DUST BOWL NEBRASKA KILLED OKLAHOMA AND BURIED, AT LEAST FOR A WHILE, WHAT HAD BEEN ONE OF THE FIERCEST RIVALRIES IN AMERICAN SPORTS

November 10, 1997

The day was special no more. Last Saturday morning the Nebraska
football fan awoke to the sound of his Nebraska alarm clock
($11.95 at the Nebraska Bookstore), slipped out from under his
Nebraska comforter ($79.95, queen sized), brushed his teeth with
his Nebraska toothbrush ($4.95), wiped his face with a towel
from his Nebraska towel set ($19.95), maybe remembered to put
down the Nebraska toilet seat ($39.95 by mail order) after
flushing, assembled his Nebraska red wardrobe (prices vary),
checked his Nebraska Swiss Army watch ($135) and...and nothing.

No butterflies appeared. No sense of excitement touched his
every thought, his every small action. Nothing. It was as if
Christmas had been discontinued--or simply forgotten. Oklahoma
was in town, and it didn't matter. Oklahoma stank.

"It's a shame," Steve Paus (Nebraska, class of '71), a car
dealer from West Point, Neb., said as the No. 1-ranked
Cornhuskers began a 69-7 pounding of the Sooners in Lincoln.
"You think of all the heartbreakers against this team, of the
games against Billy Sims and Keith Jackson. You'd watch, and
your heart would be in your throat the entire afternoon. It's
not like that anymore."

What else was there to say? There had been a time, a long time,
when these were two grand football machines plowing into each
other as a national audience held its breath, No. 1 against No.
2. The headline on the cover of this magazine on Nov. 22, 1971,
read IRRESISTIBLE OKLAHOMA MEETS IMMOVABLE NEBRASKA before the
matchup that is still called the Game of the Century. Now
Nebraska is both irresistible and immovable. Oklahoma is
neither. Not close.

Over the last decade, while the Huskers have continued to win
with production-line efficiency and earned back-to-back national
championships in 1994 and '95, the Sooners have fallen apart.
Since '89, when the NCAA imposed sanctions on Oklahoma for
recruiting violations, the school of the Selmon brothers and
Touchdown Tommy McDonald and Julius Caesar Watts and Steve Owens
has dropped out of the national football consciousness. Three
coaches in the past four years have tried to bring the Sooners
back. None has succeeded.

"I remember when we were the team coming up, and Oklahoma was
the powerhouse," Ric Jensen, a quality manager for U S WEST Dex
phone books in Omaha, said after the game. "We were right on the
cusp for a number of years and just couldn't beat them. There
was an exhilaration about those games, an excitement when we
finally won. I miss that. I also miss the weather. Remember how
those games always were part of Thanksgiving weekend? You'd come
out and freeze, and it would be wonderful. Oklahoma, in the
cold. It was tradition."

The game last Saturday was mostly familiar uniforms and old
memories, more ritual than rivalry. The eye could look down at
the visitors in crimson-and-cream and conjure the Huskers'
Johnny Rodgers running through those colors on the 72-yard punt
return that won the Game of the Century 35-31 and brought
Nebraska the national title. Or was that Jim Pillen recovering
Sims's fumble on the three-yard line to help upset the No.
1-ranked Sooners in 1978? Or was it Elvis Peacock, breaking
Huskers hearts on that hook-and-ladder special in '76? Or Buster
Rhymes breaking more Nebraska hearts in '80? Or Jamelle Holieway
passing 41 yards to Jackson to set up the field goal that beat
the Big Red in '86?

The eye could trick the mind. Until the game began. "I come into
this locker room, and I have good memories," second-year Sooners
coach John Blake, an Oklahoma noseguard from 1979 to '82, said
after the game. "That's what I was thinking today. I remember
celebrating in this locker room after beating these guys in '80.
I remember how happy we all were. This same place."

Even the possibility of celebrating was out of the question this
time. Oklahoma had lost six in a row to the Huskers and last
year was blown out 73-21 in Norman. Going into Saturday's game,
the Sooners were 3-5, hadn't won on the road in more than a year
and, to make a dim situation dimmer, were missing their top
three running backs, all injured. Blake also was alternating
three quarterbacks, two of them sophomores. There were reasons
the Sooners were 37-point underdogs.

"Oklahoma has some great athletes, and they play incredibly
hard, but I think they make a few too many mistakes," Nebraska
offensive tackle Eric Anderson said last week. "And sometimes
they don't play together. Sometimes they seem to have different
agendas down there."

