November 21, 1987
For the first time since 1971, it was undefeated and top-ranked Nebraska playing host to #2 Oklahoma, also undefeated. It was similar to the classic '71 Thanksgiving game, as the two schools had entered the game with the mirrored rankings. It was also similar in that the nation's two most potent offenses and the best defense would be on display, but in a different venue, courtesy of a scheduling glitch that put the showdown in Lincoln. However, also unlike 16 years earlier when the bowl's had already been chosen, the winner of the '87 version, hyped as the "Game of the Century, Part II", would advance to the Orange Bowl for a shot at the national championship. Everything was at stake.
Needless to say, the game continued its proud tradition of being a key ingredient in determining college football's national championship over the last two decades. First, in the early Seventies, Nebraska had claimed two consecutive national titles in 1970-71 before Oklahoma won a pair in '74 and '75, and could have won at least two more if not for a bowl loss to Arkansas in '77 or late season upset to the Huskers in '78. The balance shifted back to the Huskers in the early Eighties, where a midseason controversial call at Penn State in '82 and a bowl's failed two-point conversion was the difference in the Miami loss, denying Osborne the summit in back-to-back years. Then, once again, it was Oklahoma's turn, as a debatable missed opportunity slipped away in the '84 season's bowl loss to Washington, before being crowned national champs again in '85, only to let a lone loss to Miami deny them a chance at repeating. Now, the Sooners and Huskers collision course converged.
Oklahoma had spent the entire season in the top spot with Nebraska right behind them, spanning 11 consecutive weeks, before the Huskers had leapfrogged the Sooners in the most recent Associated Press poll to claim the top spot under rather unusual circumstances. The perception was that the Big Eight was a weak conference aside from Oklahoma and Nebraska, even though Oklahoma State appeared in the Top 20. Many voters had also long felt that Nebraska had played a tougher non-conference schedule, having beaten Utah State, #5 UCLA, Arizona State, and #12 South Carolina, who had a combined 26-13 record. Meanwhile, Oklahoma had beaten up on an unranked group the likes of North Texas, North Carolina, Tulsa and Texas, who had a combined 20-20 record, and the only ranked team they had played was Oklahoma State, beating them 29-10 two weeks earlier.
While Nebraska sat idle the week before the game, Oklahoma struggled and turned in a fairly unimpressive 17-13 win over unranked Missouri, a team that the Huskers had manhandled earlier in the season, 42-7. Additionally, the Sooners were now without two key veteran starters, junior quarterback Jamelle Holieway and senior fullback Lydell Carr, both injured a game earlier against Oklahoma State, dealing severe blows to their offense. In fact, the November 16th Sports Illustrated magazine addressed just that with their cover, "Sure they won again, Do The Sooners Deserve To Be No. 1?"
All of the combinations led 16 voters to rescind their first place votes from the Sooners, and they ended up on the Huskers' ledger. The resulting November 17th AP poll was released with Nebraska (9-0) ranked #1 and a seemingly vulnerable Oklahoma (10-0) team falling to second. With the maneuvering, it would mark the third time in the last four years that the Sooners would face the top-ranked team in the country, having won the previous two, including a 17-7 win over the Huskers in '84.
It also marked the 22nd time in the history of the AP poll that the top two teams had met. In the previous contests, two games had ended tied, and five times the lower ranked team had won, including the last two times, when Penn State beat Miami and Miami beat Oklahoma, both in the previous season.
Barry Switzer's Oklahoma squad was a veteran and deeply talented group that had as many as 14 seniors who could be selected in the upcoming NFL draft. They were riding a 19-game winning streak, were also winners in 29 of their last 30 games, and also riding a 24-game Big Eight winning streak. They were first in scoring with a 46.2 average and were second with the nation's second best offense, averaging 499 yards per game, trailing only Nebraska. Holieway, with an uncanny 27-1 records as a starter, would be on the sidelines with crutches nursing torn ligaments in his knee, after gaining 860 yards and scoring ten touchdowns and throwing for another 548 yards and seven scores.
Reminiscent of a few years earlier, they were again forced to go with inexperienced freshman quarterback, as redshirt Charles Thompson, who was actually a little faster than Holieway, would make just his second start and run their famous wishbone offense, which was averaging 429 yards per game. Even as a backup, Thompson had three times rushed for over 100 yards in a game during the season, and they came consecutively in earlier blowouts against Tulsa, Iowa State and Texas. But he would have plenty of help in speedy halfbacks Anthony Stafford and Patrick Collins, and replacement fullback Rotnei Anderson, who contributed his first two 100-yard games by rushing for 191 yards against Oklahoma State and following that with a 118-yard effort against Missouri. They all ran behind a massive offensive line that featured a pair of post-season award candidates, quick 305-pound tackle Greg Johnson and All-American guard Mark Hutson, in addition to big All-American tight end Keith Jackson.
