January 1, 1979
After knocking off previously top-ranked Oklahoma, 17-14, back on November 11th, vaulting the Huskers to #2 in the polls, head coach Tom Osborne was concerned the following week heading into his team's season finale against Missouri about the chance of a mental letdown. It was justifiable, as the Tigers upset Nebraska, 35-31, forcing a share of the conference title with whom else, but Oklahoma.
Making matters worse on that Saturday in mid-November, the Huskers' loss took a potential marquee one vs. two, the first in seven years, national championship game away from the 45th annual Orange Bowl, and with bowl invitations being gobbled up, undefeated and top-ranked Penn State opted for a Sugar Bowl date against the SEC champion. But that team would not be decided until December 2nd when likely new #2 Alabama, in the driver's seat, played Auburn and #11 Georgia played Georgia Tech. At the time, USC and Michigan, both highly-ranked and moving up, were heading for a showdown in the Rose Bowl, and the Cotton Bowl was looking for an opponent opposite SWC champ and #6 Houston, who still had two games remaining.
The mess left the Orange Bowl committee scrambling to find a highly-ranked and worthy opponent for 9-2 Nebraska, who undoubtedly would fall into the second half of the AP's top ten. The only available teams still had games remaining, Notre Dame (8-2), Texas (7-2) and upstart Clemson (9-1), who all figured to occupy the final three spots of the top ten in the new AP poll, leaving the only certain as fourth-ranked Oklahoma (10-1), whose season was over and would still likely be ranked in the top five following their convincing 62-7 victory over visiting Bedlam rival Oklahoma State.
In a startling sequence of events, and left with no real viable alternatives for a desirable high-profile match up, officials opted for an unprecedented episode, and called Switzer to ask if his Sooners would like a rematch. While the team was still in the locker room celebrating, when given the choice of a Cotton Bowl date opposite Houston or a rematch against Nebraska, without a doubt the Oklahoma players erupted and opted for the latter. Late that Saturday afternoon in November, the Orange Bowl committee surprised the college football world by announcing that the Big Eight powerhouses would play again on New Year's night. In the Sooners' camp, it meant that they would not have to wait a year for revenge.
Needless to say, the Nebraska team, coaching staff and fans, having savored a victory over Oklahoma for the first time since the '71 "Game of the Century", were upset at being once again paired against their archenemy. Osborne had been dealt a tough hand. He faced the almost impossible task of motivating the Huskers to again beat what most considered a superior Sooners team, the same team, that only a week before they had finally beaten for the first time in seven years.
On display would be the nation's top two offenses. Fourth-ranked Oklahoma (10-1) would be playing in the school's 20th bowl game, having posted a record of 12-6-1 in the previous contests. They came into the game leading the nation in scoring, averaging 40 points per game, and for the fifth time in eight years, easily in rushing, as their wishbone was averaging 427.5 yards per game and making a strong case as the school's best. They were second in total offense, as the passing game contributed 61.8 yards per game to give the Sooners an average of 489.4.
Leading the way up front was consensus All-American guard Greg Roberts, winner of the Outland Trophy awarded to the outstanding lineman in the country. Using his incredible speed and strength, Roberts opened hole after hole, and most of the Sooners' running plays were run over his right guard position.
At the helm for his final collegiate game would be senior All-Big Eight quarterback Thomas Lott, well known for his many bandanas and the cut off tube socks that he wore on his arms. But he would also be making his 29th career start, ranking fourth on the school's all-time list, and of the three ahead of him, only predecessor Steve Davis (32-1-1) had a better winning percentage than Lott's .804 (22-5-1). As the best running quarterback the school had seen, he had contributed 679 yards and had scored nine touchdowns, and had passed for another 440 yards and six touchdowns. Behind him was quick senior fullback Kenny King, who was second on the team with 779 rushing yards, first with a 7.9-yard average per carry, and had found the end zone three times. However, lined up behind King was the best player in the country, halfback Billy Sims.
Since the November meeting, Sims had added a bunch of entries onto his growing resume. He was the nation's leading rusher, having set a Big Eight conference record with 1,762 yards, including four 200-yard games in his last five, and averaging 160.1 yards per game. With 231 carries during the season, he averaged a phenomenal 7.6 yards every time he touched the ball, the only back in the nation's top 50 to average more than seven yards per carry. He also had led the nation in scoring with 20 touchdowns, averaging 10.9 points per game.
