Oklahoma 10, Nebraska 20
October 27, 2001 | at Lincoln | Attendance 78,031
Once again, it was like old times, and for the second significant meeting in as many years, Oklahoma and Nebraska entered the game ranked first and second in the Bowl Championship Series standings. The storied rivalry of college football powers had gotten there in two different manners.
Ranked second in the Associated Press' poll, Oklahoma (7-0) came in as the defending national champions. Behind third-year coach Bob Stoops, whose record was a stellar 27-5 in Norman, the Sooners were riding a nation's-best 20-game winning streak, the fifth such streak in school history. They had last lost in the 1999 Independence Bowl to Mississippi, who needed a field goal on the final play of the millennium to win, 27-25.
Oklahoma's passing game wasn't as potent as in '00, but it was still making life dangerous for defenses behind an improved running game, thanks to junior running back Quentin Griffin, better offensive line play and a mobile signal-caller, sophomore Jason White, who has started one game. He replaced Nate Hybl, a junior who got hurt against Texas and had not impressed the Sooners' coaches with his penchant for taking the safe route on several plays. White was certainly not safe, in limited play, he had rushed 158 yards overall despite eight sacks in the Baylor win, and he has thrown for 631 yards in '01. In fact, the '01 season is the first in which Oklahoma has had two quarterbacks who threw for more than 300 yards in a game, as Hybl threw for 350 vs. North Texas and White for 343 vs. Baylor. If there was a focal point of the offense, it was the five receivers, the best collection in the country. None had more than 30 catches, but there were six with at least 15 catches, and the group included juniors Antwone Savage, Curtis Fagan, Andre Woolfolk and Josh Norman.
Meanwhile, Nebraska had finished 2000 with a 10-2 record, certainly nothing to scoff at, but in Lincoln, they were used to more, a lot more. It didn't help that in coach Frank Solich's first season, the team finished 9-4 in '98, the program's worst record in 30 years, but he was cut from the same sturdy stock as his legendary predecessor, Tom Osborne, and the problems of a team that began the season a near-consensus #1 ran far deeper than the head coach. The '00 Huskers were supposed to be a team that brought pride to the plains like the big, bad Nebraska teams that had won three national championships in four years, '94, '95 and '97, but it didn't happen, and now schools such as Stanford, Oregon State and Purdue had as many Bowl Championship Series appearances as Solich's Huskers. It was hard to explain what went wrong with the season, scholarship limit or not, and many wanted to blame Solich, who they thought shouldn't be calling the plays in addition to his head coaching duties.
Still, after spending most of the '00 season ranked #1 before the 31-14 loss at Oklahoma and a 29-28 loss two weeks later at Kansas State, the Huskers ended the year on a positive note. They demolished Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl, 66-17, setting many records in the game, both individually, and as a team. The solid victory somewhat enabled the Huskers make up for lost expectations, as well as to reestablish themselves as one of the top programs in the country, and one of a handful of favorites for the '01 campaign, with talent to spare.
Leading an offense that was scoring 38.9 points per game, #8 in the nation, was senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Eric Crouch, whose record as a starter was 32-5. Recovered from off-season shoulder surgery, he had piled up some impressive career numbers, 7,053 total yards, rushing for 3,096 yards and passing for another 3,957, only the fourth quarterback in NCAA history to run and pass for 3,000 yards in his career. The problem is, Nebraska needs him to throw the ball more often to make the offense work, despite rushing for a nation's-best 339 yards per game behind junior I-back Dahrran Diedrick, whose 124.4 yards per game was tenth in the nation.
Through the years, Nebraska has produced its share of vaunted defenses. Heck, the guys that play that side of the field get their own special nickname, the Blackshirts. But the past couple of seasons, the Husker D had earned a considerably less flattering pseudonym in some corners, a kiss-of-death moniker no coach ever wants to hear; soft. It reared its head last season in unflattering losses to Oklahoma and Kansas State, and it began surfacing again last week when Texas Tech torched the unit for 31 points and 353 passing yards. Overall, the defense had permitted an average of only 11.1 points per game, second best in the nation, and 255 total yards per game. It was led up front by senior nose tackle Jason Lohr and senior tackle Jeremy Slechta, and right behind them was senior linebacker Mark Vedral. The secondary featured senior Jim Thorpe candidate Keyuo Craver as the leader of a strong unit.
Solich desperately needed a victory in a big game to help carve his identity in Lincoln. The Huskers have claimed one North Division title and an impressive 39-7 record in his three-plus years, but had not played for a national championship since Osborne retired after the '97 season.