What helped was that the Sooners could also trot out the toughest defense in the land. The mastermind of defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, it was a tenacious group that was first in total yards per game, passing yards, and scoring, permitting an average of only 7.5 points per game. In fact, the defense had yielded only six touchdowns in their previous ten games. It featured linebackers Dante Jones and Richard Dillon, ends Troy Johnson and Darrell Reed, tackle Scott Evans, and a stellar secondary led by safeties Rickey Dixon and David Vickers.
For Tom Osborne, he had his fourth undefeated Husker team ready to play Oklahoma. Nebraska team could boast half a dozen NFL prospects and they had won ten games in a row, having not lost since last playing the Sooners. They had outscored its previous five conference opponents by 229-15, allowing just one touchdown to Missouri over that span and winning by an average score of 45-3.
The Huskers were the nation's top-rated offense, averaging 524 yards per game, were second in scoring with 43.6 points per game, and had not been held under 30, and could boast several stars. Steve Taylor, a skilled all-around quarterback with 4.54 speed in the 40, was more of a runner than a passer, but he had five- and four-touchdown pass performances under his belt earlier in the season. Behind him was senior tailback Keith Jones, who had rushed for 890 yards and 11 touchdowns, and on the outside was dynamic junior wingback Dana Brinson, whose 4.37 speed made him one of the fastest players in Huskers history, questionable with an injury.
Their "Blackshirt" defense was also full of stellar performers, and could match Oklahoma up front. Leading the charge was speedy junior defensive end Broderick "The Sandman" Thomas and senior tackle Neil Smith, one of the most dominant defensive linemen in Husker history and likely to be one of the first players chosen in the next NFL draft. They also had linebackers Steve Forch and LeRoy Etienne, the team's leading tackler, cornerback Brian Washington, and safety Mark Blazek.
The usual pregame hype that always surrounded this rivalry took on a new flavor, as the Nebraska players were talking big. Thomas told the Sooners that they would have to go through the Huskers, in Lincoln, to win the Big Eight and the national titles, and he also, "This is our house, and only we have the key." Tight end Tom Banderas predicted a 42-10 Huskers win.
Taylor boasted that he was the best quarterback in the Big Eight. He also boldly added, "The flat out truth is, Oklahoma can't play with us. The Sooners aren't good enough. It might not even be close, and I mean that. " It was his quotes that were plastered all over Oklahoma's locker room prior to the game.
Meanwhile, Osborne also got into the mix with, "The big question is, how will Thompson react to the Big Game?" Nebraska was even marketing the "Husker Hanky" to fans. The Sooners were cast as underdogs, with the odds makers having made the Huskers as much a seven-point favorites.
Under a bright sun and in front of a record-setting crowd of over 76,663 fans in Memorial Stadium, the 156th straight sellout in Lincoln, Oklahoma would have the ball first. Thompson, in a calculated move to show he was in control, refused to take the first snap, complaining of too much noise to the referee. After the crowd surprisingly quieted down a bit, he marched Oklahoma down the field to inside the Huskers' ten-yard line on their opening drive. But Anderson fumbled an opportunity away at the eight, and Etienne pounced on the ball.
Nebraska couldn't move, and the teams traded punts playing the field position game. Late in the quarter, the Huskers mounted a ten-play, 84-yard drive. It was capped with a 25-yard touchdown run by Keith Jones around the right end, who was dragged down at the goal line but reached the ball out to extend it over the plane. Sophomore kicker Chris Drennan added the extra point, and it was 7-0 with 1:28 left in the first quarter.
The Sooners' vaunted defense clamped down, as Nebraska made no more first downs the rest of the half, held without moving the chains in eight of their first nine possessions. Oklahoma's offense moved the ball with relative ease, but missed opportunities when a 44-yard field goal attempt missed to the right, a pass was intercepted at the Nebraska eight-yard line, and on another drive late in the half they fumbled the ball away on the Nebraska 25. Despite the dominating performance and out-gaining the Huskers, Oklahoma still trailed 7-0 heading into the locker room.
It was clear that the two fumbles and poor initial field position, starting four of their six possessions inside their 26-yard line. Switzer offered inspiration, "Men, we got them just where we want them. And they know it, too."
After intermission, the Sooners took control as they shut down Nebraska's running game and got their own in gear. Early in the period, Dixon intercepted a tipped Taylor pass and returned 24 yards it to the Nebraska 13-yard line. Two plays later, it was a classic play that made the wishbone famous. From the 11, Thompson faked to the fullback up the middle, broke to the right and when the rush closed on him, pitched to a trailing Stafford, who easily cut the right corner, sprinted up field, and leaped over a defender and into the end zone. R.D. Lashar added the extra point for a 7-7 tie.
