November 23, 1974
Taking their conference rivalry to the next level in the Seventies, beginning with the '71 "Game of the Century", the Big Eight title was on the line as undefeated Oklahoma was on the road to play sixth-ranked Nebraska. It was the Sooners' first game against the Huskers as the #1 team in the country in 18 years, and it was not only a match up between the two best teams in the conference, but they were also two of the top three programs in the country in the decade of the Seventies.
In those five seasons, Nebraska had posted a record of 50-6-3 (an .873 winning percentage) and won back-to-back national titles in '70 and '71, while Oklahoma came in slightly better (.882) courtesy of a 48-6-1 record over the same span. The pair trailed only Michigan's unbelievable mark of .935 (50-3-1), but the Wolverines thorn in the side was Ohio State, sixth at 44-8-1 (.840) and slightly better than seventh place Alabama at 48-9-1 (.836). But rounding out the top five in the Seventies was Notre Dame, fourth at 44-7 (.862), and Penn State was fifth with a 48-8 mark (.857).
Under second-year head coach Barry Switzer, who had yet to lose a game and came in with a 19-0-1 record, the Sooners were simultaneously riding an 18-game winning streak and a 27-game unbeaten streak, but clouds surrounded their spot atop the Associated Press poll. They had begun the preseason as the #1 team in the country, but a 28-11 scare over unheralded Baylor in the opener, in which they held only a 7-5 lead into the final period, dropped them to third, and then three games later, after the first of two blowouts moved them back to #2, Oklahoma scored nine fourth quarter points to again survive a narrow 16-13 victory over Red River rival and then #17 Texas.
Then came the Big Eight schedule, in which the Sooners blew away three straight opponents by a collective 140-24 margin, or an average score of 47-8, improving to 7-0 on the season. Even though Oklahoma had been ranked second by the AP, they were not listed in the coach's UPI poll, which had implemented a new rule that banned any team on probation from consideration, the Sooners' sanctions arising from recruiting improprieties during a previous head coaching regime, under Chuck Fairbanks.
The debate led Sports Illustrated magazine to put the issue on their November 4th cover with "The Oklahoma Controversy: Two Polls and Two Opinions", and called the Sooners "the best team you'll never see". In the story, the magazine summed up the dispute by stating, "All of which introduces paradoxes wrapped inside rule books. Because of the stance taken by the NCAA, ABC and UPI and their various awards, rankings, TV shows and statistical lists, plus the fact that Oklahoma is barred from bowl games and network TV this season, the formula for the Sooners' exposure is: UPI can cover but never rank, ABC can mention but never show and the NCAA can list but never recognize."
Less than a week later, as host Oklahoma blanked a tough Missouri squad 37-0, a team that had already beaten Nebraska and had scored 82 points in their previous two games, the Sooners' third shut out of the season to run their record to a perfect 8-0, while winning by an average score of 45-6, stunning news came out of East Lansing. Undefeated and top-ranked Ohio State, who had steamrollered over eight previous opponents by an average score of 45-9 and went in having not given up double-digit points in their last six games and had scored no fewer than 42 points in each of their last five, sputtered to just 13 points against Michigan State, and a Spartans' punt return for a touchdown with just over three minutes to play gave them a stunning upset, 16-13.
Two days later, the Oklahoma debate was clearly front and center, as they collected 48 of a possible 62 first place votes, representing 77% of the November 11th AP poll, to ascend to the #1 ranking. Right behind the Sooners were #2 Alabama (9-0), outscoring their opponents by an average score of 30-7 and with ten first place votes, and #3 Michigan (also 9-0), outscoring opponents by an average of 29-7 and with the other four first place votes, and then came a pair of once-beaten teams, Ohio State and Notre Dame. Even though the controversy was sure to intensify over the final few weeks of the season, there was no doubt that the Sooners were a great football team.
Oklahoma (9-0), coming into the Nebraska game off a 45-14 win at Kansas, was leading the nation in scoring by averaging 44.6 points per game, just two points off the school's record set by the '56 national championship team, and one-tenth of a point ahead of the famous '71 offensive juggernaut. It was no secret what they were doing offensively with their vaunted wishbone, and in the previous nine games, they had run the football an astounding 670 times, or an average of 74.4 rushes per game, easily on pace to set an NCAA record. As such, the Sooners were also leading the nation on the ground, having amassed 4,029 yards, or an average of 447.7 yards per game, and were sporting a healthy six yards-per-carry while amassing 36 rushing touchdowns.
Junior quarterback Steve Davis efficiently ran the attack, while junior halfback Joe Washington had already gained 1,120 rushing yards and was the nation's leading all-purpose runner, and an outside candidate for the prestigious Heisman Trophy. Clearing the holes up front was a veteran line that had returned all but one starter from a year earlier, and there was a pair of horses who would probably garner some postseason mention, namely senior center Kyle Davis and senior guard John Roush.
