So what if the kid watched a little TV during the game? He had some downtime. Nebraska freshman wideout Mike Stuntz was on the field for all of two snaps against Oklahoma last Saturday. Standing on the sideline, hopping up and down every so often to ward off the chill, he would sneak occasional peeks at the giant HuskerVision screen in the southeast corner of Memorial Stadium. It hadn't occurred to him, as he watched highlights of past Nebraska victories over Oklahoma played during breaks in the action, that he might soon find himself in the starring role of a play to be shown at future meetings between the two schools.
On the field his teammates were clawing for yards against the best defense they'd faced all season. Although the Cornhuskers came into the game 8-0, and were rated No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings and No. 3 in the Associated Press poll, it wasn't clear how good they were. In beating up on weak opponents, Nebraska had rung up its usual big numbers: 38.8 points and 339.7 yards rushing per game. What the Cornhuskers hadn't had a chance to do was prove that they were good enough to deserve a shot at the national championship. As the game approached, Huskers and Sooners alike held these truths to be self-evident: 1) second-ranked Oklahoma (7-0) would give Nebraska its first test of the season, and 2) for the Cornhuskers to prevail, their quicksilver quarterback, senior Eric Crouch, would have to beat the Sooners with his arm. He beat them, instead, with Stuntz's.
With 6:48 to play and Nebraska facing third-and-two while nursing a 13-10 lead, Oklahoma defensive end Cory Heinecke appeared to have made a crucial stop when he tackled Crouch for a seven-yard loss. In making the play, however, Heinecke had inadvertently grabbed Crouch's face mask and was assessed a five-yard penalty. First down, Nebraska. In the huddle before the next play Crouch glanced at Stuntz, who had been sent in with the latest entry in the Cornhuskers' playbook—41 Flash Pass. On the Monday before the game, the apple-cheeked, Opie-like freshman was joined at lunch by quarterbacks coach Turner Gill, who asked him, "How do you like your play?" To which Stuntz replied, "What are you talking about?" Gill filled him in.
Mindful that Stuntz had been an All-State standout quarterback at St. Albert's High in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and that Nebraska was unlikely to snap Oklahoma's 20-game winning streak without at least a smidgen of trickery, the Huskers' coaching staff concocted 41 Flash Pass, in which I-back Thunder Collins would line up wide left, go in motion to the right and take a handoff from Crouch; instead of carrying the ball around the end, Collins would pitch it to Stuntz, who, having lined up wide right, would appear to be running a reverse. That's just how the play unfolded against Oklahoma.
With the ball in his hands and the Sooners in hot pursuit, Stuntz took an extra moment (and a year or so off the lives of his coaches) to find the seams on the ball as he rolled out. Then he hummed a sweet spiral through a stiff wind and into the arms of a wide-open Crouch, who had sneaked out of the backfield undetected. Crouch easily outran Oklahoma's defense for a 63-yard touchdown, nailing down the win and avenging a crushing 31-14 defeat in Norman a year ago.
While watching Crouch streak down the sideline, "I had to half-chuckle to myself," said Sooners coach Bob Stoops after the game. "I said, 'I'll be a son of a gun. Theirs worked, and ours didn't.' "
Oklahoma had attempted its own version of 41 Flash Pass in the second quarter. With a clear path to the end zone, quarterback Nate Hybl tripped and fell while reaching for a pass from wide receiver Mark Clayton. (Hybl was playing in relief of starter Jason White, who had sprained his left knee after completing a pass earlier in the quarter.) The Sooners settled for a field goal on that possession—the last points they would score.
Stoops made no excuses for Oklahoma's first defeat since Dec. 31, 1999. Instead he complimented the Cornhuskers and their fans before adding, "Wish we could've won." Stoops then flashed a quick smile, knowing mat the Sooners are likely to get another shot at Nebraska, in the Big 12 title game, on Dec. 1 in Dallas.
To beat Stoops, Cornhuskers coach Frank Solich had to emulate him. One ingredient of the defending national champion Sooners' 20-game winning streak was a willingness to take risks—a boldness that has seldom been a hallmark of Nebraska football. There's little need for deception when you're putting the wood to Troy State, as the Huskers did in their second game this season. Solich's willingness to take a chance at a critical moment in a huge game was a measure of the growing comfort he feels in his fourth season in this job. It may not be fair, but last Saturday's game was a defining one for Solich, whose most notable win had been against Tennessee in the meaningless 2000 Fiesta Bowl. Yes, he won nine, 12 and 10 games, respectively, in his first three years after succeeding Tom Osborne in December 1997. Yes, his 31-7 record tied him for the fourth-best three-year start in Division I-A history. All that, though, wasn't sufficient to keep Nebraska fans from grumbling. Remember, in the five seasons before Solich took over, the Cornhuskers had gone 60-3 and won three national titles.
Did the grumbling get to the 57-year-old Solich? Please. This is a man whose son Jeff is an American Airlines pilot. When asked if in the wake of Sept. 11, he wishes Jeff would find a different line of work, Frank says, "Not at all. I'm enormously proud of him. People are up and flying again. You've got to get back to work."