Oklahoma 31, Nebraska 14

October 28, 2000 | at Norman | Attendance 75,989

The Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry was one of the best-known grudge matches in college football. For years, the two storied programs squared off on or around Thanksgiving Day in nationally televised battles that usually decided the old Big Eight conference championship, 27 times in a 29-year span to be specific, with the winner often getting a chance to play for a national title. There was such great tradition to the game, such great player, and such great teams that went up against one another, that some of the very best games in the history of college football were Nebraska against Oklahoma, providing plenty of thrills.

Two of the most famous games in the series were the 1971 contest, known as the "Game of the Century", when Johnny Rodgers' famed punt return helped the #1 Huskers to a 35-31 win over the #2 Sooners in Norman when both teams were undefeated, and then the same scenario presented itself in Lincoln in '87 with the "Game of the Century II", and this time, #2 Oklahoma emerged with a 17-7 win over the #1 Huskers. And then there was another one of the more memorable games in the series, Nebraska's 17-14 upset of the top-ranked Sooners in '78, former coach Tom Osborne's first win over former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, only to face a controversial rematch in the Orange Bowl, which the Sooners won.

But it had been a while since Switzer and his band of colorful players sent Husker hopes crashing almost every year, it seemed. Recently, Nebraska has dominated the series, outscoring the Sooners 265-61 in winning the last seven games. Included was a string of unprecedented blowouts, 37-0 in '95, followed by 73-21 in '96, and then a 69-7 win in '97, Osborne's milestone 250th victory. They coincided with the dark days of a nosedive in Oklahoma football in which coaching instability collided with a change in conference affiliation, which all effectively cooled the rivalry.

In '96, when the Big Eight joined four teams from the former Southwest Conference to form the Big 12, Oklahoma was placed into the South division, while Nebraska was moved into the North. This meant that with the new conference's rotating schedule, the two schools would only meet in the regular season two out of every four years. But now, the two schools were going back to the future, and it was just like old times.

In a throwback to the good old days in Norman, the game they have been waiting for two weeks had finally arrived. The marquee match up at Memorial Stadium would remind many of the '70's and '80's, and it would have implications in the national championship picture, and it would rekindle memories of all those classic meetings when Osborne and Switzer matched wits with so much at stake, who won or shared 16 consecutive Big Eight crowns.

It was in no small thanks to a remarkable two-year turnaround under coach Bob Stoops, a 40-year-old coach who has Oklahoma on the cusp of greatness again, not even two years after inheriting a program in complete disarray. But more than anything, lost was the perspective and appreciation for the history and tradition of one of the most storied programs in college football.

While others before him desperately tried to distance themselves from the tradition, pressure and expectations of the glory years that produced six national championships, 35 conference championships and 20 bowl games, Stoops embraced it all from Day One. "This is a school that has played in 16 Orange Bowls and won 12," he had said. "You don't hide from that." In fact, he had done the opposite.

Stoops has brought back players and coaches from the past to speak to the team and be part of the rebirth, as earlier in the year, former menacing linebacker Brian "The Boz" Bosworth spoke to the team before the Rice game. The Sooners had not only been resuscitated, they had also been completely rebuilt, and more closely resembled the scoring machines that Switzer put together with one striking difference; Stoops' team passed the ball to win, while Switzer's juggernaut teams ran the ball using their famous wishbone.

And it was because of Stoops that the Nebraska-Oklahoma game was once again front and center in the national championship picture, the architect of one of the most remarkable and improbable reclamations in recent memory. Somewhere, Switzer had to be smiling, and the words "Sooner Magic" have probably rolled off his lips for about the umpteenth time. "It's that feeling," he said. "They've found it again." It has been more than a decade since anyone associated with the Oklahoma program could utter those sentiments, and that it's Switzer, the king of all that is OU and crimson and cream, saying so, gives it even more meaning.

Leading up to the Husker game, Stoops tried to educate his players and team meetings began with five-minute video clips of celebrated moments from past Nebraska-Oklahoma games to give his team a sense of history for the rivalry, and maybe that was why Switzer felt so at home during the week, when he strolled around the practice fields for the first time since he left Norman. "I didn't come to this place for 13 years," said Switzer, who had a 157-29-4 record and won three national titles from 1973-88. "I was never asked."

Much of the attraction to the rivalry had been the competitiveness of the series. Oklahoma leads the all-time series 39-36-3, and the Sooners have always seemed to have a knack for derailing national title hopes in Nebraska. It would be the 17th time both teams have been ranked in the AP's top ten poll, but the first since '88, Switzer's last year. It also marks the 13th time either Nebraska or Oklahoma entered the game ranked #1, which is how the Huskers (7-0) came in, ranked atop both the AP and coach's polls, opposite Oklahoma (6-0), ranked #3 in both polls.

