November 26, 1983
It seemed like Presidential elections and four-year terms in Nebraska for coach Tom Osborne, only his occurred in odd-numbered seasons. For the third time he had an undefeated team squaring off against Oklahoma, and unfortunately, each of the previous two had their dreams of perfection ruined by the Sooners, 35-10 in '75 and 17-14 in '79. But this Husker team was different.
They had started the season top-ranked for the first time since '76, And immediately would face a stiff test in the Kickoff Classic against defending national champion and #4 Penn State, who had tagged the Huskers their only loss in '82, albeit a controversial one. But Nebraska dominated in all facets the entire game as the Nittany Lions could barely manage to avoid a shutout by scoring with only 20 seconds left in the game. It made the final a convincing 44-6, gaining sweet revenge and providing Joe Paterno with his worst loss in his 18 years.
From there, the Huskers soared and had subsequently maintained the #1 ranking every week. They had crushed teams along the way with a record setting "Scoring Explosion" offense, making a strong case for being one of the greatest offensive teams in history. Included was 21 points in each quarter at Minnesota en route to 84, and an NCAA record 48 points in the third quarter against Colorado, as they had also scored over 70 once and over 60 three times. Now, Nebraska (11-0) came into Norman carrying a #1 ranking for the first time against the Sooners in a dozen years, and they were also riding a 21-game winning streak.
Leading the talent-laden Huskers were four stellar seniors on offense, a unit that was averaging an NCAA record 54 points per game. Up front opening holes was guard Dean Steinkuhler, a favorite for both the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award. Lined up behind him were Turner Gill at quarterback, All-American and Heisman Trophy favorite Mike Rozier at I-back, who was a one-man wrecking crew and setting all kinds of records while scoring 28 touchdowns, and speedy All-American candidate Irving Fryar at receiver. The underrated defense had permitted and average of 15 points per game, and it was led by leading tackler and junior linebacker Mike Knox.
For the season to be a success, Osborne knew that his team must defeat Switzer and Oklahoma, something he had done each of the last two years, but only three times in 11 tries. It was inevitable for the two men to be compared, as they had both taken over their respective programs in '73, and had helped forge the rivalry into a college football staple. Over those 11 years, they had become two of the most successful coaches in the country, and coincidentally, both had won their milestone 100th game on the same day two months earlier, September 24th. Switzer came into the game owning a 105-20-3 record, and had won two national championships, while Osborne could counter with a 107-24-2 record, and despite not having reached the pinnacle, he had done something that his rival had not, win at least nine games in each season.
The story line in Oklahoma was different. They had begun the season ranked #2 behind Nebraska, but a 24-14 loss to visiting #6 Ohio State in their second game knocked them down to #8 and then two unimpressive wins followed before a 28-16 loss to #2 Texas, knocking the Sooners to #15. Three wins in a row moved them back to #11 before a 10-0 upset at the hands of Missouri knocked them out of the top 20. As such, the Sooners (7-3) came into the Nebraska game unranked for the second time in three years. They would also attempt to end a two-game losing streak to the Huskers, but Oklahoma had not beaten a top-ranked team in 20 years, having lost five times and tying once over that span.
Additionally, the Sooners' offense, averaging half as much as the Huskers at 27 points per game, had lost their once promising and All-American candidate at running back, sophomore Marcus Dupree, earlier in the season to a suspension. Working behind junior quarterback Danny Bradley to pick up the slack were a pair of talented freshman backs, Earl Johnson, who had rushed for over 100 yards in five games, including three of four since the departure of Dupree, and was coming into the game off a 258-yard effort against Colorado, and redshirt Tulsa blue-chipper Spencer Tillman, who had rushed for over 100 yards in three games.
Oklahoma also boasted a defense that was sub par for Switzer, permitting an average of 17.7 points per game that featured three topflight seniors, tackle Rick Bryan, cornerback Scott Case and linebacker Jackie Shipp, one of the leading tacklers in school history. Regardless, it still appeared that a clearly superior Nebraska team would blow out the underdog Sooners.
However, the home team came out fired up. Trailing 14-7 in the second quarter, Nebraska drove 73 yards in five plays, the big one a 40-yard run by Gill to the Oklahoma 18. With under a minute to go and the ball resting on the three-yard line, Rozier took a pitch and started to the right, but found a hole and cut back up the hash mark and into the end zone with just 42 seconds left, his NCAA record-tying 29th touchdown of the season. The extra point tied the game at the half.
In the third quarter, Tillman broke free and logged an 18-yard touchdown run to put Oklahoma ahead, 21-14. But Nebraska came right back on their next possession. On the first play, Rozier broke a 62-yard run down to the Sooner three, and two plays later, Gill crossed from a yard out to tie the game. As the quarter wound down, the Huskers scored again when senior fullback Mark Schellen went over from 17 yards out, giving the visitors a 28-21 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Both defenses took over, and neither team could score, as the Sooners stayed with the Huskers. As the clock ticked down, Oklahoma took the ball across midfield and had moved to a second down-and-one at the Nebraska one-yard line in the final minute. After a motion penalty backed them to the six, moved the Sooners back to the six. Bradley was then sacked for a loss of three by Bill Weber to set up a third-and-four situation, which saw cornerback Neil Harris knock away Bradley's pass.
Then, with just 32 seconds left in the game, Bradley went back to pass again, already owning 187 passing yards, the top aerial performance ever by a Sooner quarterback against Nebraska. He threw a last-chance pass into the end zone for redshirt junior split end Buster Rhymes, but Harris held his arm up and tipped the ball harmlessly to the ground. It ended Oklahoma's upset bid, preserved both the Huskers' 28-21 win and first undefeated regular season under Osborne, and sent them to the 50th anniversary Orange Bowl to play for a national championship.
As far as some individual milestones went, Rozier recorded 205 yards rushing, making him the all-time Big Eight career rushing yardage leader with 4,633 and became only the second player in NCAA history to top 2,000 yards in a season with 2,001. For Oklahoma, Rhymes had caught three passes for 127 yards, the most ever accumulated via the air by a Sooner against the Huskers. Tillman rushed for a career-high 134 yards on 16 carries.
Only two teams remained unbeaten in the country, #1 Nebraska (12-0) and #2 Texas (11-0), and Oklahoma had lost to both.
Source: Jeff Linkowski