Arivalry is something the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game hasn't been. The Sooners had won seven of the annual OU-OSU games in a row before last week, and they'd won 15 of the last 17. Since 1935, in fact, Oklahoma's record in the series 42-6-1. Rivalry no, annihilation yes. Which explains why there was never much at stake when the two teams played—except the degree of humiliation the Cowboys would suffer.
But, finally, in Norman last Saturday, things were different. Oklahoma State, 9-1, had its highest ranking ever—No. 2 in SI's Top 20—while Oklahoma, 8-1-1, was ranked No. 4. The game would determine which of the Oklahomas would be the Big Eight co-champion (with Nebraska), which would get a bid to the Orange Bowl (the Cowboys hadn't been to a major bowl since the 1946 Sugar) and, perhaps, which would be national champ. "I don't want to add this game to a stack of disappointments," Oklahoma State quarterback Rusty Hilger had said back home in Stillwater.
Indeed, for the first time in recent, distant or ancient memory, the Cowboys actually had a chance to win. And if they had, it wouldn't have been an upset.
They lost 24-14. But there were consolations. At least the score was more respectable than the 63-14 bruising the Sooners had hung on them in 1980. Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones faced this year's defeat candidly, saying, "Once the gun goes off, it's over with. We're not going to hangdog around." Then he happily accepted an invitation to the Gator Bowl, in which the Cowboys will meet South Carolina. "Whatever bowl we go to is a major bowl because we're in it," he said. Further, the proud Cowboys are obviously a new force to contend with in the college game.
But what's even more obvious is that the wheels are back on the Sooner wagons after an un-Oklahoma-like record of 23-12-1 over the last three years, and they're greased and running smoothly. "I'm happy for all of us," said Sooner coach Barry Switzer afterward. "I'm happy for me. I needed it, too."
Switzer had been haunted in 1984 not only by his record in recent years, but also by a dreadful series of events this season, lowlighted by a controversial and disappointing tie with Texas on Oct. 13, a 12-10 escape at Iowa State the next week and then a 28-11 loss to Kansas. Along the way, a rash of injuries and an automobile accident that put two defensive backs out for the season had bedeviled the Sooners. Also, backup quarterback Mike Clopton was declared ineligible for having too many colleges on his résumé.
But Oklahoma was able to weather the storm, partly through some big-time motivating from Switzer. Once he told the Sooners he needed to win so he could keep up on his child-support payments; they responded with a 17-7 victory over then No. 1-ranked Nebraska.
After beating Oklahoma State, Switzer said, "I don't think the Cowboys should have scored on us." He can be excused for such thinking. After all, Oklahoma State's rushing game accounted for a net of minus-four yards—minus-four—against a Sooner defense that had its ears back and its eyes red and crossed all afternoon. The heart of that unit is strongside linebacker Brian Bosworth, who routinely mouths off about the upcoming opponent—"OSU is living in a dream world. We're reality"—which would be a problem if he weren't so often accurate verbally and so often brilliant physically. Against the Cowboys, Bosworth made six unassisted tackles and helped on two more. In fact, the Sooners' linebacker play, by Bosworth and Paul Migliazzo, is vastly improved over 1983 and is probably the most important factor in Oklahoma's return from the dark side of the moon. After the game, Bosworth insisted, "I've never said anything I can't back up."
Offensively, the Sooners are infinitely more disciplined under new offensive coordinator Mack Brown than they were in the old days when they bounced the ball about as often as the Oklahoma basketball team does. The Sooners fumbled only twice against Oklahoma State and recovered both times. "You fill the stands with offense," says Brown, "but you win with defense and kicking."
This time the Sooners needed come-from-behind offense to win, and they got it. The turnaround came after the Cowboys' Hilger had opened the third period by fumbling the ball, recovering it on one bounce and then throwing it as far as he could to split end Malcolm Lewis, who juggled the ball for several steps before corralling it for a 77-yard touchdown. That put Oklahoma State ahead 14-7.
It was then that Oklahoma quarterback Danny Bradley calmly took his team 72 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown—surviving four third-down situations en route. In the past the Sooner offense hasn't been known for such patience. Left halfback Spencer Tillman took a pitch from the Cowboy three and ran it in unmolested for the tying touchdown. Moments later, Hilger lost a fumble, and the Sooners and Bradley came right back with another patient 35-yards-in-10-plays drive, winding up with a 27-yard field goal to take a 17-14 lead. In little more than five minutes Oklahoma had scored 10 points and for all practical purposes had won the game. Tillman, troubled by a hamstring pull all year, was his smooth, power-running self again, gaining 103 yards. "I seem to play well in big games," he said.
With this big game over, the joy was clearly back in Sooner football. Switzer was screaming "the beach, the beach" in anticipation of Oklahoma's trip to the Orange Bowl to meet Washington. And Brown was saying, "I hope this is a sign that Oklahoma is back." Indeed, all signs point that way, although Oklahoma State can be excused for not realizing that the Sooners were ever away.