There was also a new wrinkle, the first Bowl Championship Series standings. It was a three-year old system that was not in existence in prior Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry games, and the standings were based on a formula that incorporates the AP poll plus the coach's poll, eight computer rankings, strength-of-schedule, and the number of losses, to determine the top two teams for a national championship game, and this season that game would be played in the Orange Bowl. Released the week leading up to the game, Nebraska was first and Oklahoma was second, but the Sooners were first in four of the eight computer rankings, with the Huskers first in three, and Florida State first in the other. So it was easy to see the common reference among the media to proclaim it "Game of the New Century".

Nebraska came in under third-year head coach Frank Solich, who took over in Lincoln when the legendary Osborne retired after winning his third national championship in four seasons in '97. Solich suffered through an uncharacteristic 9-4 rookie year, but bounced right back with a 12-1 campaign in '99, including avenging a four-point loss in Austin by beating Texas 22-6 for the Big 12 title, and then beating Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl, 31-21. It capped a record of 108-16-1 in the 1990's, a record bettered only by Florida State's 109-13-1 during the same span.

The offense was the Huskers' strength, where nine starters returned in 2000, and the players at the skill positions were stellar. Nebraska had the nation's second-ranked scoring offense, averaging 46.3 points per game, behind the nation's top rushing attack, averaging 379 yards per game, and #2 overall offense, with 499 yards per game. Leading the troops was quarterback, multi-purpose threat and Heisman candidate, junior Eric Crouch, who had rushed for 476 yards, a 4.9 average per carry, and had completed 47 of 96 passes for 775 yards and nine touchdowns. If they had a weakness, it was the same one that has been a Husker staple throughout the last few years, and that is the questionability of Crouch to move the ball through the air when coming from behind.

Crouch was in charge of a typical Nebraska offense with a very solid offensive line for moving the ball through the trenches. Carrying that load was senior running backs Dan Alexander, with 780 yards rushing and a 6.3-yard average, and Correll Buckhalter, with 555 yards and a hefty 7.6-yards per carry average. But the most athletic player on the field was Bobby Newcombe, who was the starting quarterback to start '99 before being moved to the wingback position.

The "Black Shirt" defense returned six starters, and opponents had a hard time moving the ball against a very aggressive style of play that the Huskers implore. A pair of seniors wreaked havoc from up front, tackle Loran Kaiser and end Kyle Vanden Bosch, and senior middle linebacker Carlos Polk, the team's leading tackler and a Butkus candidate, did the same. In the defensive backfield, junior Keyuo Craver was the main man. Collectively, they ranked #18 against the run, #33 against the pass, #15 overall, and #13 in scoring defense, yielding an average of 14.9 points per game.

Nebraska also came in riding a 13-game winning streak, the nation's longest. However, having played just one top 25 opponent in Notre Dame, who they beat by only three points in overtime, the big question was whether the Huskers would be ready.

Oklahoma was a young team, with only ten seniors among the top 44 players on the depth chart, and 21 freshmen or sophomores played in the Texas rout. Stoops and his coaches looked for players who would play hard, were disciplined, tough and could run, and who were willing to put the program first. He and his coaches took it from there, and the blueprint had worked.

A large part of that success was thanks to southpaw quarterback Josh Heupel, a senior who arrived last year as from Utah, and proceeded to rewrite the school's passing records. A coach's son, he was not heavily recruited in high school from Aberdeen, SD, so he ended up going to Weber State, where he played in four games in two years and tore a knee ACL. Heupel transferred to Snow Junior College in Ephraim, Utah, and in 1998, becoming a JUCO all-American, a performance that earned him a ticket to Oklahoma, where he would play the main role in rookie coach Stoops' spread offense.

Eighteen games later, Heupel was the bearer of 21 school and Big 12 passing records. He has thrown for at least 300 yards 12 times, and in all 18 games he has a touchdown pass and a 50-percent completion rate. He came into the Nebraska game having completed 68% of his passes for 1,894 yards and 11 touchdowns, and ranked fifth in the nation in passing efficiency with a 157.81 rating, emerging as a legitimate Heisman candidate. More important, Heupel has stood out because of his poise and leadership on the field and his notorious reputation for his impressive work ethic, desire for perfection and the endless hours he spent in the video room, studying film after film after film.