One might as well flip a coin since of the 79 games in the series, Oklahoma won 52.5 percent (40-36-3) of them. The series started in 1912 and was continuous from '21 through '95, but Big 12 scheduling gave the series a two-year hiatus in 1998-99 until but the 2000 showdown of #1 Nebraska vs. #3 Oklahoma showed once again how this rivalry has been on the national front. In the last 38 meetings, at least one of these two teams was ranked at kick off, but even more impressive, in 34 of those 38, one of the two teams was ranked in the AP top ten. And since the '71 "Game of the Century" contest, both Oklahoma and Nebraska have been ranked in the top ten at kick off 16 times and in the top five on nine occasions (1971-72-78-84-85-86-87-00-01).
The Sooners will be looking for their first victory in Lincoln since '87, and have lost by a combined margin of 106-7 in their last two games there. Stoops had carved out an impressive road record in his two-plus years as coach, as half of the Sooners' 20 consecutive wins were claimed away from Norman. And his teams were 10-1 against teams ranked at kickoff, and have won an incredible eight straight games against top ten teams.
"It seems like in big games, everybody just seems to rise to the occasion," White said. "Coach Stoops always pushes us in practice, but it seems like everybody steps it up before big games."
In front of 78,031 fans, on the first play of the game, Craver picked off White's pass at the Oklahoma 49 and returned it to the 25. Blessed with excellent field position, Crouch and the Huskers were ready to go to work.
Okahoma junior strong safety Roy Williams made his presence felt on their first play. He blew through a blocker and knocked down Crouch for a loss. The rest of the defense continued their effort, and after three Nebraska plays netted a loss of five yards, they were forced to punt, blowing a scoring opportunity.
That was about it for the first quarter, as it was a defensive struggle. Oklahoma out-gained the Huskers with just 59 yards to 45, while both teams managed just two first downs in the quarter. Nebraska had good field position one other time, but once again, couldn't convert it into points.
After a defensive stalemate in the opening quarter, both offenses started moving the ball in the second. Early in the period, White twisted his left knee after releasing the ball when he came down awkwardly, and was helped off the field after the completion. That brought in Hybl, who had lost his starting job a week earlier.
Oklahoma was on the Nebraska 22 when Hybl came in, and the Huskers got slapped with a pass interference penalty that took the Sooners to the Husker seven. Griffin picked up three yards on the next play, and then Hybl fired a four-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Trent Smith, who made a leaping grab in the back of the end zone. Tim Duncan's extra point made it 7-0 with 10:27 left in the first half.
After punting on its first six possessions, Nebraska's offense finally came alive, responding like a bunch of guys who had been insulted in their own home. Crouch kept the unit moving with a 13-yard pass to junior split end Wilson Thomas, then a 19-yarder to backup junior tight end Kyle Ringenberg, followed by a nine-yard completion to Thomas, and then a 17-yard pass to senior starting tight end Tracey Wistrom that put Nebraska on the visitor's 18-yard line. Diedrick picked up 16 yards on the next play, and he capped the ten-play, 80-yard march by scoring from the two. Junior kicker Josh Brown's extra point tied the game, 7-7, with 5:58 left in the half.
Oklahoma went three and out on the next series, and junior DeJuan Groce returned the punt 33 yards to the Sooner 30. The Huskers got as far as the ten, and they settled for Brown's 27-yard field goal that gave them a 10-7 lead with 2:37 remaining in the second quarter.
After receiving the ensuing kickoff, Oklahoma started at its 22. Hybl engineered the two-minute offense to near perfection as he completed passes of 11, 16 and 32 yards, the latter to Savage, setting the offense up at the Husker 20.
The Sooners then rolled out razzle, dazzle and zippity-doo-dah, all in one play. It was a double reverse that wound up with freshman receiver Mark Clayton tossing a pass in the direction of a wide open Hybl, who fell down with the ball coming right to him and nothing but open field in front of him. It was a missed opportunity that Sooners' fans would probably remember as a woulda' coulda' shoulda' for a long time, and Hybl probably longer than that.
Hybl regrouped and hit Norman for 18 yards on the next play, they were at the Nebraska two-yard line with about 30 seconds left. Griffin tried two runs at the Blackshirts' line with no result, as senior linebacker Jamie Burrow and senior rush end Chris Kelsay had stuffed him, and then Hybl's pass for Clayton was incomplete. Oklahoma had to settle for Duncan's tying 20-yard field goal with 15 seconds left in the half, capping the 14-play march, but they could have had the lead.
