November 22, 1986
The Big Eight title would be at stake as defending national champion and third-ranked Oklahoma (9-1) traveled north to face their first ranked opponent in eight games, #5 Nebraska (9-1). The Sooners needed a win or tie to claim the conference crown. Meanwhile, Nebraska needed to win, having suffered from an earlier 20-10 loss to Colorado, and came in having shutout two opponents in their previous three games.
The pendulum that was the Big Eight's bully had swayed back towards Oklahoma. In the Seventies, after Nebraska won consecutive national titles in '70 and '71, it was coach Barry Switzer's Sooners that won conferences titles annually, and won two national championships. Quite possibly, they could have won two or three more, but an Orange Bowl loss to Arkansas cost them in '77, the late season Nebraska upset cost them in '78, and possibly in '79, a lone loss to Texas.
Then, in the early Eighties, the balance shifted north towards Nebraska. Posting the best winning percentage in college football, they claimed three straight Big Eight titles, and went through similar frustration chasing an elusive national championship. The improbable '82 Orange Bowl loss to top-ranked Clemson, the controversial three-point loss to eventual national champ Penn State in '82, and the top-ranked "Scoring Explosions" Huskers' heartbreaking loss to Miami in the '84 Orange Bowl.
In '84, the Huskers were ranked #1 before suffering a late season loss to Oklahoma, which swayed the balance of power back to the Sooners. Oklahoma then lost an opportunity for a debate-driven title by losing to Washington in the '85 Orange Bowl, before returning to the top as college football's '85 national champions, something that Osborne had yet to claim.
An early season loss in a #1 vs. #2 match up against Miami had cast doubt for Switzer's hopes of a repeat crown. Now, with both #2 Penn State and the top-ranked Hurricanes undefeated at 10-0, and with one game each against lesser opponents remaining, it appeared the Sooners would need just short of a miracle to have a chance.
Switzer brought with him his best defense in his 14 years as head coach, and one of the best in college football history, as they dominated opponents by ranking first in every major category led by linebacker's Brian Bosworth and Dante Jones, and defensive backs David Vickers and Rickey Dixon. They had shut out five opponents and allowed only 56 points all year, with half of those being scored by Miami, for an average of only 5.6 points per game. More impressively, they had only allowed one field goal in the last five games combined, while posting four shutouts, including the last two games. Oklahoma also featured an offense led by veteran sophomore quarterback Jamelle Holieway, running backs Spencer Tillman, Patrick Collins, Lydell Carr, and Leon Perry, and tight end Keith Jackson.
Tom Osborne's offense included quick sophomore quarterback Steve Taylor, running back Keith Jones and receiver Rod Smith. The Husker defense was led by middle guard Danny Noonan, one of the top interior lineman in the country, sophomore end Broderick "The Sandman" Thomas, linebacker Marc Munford, one of the best in Husker history and the leading tackler for the third straight year, and defensive back Charles Fryar, who led a ball-hawking secondary.
Bosworth came into the game with his brash talking, while Nebraska countered with their own mouth in Thomas. For the first time in the modern era of Nebraska football, the Huskers donned red pants and red jerseys for the game.
Nebraska struck first in the opening quarter when Jones powered in from two yards out, ending the Oklahoma defense's streak of 20 straight quarters without permitting a touchdown. The Sooners matched the points later in the period on a Holieway's four-yard run. A 32-yard field goal by Nebraska's Dale Klein were the only points in the second quarter, and the Huskers went into the locker room with a 10-7 lead.
Nebraska struck again early in the third period when Taylor found Smith open and connected on a 25-yard scoring pass, and they carried a 17-7 lead into the final period. Sooners' kicker Tim Lasher narrowed the gap with a 22-yard fourth quarter field goal to make the score 17-10.
The score remained the same, and with 4:10 left in the game, Oklahoma began from their own six-yard line. During the drive, Oklahoma was faced with a crucial fourth down deep in their own territory. Holieway fumbled the ball and a Husker defender landed on it, but a facemask penalty against Nebraska's defense enabled Oklahoma to continue their drive. The Sooners drove to the Nebraska 17, where Holieway hit Jackson for a touchdown. Oklahoma had marched 94 yards in 11 plays, using less than a minute of the clock. Lasher added the extra point, and the game was tied 17-17 with only 1:22 left.
Nebraska received the kickoff, but their offense sputtered, stopped the clock with incomplete passes, and was forced to punt the ball away. The Oklahoma offense began at their 37-yard line with under a minute remaining, needing just a field goal, and they also appeared to be stopped. But on third down, "Sooner Magic" struck Nebraska again, as Holieway lofted a pass to Jackson, who caught the ball in full stride with one hand and rambled down to the Nebraska 14. It was good for a 41-yard completion with just nine seconds left in the game. In trotted Lasher, who kicked a 31-yard field goal to give Oklahoma a 20-17 lead with just six seconds left in the game.
The Huskers got the ball back for one last play, but Taylor was sacked, and Oklahoma had a come-from-behind victory. It was their second straight Big Eight title, earning a return trip to the Orange Bowl, and the 600th win in school history. Oklahoma also finished the season leading the nation in rushing with an average of 404.7 yards per game, wresting away the title from Nebraska, winners of three of the last four. Meanwhile, Nebraska's loss dropped them to third in the conference behind second place Colorado (6-5, 6-1). The showdown in Lincoln had lived up to its billing.
Source: Jeff Linkowski