his strength. The mob cost the Cornhuskers a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. "In 25 years in the Big Eight," said referee Vance Carlson, "I never called an unsportsmanlike conduct with 24 seconds left." When the field was cleared, decency demanded Nebraska run out the clock and take the four-point victory rather than go for another touchdown.
Later, with his trophy safe, Strasburger said, "Now that I think about it, it's probably best that I didn't score. If I had, the final score wouldn't have reflected the true competitiveness of the game. I've got the ball and I'm taking it home. That's all I care about."