This obviously would prove fatal. Any reader of On Solid Ground,
the book written by Nebraska coach Tom Osborne ($14.95,
hardcover, on sale), or any viewer of the videotape Reflections
on Perfection ($19.95), the highlights of the back-to-back Big
Red championship seasons, knows that mistakes and different
agendas are not assets on a visit to Lincoln. Last Saturday,
Osborne was looking for his 250th win in just 302 games, a pace
unmatched by any other NCAA football coach. His Huskers were
looking to give him that victory in a hurry.

How fast did they get the job done? Nebraska fans in the 219th
straight sellout crowd in Lincoln, another NCAA record, had to
hold on to their adjustable hats ($20.95). The Sooners fumbled
the ball away four of the first five times they had it, and the
one time they punted, Cornhuskers freshman Bobby Newcombe
returned the ball 57 yards. The Big Red scored five of the first
six times it had possession, 11 of 15 times on the day. With a
20-to-30-mph wind blowing into their faces in the first period,
the Huskers built a 20-0 lead. When they switched ends of the
field and had the wind at their backs, they needed just six
seconds to score after recovering a fumble, as quarterback Scott
Frost hit Newcombe with a 40-yard pass. By halftime Nebraska led
34-0, and it could have been worse.

The second half simply continued the pounding. Osborne could
have sat back in a Nebraska wingback chair ($399.95) and put up
his feet on the matching ottoman ($169.95) and just listened to
the engines hum.

These Huskers are perhaps the most athletically gifted edition
of a team that has been ranked in the Associated Press poll for
269 consecutive weeks, the past 81 in the Top 10. The defense,
ranked third in the nation and led by All-America rushing end
Grant Wistrom, simply shuts the other folks down. It hadn't
allowed a touchdown in three weeks until Oklahoma scored a
meaningless seven points against the second unit late in the
third quarter. The offense is a no-nonsense operation that leads
the nation in rushing. Frost has made converts of his erstwhile
doubters, All-America guard Aaron Taylor blows open holes, and
any number of people pound the ball forward.

Against Oklahoma the Huskers had 552 yards of total offense, 414
on the ground. Fullback Joel Makovicka scored three touchdowns,
and running back Correll Buckhalter scored two. The Sooners'
highlights? Well, center Taylor Wickersham started his 43rd
consecutive game. All three quarterbacks played, and all three
fumbled. "You go up against the top-rated team in the country,
you can't make any mistakes," Eric Moore, the third of the three
Oklahoma quarterbacks, said. "You see how they play. They play
mistake-free."

The largest cheer of the afternoon was for the answer to a
trivia question on the scoreboard late in the second half. The
question: What Nebraska native played for the Washington
Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers but became more famous for
coaching, 36 years at one school, the last 25 as head coach? As
Osborne's picture appeared on the screen, the ovation began.

He was honored at the conclusion of the game, too. Defensive
tackle Jason Peter presented him with the game ball as fireworks
exploded behind the north end of the stadium. Osborne said he
had felt oddly nervous about this milestone game: "For whatever
the reason, I felt a little bit more on edge. I guess maybe it's
kind of a trigger of so many times past when, even though you
knew they didn't have quite the same record or maybe it wasn't
quite the same magnitude of the game, they still had some really
good athletes. It's kind of sad not to play them for a couple of
years, but life goes on."

Oh, yes, this was also the end of a rivalry that stretched over
69 straight years. The expansion of the Big Eight to the Big 12
two years ago meant that conference teams no longer would play
each other every year. The next Nebraska-Oklahoma game will not
be until 2000. Saturday's was the biggest blowout in the series.

"It's funny," said Paus, the car dealer, who claims he hasn't
missed a down at Memorial Stadium since 1970. "You look at
what's happened to Oklahoma, going down like that, and you
wonder what can happen to you. We're rolling along on top now,
strong as ever, but nothing lasts forever. You look at the
programs around the country; they all hit hard times sooner or
later. When's our time?"

"Things change, time goes on," Hank Piitz, a farmer from
Brainard, Neb., said. "It all could be different by 2000. They
could have another Barry Switzer, another Bud Wilkinson. Who
knows?"

The series, for now, is in the Nebraska football record book
($10, tax included). But Oklahoma still has a 39-36-3 lead. Time
to lift a Nebraska freezer mug ($10.95) or a Big Red ceramic cup
($6.95) to a fallen but worthy foe. Time to think of a national
championship.

Time to go shopping.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Makovicka, who averaged 10 yards a carry on Saturday, blew through the Sooners for three touchdowns. [Joel Makovicka in game] COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER In 1971, Jeff Kinney scored four times to help put the Huskers over the top in the Game of the Century. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER On Saturday, Wistrom (98) forced Brandon Daniels to cough up one of Oklahoma's seven fumbles. [Grant Wistrom tackling Brandon Daniels]

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