In his 16 years of coaching, Stoops had said he had never seen anyone put forth a greater effort. "At times, you have to hold him back a bit. If you allowed him to, he'd be up there watching tape all day. He just loves football. So you have to watch him, chase him off the field once in a while. Get him back to the locker room so he can get on with the rest of his evening."

The Sooners offense came in ranked #1 in scoring, averaging 46.7 points per game, and featured the fourth best passing offense, 327 yards per game, and the fifth best overall offense, with 473 yards per game. They spread the ball around to a talented stable of receivers, eight of which had double-digit receptions and three had grabbed at least 20, sophomore receiver Antwone Savage (27), junior receiver Josh Norman (21) and sophomore running back Quentin Griffin (20). The Sooner ground game, averaging a modest 145 yards per game, was led by Griffin's 368 yards and 11 touchdowns and freshman Renaldo Works' 312 yards and four touchdowns.

Defensively, Oklahoma came in ranked #38 in pass defense, #19 in rushing defense, #18 in total defense, and #20 in scoring defense, yielding 16 points per game, and trailing Nebraska in each category. The unit was anchored by a talented pair of linebackers and the two leading tacklers, junior Rocky Calmus with 49 and senior Torrance Marshall with 47. They received strong support from a great secondary, as sophomore safety Roy Williams, freshman cornerback Derrick Strait, and senior cornerback J.T. Thatcher, whose six interceptions was second in the nation, were right behind the linebackers on the team's tackle charts. But one problem that the defensive line was light, giving up an average of 40 pounds per man to Nebraska's blockers.

Before the game, some of the legends seen on videotape came to life on the sidelines. There was Bosworth chatting it up with Osborne. The Boz was still trying to make a career of acting, while Osborne was running for Congress. When asked how he enjoyed the campaign trail, Osborne offered, "It's like recruiting, but it lasts longer."

Nebraska received the opening kickoff, and entering the game having out-rushed its previous two opponents by 901 yards to 24, they did exactly what Oklahoma feared. In complete control, Crouch had a 15-yard run gain and followed that later with a 13-yard third down pass to tight end Tracey Wistrom. Having almost casually moving the ball to the Sooner 39, Crouch tossed to a wide-open Matt Davison for a touchdown, capping a six-play, 76-yard march. Sophomore kicker Josh Brown kicked the extra point, and the visitor's were up, 7-0, not even three minutes into the game.

After Oklahoma punted away on its first possession, the Huskers started at its own nine-yard line. With Crouch deftly mixing option runs and play-action passes, they rolled over the Sooners once again, moving all the way to the Oklahoma 27. From there, Crouch slipped a tackle just past the line of scrimmage, outran three defenders and finally dragged the Sooners' Williams just across the goal line. After Brown's point, it was 14-0 with 8:11 left in the opening period.

It seemed like a scrimmage between a varsity and junior varsity team, and the Huskers, who had won 88 of 97 games and three national championships since the start of the '93 season, was the varsity. The Oklahoma defense had allowed 166 yards on the first two drives, and it looked like things could quickly turn ugly. With the Sooners in a hole, one couldn't help thinking that the hoopla surrounding the clash between the two undefeated squads might fall into the category of "false advertising". Oklahoma had a nice little run, but the first 15 minutes showed an inability to hang with the big boys. As it would soon turn out, the Sooners' had nothing to worry about.

Early on, the Husker defense was using blitzes and stunts, and the Oklahoma offensive linemen were picking them up, but Heupel had been forced to get rid of the ball quicker than usual. After two fruitless possessions, offensive coordinator Mark Mangino paid his uncharacteristically jittery quarterback a visit on the bench. Holding out his laminated play-call sheet, Mangino asked Heupel to pick the plays he felt most comfortable running. Liking almost everything like a man ordering sushi at a restaurant, Heupel worked his way down the menu.

Back out on the field, Oklahoma regained its composure and Heupel directed the offense down the field as the period was winding down. Regardless, when the first quarter ended the scoreboard still had not changed, showing a 14-0 Nebraska lead, but the Sooners were threatening.

First, Heupel hit Fagan for 19 yards, moving the ball to the Husker one. On the next play, Griffin plunged across, and with Tim Duncan's extra point, the Nebraska lead was cut in half just 47 seconds into the second quarter.

Next Heupel hit Andre Woolfolk, who inadvertently kicked the pass into the air and then snared it one-handed while lying on his back, for a 34-yard gain. Then, Oklahoma was faced with a third down-and-14 at the Husker 34. Heupel threw off his back foot while blitzing cornerback Erwin Swiney launched himself at his left ear hole, and tossed a wobbly ball to a streaking Fagan for a touchdown. Duncan's boot tied the game, 14-14, at the 10:52 mark.

