That's the ticket
Finally, Nebraska got over the Oklahoma hump in '78
Posted: Wednesday July 18, 2007 10:17AM; Updated: Wednesday July 18, 2007 4:45PM
Editor's note: We asked SI.com writers to share their memories from the best game they've ever seen. Here are their stories:
I was 7 and walking hand-in-hand with my Dad toward Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., when he went over our plan one more time. It was Nov. 11, 1978, and the No. 1-ranked Oklahoma Sooners were in my hometown to play the third-ranked Huskers. Though I had a ticket for the game, my father instructed me to sneak past security so that we could save the entire ticket -- not just the stub -- for posterity.
"When we get to the gate, you squeeze in between your brother and me," said my Dad, who was dressed in a red shirt, red pants, and a red coat. "Then, as soon as we're in, you run. Don't stop running no matter what, you hear me? Those guys who take the tickets will never be able to catch you."
I nodded then put back on my oversized radio headset, which was just like my Dad's and resembled giant red earmuffs. We continued to walk through the gray late morning. For us, the Oklahoma-Nebraska game was always the showcase sporting event of the year, the only game that mattered really, and we could almost feel the sense of excitement pulse through the air like an unseen cosmic force as we strolled closer to the stadium. To Nebraskans, this was our Super Bowl.
When we reached our gate I did just as I was told: I scrunched between my dad and my brother Erik in line, then as soon as we reached the elderly ticket-taker, I bolted into the stadium like I was I.M. Hipp, Nebraska's star I-back. I darted into the crowded stadium, dodging around fans. The security guards never had a chance. Ten minutes later I triumphantly met my dad and brother at our seats at the five-yard-line. I pulled out the ticket, proudly showing my dad its unblemished condition.
It was cold and windy, and I remember seeing Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer and Nebraska's Tom Osborne shivering at midfield as they shook hands before the game. Osborne had never beaten Switzer before in six previous games, and there had been rumblings around Lincoln that Osborne would never be able to win a big game.
Operating its dreaded wishbone attack, Oklahoma struck first, as running back Billy Sims, who would win the Heisman Trophy less than a month later, sprinted 44 yards into the end zone. The Sooners were up 7-0, but Nebraska responded when I-back Rick Berns barreled into score from five yards out, prompting the home fans to release about 10,000 balloons into the cold autumn sky. At halftime the score was 7-7.
The Huskers went up 14-7 in the third quarter when Hipp scored on an eight-yard run. The crowd was whipped into a froth, emitting a roar so loud I swore you could have heard it from my house on Calvert Street, some six miles away.
Oklahoma came back as Sims scored on a 30-yard dash. Early in the final quarter, Nebraska kicker Billy Todd, using his straight-on approach, nailed a 24-yard field goal to give the Huskers a 17-14 lead.
Oklahoma's Kelly Phelps received the ensuing kickoff. He was directly in front of me when he caught the ball, and took about five steps before -- wham! --Phelps was utterly blindsided by Nebraska's John Rudd, who hit him with the force of a freight train. Phelps never saw Rudd coming, and when Rudd left his feet and slammed into the chest of Phelps at full sprint, the OU runner fumbled the ball. The Huskers recovered at the 10-yard line, and the Nebraska players jumped around as if they had finally slayed their Goliath.
But wait. The referee flubbed the call, proclaiming the runner was down before he fumbled. The Sooners marched down the field, as Sims ripped off one breathtaking run after the next. But just when it appeared OU was going to score, Sims fumbled at the Huskers' 20 with about six minutes remaining.
The Sooners defense held Nebraska, forcing a punt. With time running out, Oklahoma quarterback Thomas Lott kept handing the ball to Sims, who shredded Nebraska's defense for eight yards on one play, four the next, six on the following. With just more than three minutes remaining and the ball on the Huskers 20, Sims got the ball and busted around the right end. It looked like he might score -- like Switzer was going to get the best of Osborne yet again -- but then Nebraska safety Jeff Hansen, a homegrown boy, laid a beautiful, bruising hit on Sims, forcing him to fumble. It was the Sooners' ninth fumble of the afternoon, and Huskers monsterback Jim Pillen recovered it.
Nebraska ran out the clock. Students and fans rushed the field after the final whistle blew and tore down the goal posts, a first in the Osborne era. Years later I was writing a story on Osborne for the magazine when I asked him what his greatest win was as a college coach. "Well, it would be hard to say that any were bigger than that '78 game over Oklahoma," Osborne said. "That was when things started to turn in our favor."
As I watched the fans celebrate that day with my dad, he lifted my 7-year-old body up onto my bleacher seat and told me to take a mental snapshot of what I was seeing. "Sports doesn't get any better than this," he told me. "Just stand here and take it all in."
And I still do, every time I look at that unbroken ticket, which is sitting in front of me right now.
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