For his efforts, Sims had also collected some major hardware. In addition to being named a consensus All-American, he became just the sixth junior to win the coveted and prestigious Heisman Memorial Trophy as the nation's best player. Sims also won awards for being named player of the year by three other groups, the Walter Camp Foundation, the Associated Press, and the United Press International, and he was honored with a the second Davey O'Brien Memorial Award given to the outstanding college football player in the five Southwest states of Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico.
On the other side of the ball was an opportunistic defense that that thrived on forcing opponents into mistakes, which permitted an average of 13.7 points per game. Senior middle guard Reggie Kinlaw, who made 120 tackles and was named to many All-American teams, anchored it up front. But the real strength was the two lightning quick linebackers. Senior Darryl Hunt had made 145 tackles and was also named to All-American teams, and junior George Cumby had made 114 stops and also contributed five interceptions. In addition to those three, there were three other defensive players named to the All-Big Eight team, tackle Phil Tabor, end Reggie Mathis and back Darrol Ray.
For the first time in six years, Nebraska was in Miami as the Big Eight's official representative, and playing in their first New Year's bowl in five years. Coming into their 17th bowl game, they had won ten of the 16, eight of their previous nine, and were 4-1 in bowl games under Osborne. The Huskers came into the game ranked sixth in the latest AP poll.
Nebraska ranked second in the nation in scoring behind Oklahoma, averaging 38.2 points per game, and they used an offense that was almost as devastating, and a little more balanced. They led the nation in total offense, averaging 501.4 yards per game, and they ranked second in rushing yardage per game, averaging 337.7. They also featured a consensus All-American, tackle Kelvin Clark, on their offensive line.
Their leading carrier was I-back I.M. Hipp, who had rushed for 936 yards and seven touchdowns. Rick Berns, who had rushed for a school-record 255 yards in the Missouri game, also had set the school's career rushing record of 2,605 yards. At the helm was steady senior quarterback Tom Sorley who had passed for 1,571 yards and 12 touchdowns, whose main aerial target was All-Big Eight tight end Junior Miller.
The game was in the national spotlight all by itself as the last one of the day. There would be no national title implications, as earlier in the day, #2 Alabama won their third consecutive Sugar Bowl, beating top-ranked Penn State, 14-7, and appeared as the likely candidate for a championship. The Orange Bowl start was also delayed about thirty minutes for NBC-TV's completion of the Rose Bowl telecast, where third-ranked Southern California defeated #5 Michigan, 17-10.
When things finally got commenced in Miami, Nebraska won the coin toss, and elected to receive the ball. They got off to a fast start, driving 80 yards in 15 plays. Averting a hole from a 15-yard holding penalty, Sorley fired a 28-yard pass to Miller over cornerback Darrol Ray, moving across midfield to the Sooner 47. Another vital juncture presented the Huskers with a fourth-and-two at the Oklahoma 26, but the Sooners' defense was faked out up the middle, and wingback Kenny Brown's six-yard run on a reverse gave the Huskers a new set of downs. From the 21, Sorley looked and threw down the right side line for split end Tim Smith, who streaked behind cornerback Basil Banks and leaped in the end zone to make the catch, coming down with one foot in bounds, and good for a touchdown. Billy Todd's extra point gave Nebraska the lead with 8:29 in the quarter, which had looked awesome on their first assault.
Oklahoma was contained on its first possession, but when they took over again on their 31, they went to work. Sims shrugged off five defenders en route to a 17-yard run. Later in the drive, the Sooners were presented with a third-and-five at the Husker 35 when Sims followed a strong block from King and muscled his way for 11 yards. As the drive advanced to the two, Sims finished things off when he took a pitch around the right side, picked up end Bobby Kimball's block, and went into the end zone with seven seconds left in the opening period. Senior Uwe von Schamann kicked his 126th consecutive extra point to finish the 69-yard, 12-play journey, evening the tilt at 7-7.
Nebraska mounted a mild threat midway through the second quarter. Sorley passed 21 yards down the sideline to Smith, and another 15 yards was tacked on for a roughing the passer call, moving the ball to the Oklahoma 17. On the next play, Nebraska was guilty of a clipping penalty on an end-around, and they were backed up. When the drive stalled at the Sooner 27, Todd came on for a 44-yard field goal attempt with a ten mile per hour wind behind his back, but the ball sailed wide to the left, leaving the game tied.