Late in the quarter, the Sooners' running game was clearly in high gear. In the final minutes, and with the ball at their own 35, Thompson shoveled a pitch to Collins, who turned the left corner behind a perfect block by John Green, shook off a couple of arm tackles, and raced 65 yards down the sideline for the go-ahead touchdown. Lashar's kick made it 14-7, with 1:39 left in the period.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Dixon intercepted another of Taylor's passes. The teams traded subsequent punts, before Oklahoma mounted another drive, culminated with Lashar booting a 27-yard field goal to put the Sooners up, 17-7. The game was seemingly out of reach for the Huskers with just 7:40 left, as they had not been able to solve the stingy Oklahoma defense since early in the first quarter.
Another Sooners' drive ended with a fumble deep in Nebraska territory at the five, but there was now only 2:49 remaining on the clock. On Nebraska's first play after the recovery, Jones intercepted another Taylor pass across the middle and Oklahoma took over on the Husker 20-yard line with only 2:43 remaining. A minute later, Lashar missed another field goal attempt, but it didn't matter. The Sooners dominating performance earned their fourth straight win in the rivalry, and ran their winning streak to 20 consecutive games, leaving little doubt as to who was the top team in the conference, and the nation.
Unfortunately for Nebraska, the game was a one-sided affair and was close only on the scoreboard. If not for three Oklahoma fumbles deep in Nebraska territory, or Lashar's two field goal misses, it's anybody's guess how bad it could have been. It could have been possibly 37-7, or maybe even 44-7.
The Sooners had 444 yards in total offense, gaining 419 on the ground. For just the fourth time in school history, a trio of Sooners crossed the century mark in rushing yardage as Collins ran 13 times for 131 yards, his first time ever, while Thompson finished with 126 yards on 21 carries and Anderson bulled up the middle for 119 more on 24 carries. In fact, the only other Sooner to carry the ball was Stafford, who contributed 43 yards on a dozen carries.
Jones led all Oklahoma players with 12 tackles, ten unassisted, and an interception, and Dixon had a pair of interceptions, as Nebraska finished with only 235 total yards, less than half their average. Eighty-four had come in their only scoring drive in the first quarter and 60 came in the closing two minutes of the game. So, in between, the Sooners' top-rated defense had suffocated the nation's top-rated offense, holding the Huskers without a first down during a span that covered a dozen consecutive possessions, and allowing them to cross midfield only three times during the entire game.
"Our defense shut 'em down, just stuffed 'em," said Switzer. "That's dominant against the number one team in the country." He also offered, "I couldn't believe it when they predicted they'd beat us 42-10. Our defense couldn't believe it. What were they talking about? That team hasn't scored but four touchdowns against us in four years."
He also offered, "This team was more ready to play a game than any team we have ever had. Our football team dominated the ballgame offensively and defensively from start to finish. I don't think anyone who watched can question that."
Collins chimed in with, "I heard one of our players, Darrell Reed, say that they should have been practicing all week instead of talking. I think it was pretty evident."
"Yeah, I said that," said Reed. "That must really be embarrassing to talk all that garbage and then get drubbed. That was a vintage Oklahoma Sooner butt-kicking. They can't make any excuses about it. All they can do is moan and groan."
"That number one ranking they got last week must have gone to their heads," said Dante Jones. "They had us mistaken for Kansas or Kansas State. It was like they didn't realize who they were playing. When you play our team, you've got to play if you want to win. You can't do it by talking."
For Nebraska, Keith Jones led their team with 94 yards on 15 carries, while Etienne led the defense with 15 tackles, and Thomas contributed ten. Taylor had no success, rushing 18 times for 54 yards, and completing six of 18 passes for 68 yards, and three interceptions. And he was totally outplayed by his freshman counterpart.
From the somber Nebraska locker room, Osborne said, "I don't know what to apologize for, but I almost feel apologetic." He continued, "Of all the losses I've been associated with, this may be the most disappointing."
The sequel had been 16 years in the making, but the ending was decidedly different. Unlike the '71 match up, Oklahoma seized control to claim the Big Eight title and earn an automatic trip to the Orange Bowl. The Sooners' probable opponent seemed most likely to be unbeaten Miami, the only team that has beaten them in the past three years, and a span in which Oklahoma has posted a remarkable 33-2 record.
The Hurricanes (9-0) had been the third-ranked team for the better part of two months and figured to move up a notch, and provided they ran their slate with victories over two ranked opponents, Notre Dame and South Carolina, they figured to be home for the New Year. Should they falter, the likely beneficiary would be #4 Florida State (9-1), whose only loss was by one point to Miami in late September, and who had a game remaining against rival Florida.
Source: Jeff Linkowski