Defensively, Oklahoma's suffocating unit also ranked high nationally and had permitted just 7.2 points per game. They had only permitted just six offensive touchdowns, and only once had allowed a team in the end zone more than once, that during their most recent win. They were also among the nation's leaders by permitting only about 225 total yards per game. Senior All-American Rod Shoate, a swift and punishing linebacker, led it, and he received significant help up front from the Selmon brothers, tackle Lee Roy and nose guard Dewey, and end Jimbo Elrod, all juniors. Fellow senior linebacker Gary Gibbs was also a standout, and heading up the Oklahoma secondary was senior strong safety Randy Hughes.
Nebraska (8-2) was under the direction of second-year coach Tom Osborne, who came in owning a 17-4-1 record. It was a good mark, but not the type that the faithful and spoiled followers in Lincoln had grown accustomed to, just three seasons removed from consecutive national titles. Ranked seventh in the '74 AP preseason poll, the early part of the Huskers' schedule was either feast or famine, for they had won three of their first five games by a combined score of 164-14, or an average of 55-5, but also fell victim to two unranked teams, Wisconsin, 21-20 in the second game, and Missouri, 21-10 in the fifth game, dropping the Huskers out of the top ten. But they rebounded with five straight conference victories and had climbed back up to sixth in the AP ranking, and nothing could be sweeter than a victory over their rivals, which carried with it a trip to the Orange Bowl in Miami.
The Nebraska offense was led by quarterback David Humm, a senior southpaw from Las Vegas, who was on the verge of claiming each of the school's three major career passing records. In his three years as a starter, he already owned the marks in yardage (4,851) and touchdowns (40), and was just ten completions short of overtaking Jerry Tagge in that category, his predecessor who had owned the other two marks as well. In addition, a few weeks earlier, Humm had set an NCAA record by completing 15 passes in a row against Kansas. However, there was one significant difference; in Tagge's three years as a starter against Oklahoma, he had never lost, while his younger successor had never won.
Humm was in command of a diverse unit that ranked among the top ten in the country in total yards per game, but not in either rushing or passing, and they were averaging 34.6 points per game. Leading the ground game was freshman fullback Monte Anthony, who had rushed for 572 yards and six touchdowns, while senior wingback Don Westbrook was the leading receiver with 31 catches for 493 yards and seven touchdowns. Helping provide the protection up front were junior center Rik Bonness and senior tackle Marvin Crenshaw. Meanwhile, junior middle guard John Lee, junior defensive end Tom Martin, leading tackler and senior linebacker Tom Ruud, and senior strong safety George Kyros led a defense that had permitted an average of 9.4 points per game and had posted two shutouts.
The two teams played before 76,636, the largest crowd ever to see a football game in Lincoln. The two teams fought through a scoreless opening period, and Oklahoma had a chance to take the lead on the first play of the second quarter, but junior soccer-style kicker Tony DiRienzo missed a 28-yard field goal attempt, and the game remained tied, 0-0.
A bit later, Oklahoma took over for their third possession on the Nebraska 47, and they needed six plays to move all the way down to the ten-yard line. From there, Davis optioned to the left and split a pair of defenders at the nine with a neat cut and headed for the corner of the end zone, eluding a diving Mark Heydorff at the three to cap the drive with 11:24 left in the opening period. DiRienzo added the extra point, and the Sooners were ahead, 7-0.
However, Nebraska fought right back beginning at its 20. Early in the drive, it was Humm who found tight end Brad Jenkins for a 21-yard gain out to the 44. They continued to march across midfield and into Oklahoma territory, and from the 38, Humm faked a jump pass to the short man to lull the defenders, Hughes and cornerback Sidney Brown, and then the lefty lobbed a scoring toss to sophomore split end Chuck Malito. Junior Mike Coyle added the extra point, and the score was back even, 7-7, with 7:48 left in the half. It remained that way into the locker rooms.
After intermission, Nebraska took the opening kickoff at its own 24 with big help from Westbrook's 42-yard reverse that moved the ball to the Oklahoma 31, the offense proceeded to advance 65 yards down the field in seven plays. With the ball sitting on the 11, Humm pitched to junior I-Back John O'Leary on a sweep, but what looked like an ordinary play to the right turned into razzle-dazzle, because O'Leary pulled up and passed the ball back to Humm, who was wide open in the left flat on the first time ever they had attempted the play, and it resulted in an easy touchdown and the lead. Coyle's extra point made it 14-7 at the 11:44 mark of the third period, and it sent the red-clad fans into frenzy.
On the ensuing kickoff, Oklahoma freshman halfback Elvis Peacock fumbled the ball away at its 15, and the momentum was clearly with Nebraska when they recovered. On first down, Humm passed to Westbrook, but safety Hughes made a great save to hold the gain to eight yards. Then Lee Roy Selmon crunched O'Leary, holding him to a gain of one, and bringing up a crucial third down-and-one at the six. Humm dropped back to pass on what was supposed to be a fullback flat pattern, but Westbrook blocked instead of running his pattern, and the designed and intended receiver, junior Tony Davis, got tangled up and fell, which left Humm with nobody to throw to, and Elrod's intense pressure forced an incompletion. As a result, a fourth-and-one occurred at the six, and Osborne decided to send in Coyle for a 23-yard field goal attempt. He missed it to the left, and it was a great opportunity gone by the wayside.
