Oklahoma quarterback Jamelle Holieway was searching for a teammate—any teammate—he had yet to hug when he spotted a beaming Sooner face about to disappear into a tunnel beneath Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. "Keith Jackson!" he yelled, more in tribute than in summons to the Oklahoma junior tight end. But the sound of that name cut high and deep into the still-crowded concrete stands, where it did nothing to stem the psychic bleeding of a dazed congregation of Big Red fans.
Nebraskans will long remember the swift and cruel crime of football passion that Jackson and Holieway perpetrated in Lincoln last Saturday in Oklahoma's 20-17 win. With less than two minutes remaining, underdog Nebraska was ahead 17-10. The Husker defense had controlled the nation's most potent ground game, and its offense had poked holes in the nation's No. 1 rushing defense. Then Sooner coach Barry Switzer ruminated on a wad of Levi Garrett, flipped through the playbook of his mind and decided, as he said later, "Ah, the hell with it. Let's just out ath-a-lete 'em."
At Oklahoma, that usually means get the ball into the immense hands of the balletic 6'3", 241-pound Jackson. On a drive that was given a second life by a face mask penalty called before a Holieway fumble, Jackson overpowered cornerback Brian Davis to snare a 17-yard Holieway pass in the end zone to tie the game at 17-17 with 1:22 left. A minute later, Jackson outfinessed defensive end Broderick Thomas on a twisting, one-handed, juggling catch along the sideline for a 41-yard gain. That spectacular grab set up Tim Lashar's 31-yard winning field goal.
"I guess it came down to the biggest, strongest and fastest person just playing his game," said Jackson who, with only 14 receptions all year, is still considered the most gifted tight end in the country. On a team that ranks last in the nation in passing offense, he feels like Secretariat strapped to a plow. "I block and I block and I block," says Jackson, "and we win and win and win. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't live for these moments."
"I don't think it was a comeback," said Sooner linebacker Brian Bosworth with a we-had-'em-all-along surety after the game. "It was just a matter of destiny."
Actually, Oklahoma could have been excused for being overconfident. The Sooners were 8½-point favorites, and Nebraska's stock had fallen when it lost 20-10 to Colorado, a team Oklahoma routed 28-0. Moreover, the Sooners had not given up a rushing touchdown all year, or points by any means in a first quarter. Their cumulative score in rolling through the "Little Six" of the Big Eight was 282-13. More than 43% of the plays run against their defense had gone for no gain or for negative yardage.
But Oklahoma players still bear scars from the convincing defeat they suffered at the hands of Vinny Testaverde and Miami on Sept. 27. "We really had to suck it up after Miami," said senior halfback Spencer Tillman before the Nebraska game. "It seemed like the season was over. It's still not the same. We're like an eight-cylinder car running on seven."
Switzer was concerned that his players would be less than hungry for Nebraska, because they faced the prospect of playing either Texas A & M or Arkansas in the Orange Bowl without a chance for the national championship. Even in the event of a loss to the Huskers, Oklahoma had a guaranteed spot in the Sugar Bowl. "You worry about kids thinking. Hey, it's more fun to go to New Orleans. We've been to the Orange Bowl," said Switzer.
For Nebraska, the year has been marked by a sense of disorientation. In the first preseason scrimmage, star I-back Doug DuBose went down for the year with a knee injury. A few weeks later the NCAA cited 60 Husker players for illegal use of complimentary tickets. No players lost any eligibility, but the self-consciously pious temple of football that is Nebraska was shaken.
So, while Nebraska was 9-1 and second only to Oklahoma in total defense and total offense, low-key coach Tom Osborne seemed even more subdued than usual before the game. "It would make a difficult year a lot better if we could beat them," he said. "Sometimes the people with the best players don't win. We're counting on that."
Not surprisingly, the largest portion of pregame energy was generated by Bosworth. The Boz had kept a relatively low profile while Oklahoma rolled over the Little Six, but he was front and center again last week. He let it be known that he is preparing for a December appearance on Late Night With David Letterman. He has just finished reading a copy of Jim McMahon's recent biography, in which McMahon wrote the inscription, "Don't worry about what people think. Just continue to kick ass." Another kindred spirit, Houston Astros pitcher Charlie Kerfeld, "just wanted to meet the Boz," and presented him with a roll of toilet paper inscribed GO BIG RED.
"The Best of the Boz" became a popular segment of a Lincoln newscast. One installment featured excerpts from a Bosworth interview in which he rhapsodized about pain: "I enjoy getting hurt...the deep bruises...the shoulder separations." When Bosworth marched into Memorial Stadium with the Sooners on Friday afternoon wearing aviator shades, young Husker fans drew around him. "What can you say?" said one teenager, grudgingly. "The guy's cool."
His opponents were not impressed. "Generally, people who have a lot to say about themselves don't think very much of themselves," said Nebraska linebacker Kevin Parsons.
Whatever, the Huskers were way up for Oklahoma, and they struck first. Led by sophomore quarterback Steve Taylor, who broke many of Marcus Allen's records at Lincoln High in San Diego, Nebraska drove 85 yards to score on Keith Jones's two-yard run in the first quarter. So much for Oklahoma's string of games without yielding a rushing touchdown or a first-quarter point.
The Sooners answered with Holieway, who led all runners with 94 yards on 25 carries, scoring on a four-yard dash. The key play was a 29-yard pass to Jackson, who finished with three receptions for 87 yards. But the Sooners found themselves trailing 10-7 at the half, and they lost some of their brashness when Taylor completed a 25-yard shot to Rod Smith to make the score 17-7 with four minutes gone in the third quarter. Said Cornhusker offensive right tackle Tom Welter, "They don't talk too much when they are getting beat." Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jim Donnan concurred. "There wasn't much to say," he said. "They played better defense against us than Miami did."
When the Sooners got the ball at their own six with 4:10 to play, they trailed 17-10. On fourth-and-one, Holieway optioned right, gained five yards and then fumbled the ball over to Nebraska. Ball game—except for that face mask call against Thomas. "We punished Jamelle, and then gave that ball back to them like a present," said a distraught Thomas.
It was the last opening Oklahoma would need. Its offensive line, which Switzer says is the best he has ever had, came to the fore. Then, with the Nebraska secondary up close to stop the run, Jackson beat Davis to the end zone. Switzer elected to kick a PAT rather than go for two. A tie would guarantee the Sooners both the conference championship and an Orange Bowl bid.
The Huskers failed to pick up a first down, so the Sooners took over at their own 35 with 50 seconds remaining. Four plays later Holieway found Jackson behind the outstretched Thomas, and the Sooners were on the 14 with nine seconds left. After Lashar's winning field goal, several stunned Cornhuskers crumpled to the artificial turf. Oklahoma was giddy. Bosworth, upon seeing Jackson crowded by the media, wailed in mock lament, "They don't need me anymore."
A man of as many words as the ABC-TV sportscaster of the same name, Jackson was ecstatic. He needled Switzer, saying he might transfer to a school with a pass-oriented team. "If you transfer, I'm going with you," said Switzer, who also pointed out that while Oklahoma may not throw much, its average gain per completion (19.9 yards) led the nation. "Don't worry about Keith," he said. "He'll catch plenty of balls in the pros."
Undoubtedly. But after the Orange Bowl, Jackson plans to rededicate himself to his other major interest—playing the cello. "I'm pretty good, but I gave it up these last two years," he said. "Maybe someday I'll give y'all a concert."
Thanks, Keith, but you already did.