On the final play of the half, Crouch was intercepted when he tossed a Hail Mary that was caught by sophomore free safety Brandon Everage at the Oklahoma three-yard line. All those predictions about a close game were coming true, and it was 10-10 at the half. It was a nail-biting kind of truth, with both defenses playing tough, and it seemed that any score would loom large. Any mistake would be a big one.
To open the second half, on Oklahoma's first possession, Hybl went 19 yards on a quarterback draw, and it looked like the Sooners were pumped. On the next play, Hybl was victimized by bad luck, as his that seemed destined to drop like a mortar into the arms of Savage instead hit his facemask, and then landed into the arms of senior cornerback Erwin Swiney for an interception at the Husker 36.
Nebraska didn't waste any time, and they sent junior I-back Thunder Collins left, and fast. He turned the corner and came down 39 yards later with an apparent ankle injury at the Oklahoma 25. The Huskers advanced as far as the Sooner three, then got pushed back to the nine. They settled for Brown's 26-yard field goal that put the home team ahead, 13-10, just 3:29 into the period.
On Oklahoma's next possession, Kelsay slammed Hybl to the turf, injuring his left shoulder and sending him off for attention on the sideline. White came in for a couple of plays, but then Hybl was back. It didn't matter, for the defenses controlled the rest of the quarter, as Oklahoma advanced only as far as its own 47, and then later, own 41, and the game headed into the final turn with the home team still ahead by three points.
With neither team generating much offense, Hybl tried to rally the Sooners early in the fourth period, completing consecutive 15-yard passes to Norman and Clayton for a first down at the Nebraska 40. But faced with a third down-and ten, Clayton was stopped for a four-yard gain, forcing Oklahoma to give up the ball. Instead of attempting a 53-yard field goal, Duncan faked it and pooch-punted the ball, similar to the Texas game, and Nebraska was pinned back at its own four-yard line, and with 8:54 showing on the clock.
Crouch, thanks to his third-down, 19-yard run, got the Huskers out of the shadow of their end zone. They moved out to the 32, where they encountered a third down-and-two. Oklahoma appeared to have held when freshman tackle Tommie Harris and senior end Cory Heinecke combined to nail Crouch behind the line of scrimmage for a seven-yard loss on third down, but Heinecke was called for a crucial incidental face-mask penalty. It resulted in an automatic first down at the Oklahoma 37, keeping the drive alive.
All game, the Sooners' much-heralded defense had largely negated Nebraska's vaunted running attack, especially Crouch. On the next play, Solich caught Oklahoma by surprise with a rare stray from their normally conservative offense, and it was a play that they had been working on all week. Crouch handed off to Collins who headed on an apparent sweep around the right side, but he pitched the ball to Eric Stuntz on a reverse. He was an 18-year-old true freshman who had graduated from St. Albert High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa just a year earlier, and a former scholastic quarterback who was playing receiver this fall. Stuntz had been told not to throw to Crouch, who had slipped out of the backfield, if he was covered, but the youngster didn't have to hesitate when he saw Crouch sneak into the secondary. While Oklahoma watched in collective stupefaction, fans, coaches and players, the left-handed frosh lofted a perfect spiral to a wide-open and streaking Crouch, who caught the ball in stride at the Oklahoma 40 and raced untouched, outrunning Sooner lineman Kory Klein and a late-arriving defensive back, to the end zone. The 63-yard touchdown off the trick play sent the stands crazy. Brown's point after put the Huskers up two points, 20-10, and the clock read 6:17.
The Big Red Sea roiled and roared in approval. But on one hand, they were thrilled, and on the other, there was that anxiety in the air that comes every autumn, like when Lucy holds the ball and Charlie Brown tries to kick it, and always winds up on his back. The Sooners had risen from what seemed like sure defeat too many times against the Huskers. Nebraskans didn't count Oklahoma out just because they were down, for they would probably have a few more possessions to try to even things up or win, and Husker fans knew that "Sooner Magic" was more than capable of such heroics.
But this year it was not to be. Oklahoma didn't advance past its own 40-yard line in the remainder of the game, and that was it. In the storied history between Nebraska and Oklahoma, great plays have defined the outcome, and things were no different on this day, as the Huskers emerged from a defensive struggle with a 20-10 victory, ending the Sooners 20-game winning streak and derailing their hopes of a repeat national title.
The win was especially sweet for Crouch, who a year earlier had led Nebraska to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter before being shut out the rest of the way as the Sooners upset the top-ranked Huskers, 31-14. Crouch finished with 186 total yards, completing 10 of 18 passes for 102 yards, rushing for 21 yards on 13 carries, and one big 63-yard touchdown reception, totals that won't necessarily bolster his Heisman Trophy campaign, but he said he was more concerned with staying in the title race.
