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Dust Bowl
Leigh Montville
November 10, 1997
Nebraska killed Oklahoma and buried, at least for a while, what had been one of the fiercest rivalries in American sports
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November 10, 1997

Dust Bowl

Nebraska killed Oklahoma and buried, at least for a while, what had been one of the fiercest rivalries in American sports

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The day was special no more. Last Saturday morning the Nebraska football fan awoke to the sound of his Nebraska alarm clock ($11.95 at the Nebraska Bookstore), slipped out from under his Nebraska comforter ($79.95, queen sized), brushed his teeth with his Nebraska toothbrush ($4.95), wiped his face with a towel from his Nebraska towel set ($19.95), maybe remembered to put down the Nebraska toilet seat ($39.95 by mail order) after flushing, assembled his Nebraska red wardrobe (prices vary), checked his Nebraska Swiss Army watch ($135) and...and nothing.

No butterflies appeared. No sense of excitement touched his every thought, his every small action. Nothing. It was as if Christmas had been discontinued—or simply forgotten. Oklahoma was in town, and it didn't matter. Oklahoma stank.

"It's a shame," Steve Paus ( Nebraska, class of '71), a car dealer from West Point, Neb., said as the No. 1-ranked Cornhuskers began a 69-7 pounding of the Sooners in Lincoln. "You think of all the heartbreakers against this team, of the games against Billy Sims and Keith Jackson. You'd watch, and your heart would be in your throat the entire afternoon. It's not like that anymore."

What else was there to say? There had been a time, a long time, when these were two grand football machines plowing into each other as a national audience held its breath, No. 1 against No. 2. The headline on the cover of this magazine on Nov. 22, 1971, read IRRESISTIBLE OKLAHOMA MEETS IMMOVABLE NEBRASKA before the matchup that is still called the Game of the Century. Now Nebraska is both irresistible and immovable. Oklahoma is neither. Not close.

Over the last decade, while the Huskers have continued to win with production-line efficiency and earned back-to-back national championships in 1994 and '95, the Sooners have fallen apart. Since '89, when the NCAA imposed sanctions on Oklahoma for recruiting violations, the school of the Selmon brothers and Touchdown Tommy McDonald and Julius Caesar Watts and Steve Owens has dropped out of the national football consciousness. Three coaches in the past four years have tried to bring the Sooners back. None has succeeded.

"I remember when we were the team coming up, and Oklahoma was the powerhouse," Ric Jensen, a quality manager for U S WEST Dex phone books in Omaha, said after the game. "We were right on the cusp for a number of years and just couldn't beat them. There was an exhilaration about those games, an excitement when we finally won. I miss that. I also miss the weather. Remember how those games always were part of Thanksgiving weekend? You'd come out and freeze, and it would be wonderful. Oklahoma, in the cold. It was tradition."

The game last Saturday was mostly familiar uniforms and old memories, more ritual than rivalry. The eye could look down at the visitors in crimson-and-cream and conjure the Huskers' Johnny Rodgers running through those colors on the 72-yard punt return that won the Game of the Century 35-31 and brought Nebraska the national title. Or was that Jim Pillen recovering Sims's fumble on the three-yard line to help upset the No. 1-ranked Sooners in 1978? Or was it Elvis Peacock, breaking Huskers hearts on that hook-and-ladder special in '76? Or Buster Rhymes breaking more Nebraska hearts in '80? Or Jamelle Holieway passing 41 yards to Jackson to set up the field goal that beat the Big Red in '86?

The eye could trick the mind. Until the game began. "I come into this locker room, and I have good memories," second-year Sooners coach John Blake, an Oklahoma noseguard from 1979 to '82, said after the game. "That's what I was thinking today. I remember celebrating in this locker room after beating these guys in '80. I remember how happy we all were. This same place."

Even the possibility of celebrating was out of the question this time. Oklahoma had lost six in a row to the Huskers and last year was blown out 73-21 in Norman. Going into Saturday's game, the Sooners were 3-5, hadn't won on the road in more than a year and, to make a dim situation dimmer, were missing their top three running backs, all injured. Blake also was alternating three quarterbacks, two of them sophomores. There were reasons the Sooners were 37-point underdogs.

" Oklahoma has some great athletes, and they play incredibly hard, but I think they make a few too many mistakes," Nebraska offensive tackle Eric Anderson said last week. "And sometimes they don't play together. Sometimes they seem to have different agendas down there."

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