It was time for Nebraska to regroup, but that didn't happen as they went three plays and out. Lined up to punt, the Oklahoma special teams made a scene. Norman burst through the middle of the line and blocked a Dan Hadenfeldt punt at the 20. Woolfolk picked up the ball at the seven, and was tackled at the Huskers' three-yard line. Four plays later, with the Black Shirts holding firm, Duncan kicked a 19-yard field goal, and the Sooners had their first lead of the game, 17-14, with just over six minutes left in the half.

But they were not done. After another Husker three and out, and then punt, Oklahoma took over at its own 46 and went right down the field. The march featured Heupel hitting Savage with a 37-yard pass, who leaped and made the catch despite blanket coverage by cornerback DeJuan Gorce. Oklahoma found the end zone again on Norman's eight-yard run, and Duncan extended the lead to ten points with 2:41 remaining until halftime. It marked the fourth straight possession that the Sooners had scored.

Heupel had distributed the ball relatively evenly, throwing a combination of short passes and long passes, showcasing his corps of sterling sophomore receivers. Woolfolk had played cornerback in a Denver high school and wasn't even recruited by Colorado or Colorado State. Savage was an option quarterback at a bad Georgia high school, and Oklahoma beat out Tulane for him. Slot receiver Damian Mackey was headed for Stanford until he blew out a knee in the last quarter of his final high school game, and when the Cardinal backed off, Mackey accepted a scholarship from the Sooners. It was also a group that served as a reminder that Stoops' oft-maligned predecessor, John Blake, had a good recruiting staff. Each of those receivers, in addition to a number of other key Sooners, visited Oklahoma on the same December weekend in 1997.

The Husker front line had knocked Oklahoma off the ball in the first quarter, and would-be tacklers looked as though they didn't know where to go, but the Sooners found a map in the second period, and they held on to it. When the half arrived, Nebraska had gained just one first down and only 16 offensive yards in the second period.

The 24-point barrage was the most points the Huskers have allowed in any second quarter. You could say that Oklahoma made the proper adjustments, or you could say Nebraska lost its concentration, or maybe Switzer conjured one of those "Sooner Magic" spells he used to such great effect, but what actually happened was that Oklahoma proved its defense was probably underestimated and that its offense was for real. En route to the locker room, Stoops made a modest understatement when he told the ABC interviewer, "We're protecting really well."

In the second half, the Sooner defense continued to read Nebraska as though it had their playbook, and the offensive woes continued for the Huskers on their opening drive of the second half. First, harassing Crouch behind the line, Marshall, who arrived in Norman by way of Miami-Dade Community College, sacked him on successive plays. Next, Crouch scrambled to his right and threw the ball directly to Oklahoma's Strait, who zig-zagged 32 yards untouched into the end zone for a touchdown, amid a wave of oranges that came flying out of the stands, as the crowd of 75,989 began celebrating early with a 31-14 lead. It broke Nebraska's spirits and somewhat effectively sealing a victory.

But, the third period wasn't nearly over, and Nebraska would certainly buckle down for, if nothing else, one of those in-your-face, pancake-blocking, I-Back running, fullback-thumping, Crouch-optioning drives that every opponent falls prey to as the game wears on. With the Oklahoma defense lacking the size to match up with the Huskers' powerful offensive line, they simply were quicker, filling holes, stringing out option plays, getting in the face of Crouch and staying there, shutting down the nation's leading running game. And about the only thing in the quarter the Huskers could boast about was Heupel's streak of consecutive passes without an interception ended at 145 after walk-on backup senior safety Troy Watchorn picked one off.

With Oklahoma up by 17 points, Crouch tried to lead the Huskers back, but the Sooners wouldn't let up. They ended Nebraska's only real threat of the fourth quarter when Davison fumbled a pass completion after a hit by Strait, and Brandon Everage recovered at the Oklahoma 20.

Heupel had improved his speed in the 40-yard dash from 5.06 to 4.75, and he used it to break off runs of 11 and 17 yards on Oklahoma's penultimate possession, during which the Sooners force-fed Nebraska a dose of its own medicine, running the ball down their throats to eat up the clock. Later on, the Huskers were called for running into the punter and Oklahoma retained possession.

As the clock ticked down, the fans began chanting "Were Number One! We're Number One!" and when time officially expired, they rushed the field to celebrate the Sooners' biggest win in more than a decade. The Sooners had proven that they were for real, and they were back on top.