Oklahoma came charging right back. King went for seven, and Sims followed suit. After Sims gained only one, and King picked up three, it was third-and-six at the Sooner 45. Running out of an I-formation, Sims slashed off right tackle for 15 yards, moving the chains. Oklahoma then stung the Husker defense when split end Steve Rhodes shook loose of Andy Means, and Lott hit him with a 38-yard pass, moving down to the Husker three. From there, Lott ran the option and split two defenders to strike pay dirt with 6:22 left in the half. Von Schamann was good again, and the Sooners' seven-play, 73-yard march gave them a 14-7 lead.
But the Huskers went back to work. They countered with a trick play, as Sorley handed off and then grabbed the return lateral, and fired a pass downfield for Frank Lockett to gain 27. But after yielding a first down at the Sooner 31, the defense stood up. First Cumby and then Banks made great stops. Then Cumby and Hunt combined to hold a pass completion to just one yard, bringing Todd back onto the field. His 46-yard attempt was again wide to the left, and the Huskers came up empty.
Oklahoma began their assault. In the waning moments of the half, the Sooners looked for a quick strike to get more points, and Lott fired a pass downfield. Thanks to a 35-yard interference call against Jim Pillen, Oklahoma was on the Husker 36. The Nebraska Black Shirts rose up, and on a fourth-and-one, end Lawrence Cole shot through the offensive line and wrapped up Lott as he was stepping back from center, resulting in a one-yard loss.
Nebraska actually had a little time on the clock to use. On the final play of the half, Sorley lofted a desperation pass, but defensive back Mike Babb intercepted the ball, preserving the Sooners' 14-7 lead into the locker room.
After intermission, Oklahoma would get the ball first. Starting at their 30, first tight end Victor Hicks jumped off sides, and then King was held in check to just two yards, as the Nebraska defense was getting pumped up. Faced with a second-and-13, just as quickly Sims burst for 15 yards. Next, Lott tossed a crisp nine-yard strike to Kimball on the sideline, moving to the Nebraska 49. Lott then optioned to the right, kept the ball, and weaved 38 yards to the 11. Sims then took a pitch around the right side and outran two Husker defenders, and then opted to plow over safety Russell Gary at the goal line, scoring on an 11-yard run. Von Schamann put the finish to the explosive 70-yard, five-play drive and pushed the Oklahoma lead to 21-7, and only ninety seconds had elapsed in the third quarter.
It was Nebraska's turn as a slight rain began to fall. When Sorley attempted to pass, Ray came up with an interception and returned the ball 37 yards to the Nebraska 27. Oklahoma moved down to the four, but faced with a fourth down-and-two, Switzer opted for the safe points off the reliable foot of von Schamann, who in his three years had made 30 of 48 field goal attempts. Oklahoma was tagged with a five-yard penalty for delay of game, but all it did was move von Schamann back. He kicked a 26-yard field goal to increase the Sooners' lead to 24-7 at the 9:18 mark.
Nebraska, seemingly being blown out and left for dead, bounced right back starting at their 42. Sorley quickly fired a pair of completions, as one went for 20 and another for 13 to Brown on a fourth-and-five at the Sooner 30. The Huskers had moved 49 yards down to the Sooner nine, where they were confronted with a critical fourth-and-two. Osborne called a timeout to talk things over, and after the Oklahoma defense was jumping all around and presenting different looks, Nebraska was forced into another timeout, and a delay of game penalty. There was not a decision anymore, and Todd trotted in to kick a 31-yard field goal to make it 24-10 with just 4:24 left in the third.
The Sooners got good field position to begin their next possession, taking over at their own 40. First, Sims scampered for a 28-yard gain, and with the ball resting on the Husker 32, Oklahoma was once again knocking on the door. A couple of plays later, Sims picked up two important yards on a third-and-one to keep the drive alive. On Overstreet's nine-yard run, Sims provided a fair block. The methodical march ended on the ninth play, as Lott scored again on a keeper with just 16 seconds left in the period. The Sooners had scored all three times they had the ball in the third quarter to turn the game into a rout. After von Schamann's routine, Oklahoma held a comfortable and seemingly insurmountable 31-10 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
On their second possession of the final period, Nebraska began at the 27, but started in the wrong direction after a 15-yard penalty and incomplete pass. But the next play was a 20-yard Sorley completion to Miller, which got the Huskers going. Grinding out yardage from the legs of Hipp and Berns, they moved down the field on the Sooners' defense. An 11-yard dash by Sorley gave them a first down at the Oklahoma 22, and minutes later Berns' one-yard run capped a 15-play, 73-yard march that reduced the deficit to 31-17.
