Where some of the finest minds in college football have failed, police in Norman, Okla., met with rousing success. How do you stop Oklahoma senior quarterback Josh Heupel? Simple. Nail him with pepper spray. All right, smart gay, let's see you go through your reads now.
Last Saturday afternoon Heupel and his coach, Bob Stoops, found themselves just outside a crowd bent on tearing down the goalpost in the south end zone of Oklahoma's Memorial Stadium. 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. While Heupel wasn't one of the yahoos dangling from the crossbar, he was indirectly responsible for the bedlam, having thrown for 300 yards and a touchdown in the Sooners' 31-14 win over Nebraska, which had entered the game ranked No. 1.
In wresting from the Cornhuskers the top spot in the polls, Oklahoma, which had been No. 3, also wrapped up the most memorable October in its history. The month began with a 63-14 dismemberment of then No. 11 Texas, continued with a 41-31 upset of second-ranked Kansas State and came to a sublime conclusion for the Sooners, who in recent times had found themselves on the wrong end of serial ass-kickings by the Huskers. (Combined score of the last two: Nebraska 142, Oklahoma 28.) "We're No. 1!" shouted the Sooners' faithful as the uprights wobbled and then fell—and they were, for the first time in 13 years. This wasn't vandalism; it was Oktoberfest, Oklahoma-style.
Because most of the Sooners were preteens the last time this matchup meant anything to the rest of the country, Stoops tried to educate his players on the rivalry's storied history. Team meetings last week began with five-minute film clips of celebrated moments from the series. Some of the legends seen on tape came to life on the sideline before the game. There was former Sooners linebacker Brian Bosworth chatting up former Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne. The Boz is still trying to make a career of acting, while Osborne is running for Congress. How was he enjoying the campaign trail? "It's like recruiting," Osborne said, "but it lasts longer."
Long, sustained drives were precisely what Oklahoma feared from Nebraska, which entered the game having outrushed its previous two opponents by 901 yards to 24. As it turned out, the Sooners' defense had nothing to worry about. Yes, Nebraska scored touchdowns on its first two possessions, but those drives were anything but prolonged. With junior quarterback Eric Crouch mixing option runs and play-action passes as deftly as Tom Cruise mixed drinks in Cocktail, Nebraska cruised 76 yards in six plays for its first touchdown and then 91 in five for its second. All this occurred before the game was seven minutes old.
After Oklahoma dug itself into that hole, one couldn't help thinking, The Sooners have had a nice little run, but they can't hang with the big boys. It was unreasonable, really, to have thought that they could bump off the Huskers, who had won 88 of 97 games and three national championships since the start of the 1993 season. Stoops, after all, was less than two seasons into this reclamation project. His team was callow—24 players on his two-deep are redshirt sophomores or younger—and his defensive line was light, giving up an average of 40 pounds per man to Nebraska's blockers.
What's more, how was Oklahoma's no-name offensive line supposed to keep the fearsome Blackshirts pass rush off Heupel? That didn't turn out to be a problem, which, paradoxically, turned out to be a problem. Heupel explained after the game, "Early on, there were some blitzes and stunts. Even though our offensive linemen did a great job picking them up, I didn't think they'd be able to. So I was getting rid of the ball quicker than I had to." 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.
"I like everything!" came the reply.
"I know you do," said Mangino, "but tell me what you're really comfortable with."
Like a man ordering sushi, Heupel worked his way down the menu, just as he would soon work his way down the field, leading Oklahoma to scores on its next four possessions. It was a points explosion that put the game out of reach and allowed Heupel to showcase his corps of sterling sophomore receivers.