Oklahoma took over at its 20-yard line, and it was obvious that the new life had breathed fire into the offense. Behind their massive line that cleared away Nebraska defenders, Steve Davis guided the offense down the field, and included was his 17-yard scramble that moved the ball to the Husker 21. They kept moving all the way down to the three, and on the 14th play of the drive, Washington darted behind senior halfback Grant Burget's block and into the end zone. DiRienzo's kick tied the game at 14-14 with 4:57 showing in the third quarter.
At this point, the contest suddenly became a game of giveaways. Westbrook fumbled the ball to Oklahoma at the Huskers' 22, but Washington promptly gave it right back on the next play with a wobbly halfback pass that found Nebraska's Kyros. It didn't stop there.
Facing third down at his 21-yard line, Humm, under great pressure from Lee Roy, tossed errantly and Hughes intercepted the ball, giving the Sooners possession again. But three plays later and moving in for a possible score, junior fullback Jim Littrell fumbled it back at the Nebraska 12. It seemed more like the teams were trading field position.
A bit later, Humm was again under a heavy rush from Lee Roy, and this time he overthrew a screen pass intended for Tony Davis and Hughes had another pick the Oklahoma 43 in the waning minutes of the period. The Sooners' Steve Davis went to work and confused the Huskers with the counter-option, and he ripped off gains of 12, ten and nine yards, while Littrell added a 13-yard burst. With the ball sitting down at the one, Peacock atoned for his previous mistake by taking a pitch, racing for the flag and scoring the go-ahead touchdown. DiRienzo successfully converted, and Oklahoma had their second lead of the game, 21-14, with 13:21 remaining.
The Sooners' defense continued to perform well, and they got the ball back into the hands of the offense at its 39. A few plays later, Washington and his hand-painted silver shoes ripped off a 33-yard run where he left defensive back Jim Burrow, and earlier hero, nailed to the turf and faked out completely, as the ball moved to the Husker 20. Minutes later, Davis faked out Nebraska end Tom Pate and left him gasping for air as the quarterback went in from the three, culminating the team's third long second half scoring drive. After DiRienzo did his thing, running his string of consecutive extra points to 34, the Sooners had a commanding 28-14 lead with only 8:36 left in the game.
The 14-point cushion was comforting, as Humm had looked like a touchdown about to happen every time he cocked his arm, but the Sooners, after being rattled early by a two tight end Husker offense, had devised a special defense featuring a four-man rush and man-to-man coverage in the secondary. It accounted for four interceptions of Nebraska's prolific passer, three by Hughes and one by freshman Zac Henderson. The Huskers never seemed the same.
The stronger Sooners had simply overpowered Nebraska in the final 23 minutes of the game with scoring drives of 80, 57 and 61 yards, and they emerged with a hard-fought 28-14 victory. And in the process, they wrapped up another Big Eight title, extending their respective streaks along the way.
Oklahoma didn't gain a single yard through the air, but they amassed 482 yards on the ground. In fact, for only the second time in their history, three players, fullback Littrell (147 yards), quarterback Davis (142) and halfback Washington (112), all gained over 100 rushing yards in the same game. And it was this trio that had accounted for all but nine of the team's 83 carries.
Osborne was impressed, and said afterwards, "We were well aware of Washington, although we really didn't key on him. Littrell ran good, but they ran him because we were mixing our defenses up. You can't concern yourself with one man on their team. But the guy who makes it go is Davis. He's a great competitor, durable, and really knows his offense. I just didn't think he would be able to carry the ball as much as he did against us."
On the other side of the ball, Oklahoma's defense shut down a balanced Husker offense. They rushed for 187 yards on 36 carries, and passed for another 179 yards on 30 attempts, but Humm threw those four interceptions. In addition, the Sooners' kicking game contributed to poor Nebraska field position all game. On eight of their 12 possessions, the Huskers had started inside its own 25-yard line, and only twice, on a fumble and an interception, did they start closer than 63 yards from the end zone.
Switzer thought the turning point in the game was "when we fumbled the kickoff after we went behind, 14-7. I thought the tightest point of the ball game was when they came down and threatened to make it 21-7. We might have been forced out of our game plan. I still think we could have overcome a field goal. I don't know about a touchdown." He continued with, "I'm so choked up with pride and accomplishment with what our football team has done."
Said Steve Davis, "We didn't consider this a bowl game for us. We came here for the Big Eight championship. We knew Nebraska was thinking about the conference championship. Last year (Oklahoma's 27-0 victory) was a big win for us, but it doesn't compare to this year. This year keeps us alive for the national championship."
Source: Jeff Linkowski