A little more than a minute later, George Andrews hit Lott hard and he coughed up the ball, leaving it for sophomore tackle David Clark to recover at the Oklahoma 42. It was the Sooners' first turnover of the game, and the Huskers had a little life. An opening 15-yard gallop by Hipp moved the ball to the 27, but Oklahoma's defense tightened. Disdaining the pass, Nebraska chose to run, and they gained 20 yards in the next seven plays, moving to within seven yards of the goal line. Faced with a fourth down-and-one, Cumby and company came up big and stopped sophomore I-back Craig Johnson up the middle for no gain. With only 4:24 left in the game, time was beginning to run out on the Huskers.
They got the ball back after a Sooner punt to the Nebraska 42, but with only about 2 ½ minutes now showing on the stadium's clock, not one, but two quick scores were needed. Unfortunately for Husker fans, the time was put to good use seeking a moral victory, as the offense rode Sorley's arm to march 58 yards in ten plays towards the end of the game. He had completed two important plays on the final drive, a 10-yard pass to junior wingback Kenny Brown and a 12-yarder to sophomore Jeff Kotera. Given an extra play on a somewhat controversial pass interference call against Banks, Nebraska scored a meaningless touchdown on a two-yard pass from Sorley to Miller on the final play of the game.
Nebraska fans would probably consider it a valiant effort, but it was merely window-dressing in the annals of the Orange Bowl, and it was the first time since the '71 meeting that a Husker team had scored three touchdowns against the Sooners. Oklahoma had somewhat easily cruised to a 31-24 win, providing sweet revenge for their only loss of the season. They were simply too fast and too overpowering, and the lack of turnovers, Sims and Lott were the difference this time around.
Sims atoned for his fumbles in the earlier game by rushing for 134 yards and two touchdowns. In the final game of his collegiate career, Lott rushed for 74 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and completed two of three passes for 47 yards. He finished his time in Norman with a 23-5-1 record in almost three years as a starter. He also rushed for 2,145 yards, breaking Steve Davis' quarterback record, and had scored 30 touchdowns, third behind Davis and Jack Mildren. In addition, he had thrown for another 890 yards.
Lott offered his thoughts, "We had a little talk about the fumbles. There's not much you can do about them. Fumbles are a part of football. But we agreed to crowd around whoever was carrying the ball so that we would have as much chance as they did if it popped loose." He had also mentioned, I don't think anyone can beat us if we don't' make mistakes."
A couple of other decorated Sooners also closed out their careers. During the season, von Schamann had kicked a school-record 59 consecutive extra points and finished his career converting a Big Eight-record 99.3%, 140 of 141 attempts, and combined with 33 field goals, finished as the most prolific scoring kicker win school history with 248 points, fourth overall among all players. And Hunt finished with 506 career tackles, the most of any Sooner.
There were a few bright spots for Nebraska. Berns, who suffered a shoulder injury in the second half, ran for 99 yards and scored a touchdown and Sorley passed for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Their defense also tied a team bowl game record for allowing the fewest passing yards by an opponent. But for most Husker fans, the '79 Orange Bowl represented a painful twist to what should have been a glorious season.
"Oklahoma has better personnel overall with great backs, great speed," conceded Osborne. "We didn't stop them when we had to. Not too many teams could beat Oklahoma, but I'm disappointed for everyone, the players, the staff, the fans and the university."
The victory left Switzer with an incredible 62-6-2 mark during his six-year reign. Had the Sooners won in November, they surely would have won the national championship. But with second-ranked Alabama's suffocating 14-7 win over previously unbeaten and top-ranked Penn State, ending the Nittany Lions' 19-game winning streak, along with Rose Bowl champ and third-ranked Southern California making a case for the throne, Oklahoma was probably on the outside looking in. But Switzer still proudly cast his vote with his players in the locker room, "You're the best team in the nation. You are the only team that can say you beat every team you played."
The victory did not make up for the earlier loss in Lincoln, because as Switzer put it, "If it hadn't been for that we would have been playing Penn State for the national championship tonight." He continued, "I do not know who deserves the national championship, but we're as good as anybody. We're the best offensive team in the nation, and I would say Alabama is the best defensive team in the nation."
Source: Jeff Linkowski