Where some of the finest minds in college football have failed, police in Norman met with rousing success. They found a way to stop Heupel, simply nail him with some pepper spray so he could not go through his reads. He and Stoops found themselves just outside a crowd bent on tearing down the goalpost in the south end zone, and the next thing they knew, they were rubbing their eyes, having come too close to the mob the cops sought to subdue with pepper spray. With oranges scattered all over Owen Field, eventually, the bright yellow pipes lay in pieces in a corner of the end zone. And while Heupel wasn't one of the yahoos dangling from the crossbar to bring it down, he was indirectly responsible for the bedlam.

It wasn't vandalism; it was Oktoberfest, Oklahoma-style. The month began with a 63-14 dismemberment of then #11 Texas, continued with a 41-31 upset of second-ranked Kansas State, and then concluded with the dominating 31-14 performance over top-ranked Nebraska, a win that is certain to send the Sooners to #1 when the next AP poll is released. In wresting from the Huskers the top spot in the polls, Oklahoma was last #1 at the end of the '87 season, after beating Nebraska, the Sooners also wrapped up the most memorable October in its history. They became just the third team to beat the #1 and #2 teams in consecutive games, matching Southern California in '64 and Notre Dame in '88.

It was billed as the next Game of the Century, but for the Oklahoma players, it became the "Game of a Lifetime" after starting out promising a much different scenario that the actual results. It looked like a Nebraska romp over a very flat Sooners team after two possessions gave the visitor's a 14-0 lead, but it quickly turned into an Oklahoma romp, as the Sooners exploded for 24 points in the second quarter, en route to 31 unanswered points, to put this game into the history books. It ended an embarrassing seven-game losing streak in the rivalry to the Huskers, and it was Oklahoma's first win against a #1 team at home in six tries.

In doing so, the Sooners got big plays from their offense, defense and special teams. They rolled up 418 yards of total offense, 300 through the air and 118 on the ground. Heupel boosted his Heisman chances by completing 20 of 34 passes for his 300 yards and a touchdown, while also running eight times for 46 yards. Eight different Sooners caught passes with Fagan leading the receiving with six catches for 95 yards, and Griffin paced the rushing attack with 52 yards on 21 carries.

"I've said all along that I had a good feeling about who we are and what we've done," Stoops said afterwards. "I think we've more than proven who we are. I don't know if you'll see a stronger defensive performance against them. I haven't seen one in a long time."

The Oklahoma defense shut out Nebraska over the final 51 minutes, 49 seconds, held them 32 points under their scoring average, and 171 yards under their total offense average. In fact, the Huskers had more points and yardage on their first two possessions, 14 points and 169 yards, than they did the rest of the game, zero and 159. Calmus had 17 tackles, and Marshall was a terror on the field and had a dozen tackles and a pair of sacks.

"The biggest thing was our offense. If you stop us from executing, you'll get the job done," said Crouch, the Heisman contending maestro of Nebraska's option offense, who also slipped out of character. While he did rush for 103 yards on 24 carries, he looked ill at ease throwing a season-high 27 passes and completing only 12. "They played a great game and deserve to win. But like the Texas loss last year, it's almost a feeling of we beat ourselves."

"We played well at times," said Solich, whose team had had their 13-game winning streak ended with their largest margin of defeat since a 19-0 loss to Arizona State in '96. "We put bits and pieces together but we really didn't get it done."

Under Stoops, who directed an amazing turnaround in less than two years, the Sooners (7-0, 4-0 in the Big 12) are in control of the national championship race. Switzer, who still shakes his head at the thought of winning without the wishbone, shook hands with Stoops after the Nebraska game, a game he dominated as coach in the glory years. "It's the coach and that quarterback," Switzer says. They just do things a little differently from the way it used to be, that's all.

Meanwhile, the loss dropped Nebraska to 7-1, but they could get another shot at the Sooners, and Solich felt his team still has a chance to battle for the national crown. "No one's out of anything yet. It's a still a season that has to be played out." Solich said. "We need to regroup and we need to get ready to play Kansas."

It would not be unreasonable to suspect that Oklahoma will win the conference's south division, and if the Huskers win out, the key game being at Kansas State in two weeks, and emerge as the northern champs, it would set up a re-match in the Big 12 championship game in Kansas City. And if they beat the Sooners, there would still be a chance for Nebraska to play for the national championship in the Orange Bowl, meaning the deal could work out for Big Red. Stranger things have happened.

Source: Jeff Linkowski

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