"In a game like this, a lot of people are going to look at it for years and years to come. This was icing on the cake for my career," he said. "No matter what happened, I knew we were going to get the job done. It wasn't finesse. It wasn't 500 or 600 yards, but we got the job done when we needed to. It's nice to show our critics that we can win big games." He finished with, "More important, it was a win for our football team. We just want to keep winning game after game and get to the Rose Bowl."
The Huskers converted only one of 13 third downs, but they did enough to get the job done, finishing the game with 165 yards passing and 164 on the ground. Diedrick led all ball carriers with 90 yards on 23 carries and provided the other Nebraska touchdown, while Collins contibured 47 yards on his four carries. And Josh Brown booted a pair of close field goals, from 27 and 26 yards.
While the Husker offense might have been slowed, the Blackshirt defense provided more than enough to neutralize the Sooners, putting to rest any doubts about their abilities. Facing a potent Oklahoma offense that spreads you out with a seemingly endless stable of receivers, the Huskers flat shut things down. Burrow had a game-high 16 tackles and Kelsay contributed seven, part of a pass rush whose relentless pressure, though not necessarily blitzing, sacked the quarterback three times and kept the Sooners from getting some of their big plays. Defensive backs Craver and Groce blanketed the Oklahoma receivers, content to give up the little stuff underneath to the tight end in order to negate any possibility of deep balls to the wide outs, as the defense picked off a pair of passes.
"We felt we could get pressure with four guys rushing," said Kelsay. "We were flat out beating them up front, one-on-one."
The Sooners amassed 21 first downs and 339 offensive yards. Hybl and White combined for 22 completions in 49 attempts and 234 yards passing, but numerous attempts were dropped or broken up. Smith caught seven passes for 62 yards and a touchdown, and Clayton, Norman and Savage caught a dozen balls between them for 145 yards. Griffin grabbed the other three for 27 yards, and rushed for 63 yards on 15 carries, as the frustrated Sooners could only grind out 105 yards on the ground.
"Did we not score in the second half?" said Hybl. "That can't happen. That's the bottom line. The defense, as always, hung in there and kept us in the ballgame. We just have to make it happen."
With the victory, the Huskers (9-0, 5-0 Big 12) had the inside track for the conference title and likely put themselves in front of the national championship race when the new BCS standings came out. "I think it puts us in the driver's seat, at least for the Big 12 title." said offensive lineman Dave Volk. "We're still on the road to what we want to accomplish, but we have to stay focused. Every team is going to be gunning for us."
And for the first time in the 21st century, Oklahoma (7-1, 4-1 Big 12) had tasted defeat. "Losing is a strange feeling in our locker room. We do not know what to feel. It's been a long time," Stoops said, whose team surrendered the nation's longest winning streak to Miami and their current 16-game streak. "It was a great atmosphere and a great game. I was proud to be part of it, but I just wish it would have went the other way." He continued, "In the end, losing is a strange feeling in our locker room…because we haven't experienced this in quite a while. I am very proud of our assistants and our players and the way they competed."
As always, Stoops remained optimistic. "They realize that we still have a great season ahead of us, with four more games." Of those four, the toughest remaining comes against unranked Texas A&M, but Oklahoma controls their own destiny, having beaten the South Division's other one-loss club, Texas. It is quite conceivable that the Sooners could run the table, finish 11-1, and get a rematch with Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game in Dallas, a contest which enriches the conference coffers while possibly hurting the national championship and bowl hopes of one or both teams.
But the Sooners have a serious question to answer before they can renew dreams of Pasadena, and that comes at quarterback. White was "hurt fairly significantly," said Stoops, when he sprained his knee while planting his foot on a pass attempt. He could be out for an extended time, leaving the offense in the hands of the inconsistent Hybl. And even if Oklahoma was to somehow reach the Rose Bowl, this game exposed a dearth of speed for the Sooners that would likely doom them against a Miami or Florida, whereas Nebraska could rely on its power game.
And if the Huskers are to make a run at their fourth national title in eight seasons, it will be largely on the strength of their defense. Still, Solich said December was a long way off. "There are enough excellent football teams around the country that the big picture is still unclear."
In the next AP poll and BCS rankings, the two teams switched positions, as Nebraska moved up to second in the poll and first in the BCS, with Oklahoma right behind them in both. Meanwhile, top-ranked Miami (6-0) was third in the BCS.
Source: Jeff Linkowski