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The question of which teams would meet in the Sugar Bowl Jan. 2 was about as hush-hush a topic as Lyndon Johnson's hernia-scar operation. Even the Bohemian farmers near the Platte River and the slaughterhouse workers in Omaha knew last week that Nebraska had been invited. The beloved Cornhuskers had gone through nine straight games without a loss or tie (sorry, Ara), they had clinched the Big Eight championship, and the Sugar was the only major bowl left unprogrammed. Still Coach Bob Devaney, an impish Irishman, kept mum until his weekly Extra Point Club luncheon in Lincoln. In a crowded banquet room he accepted the formal invitation from a Sugar Bowl emissary and got on the phone (hooked up to a loudspeaker) with officials of New Orleans' Mid-Winter Sports Association, who told him, just as if the newspapers had not been assuming it for days, that undefeated, untied Alabama also had accepted a bid. Devaney hesitated a moment and then said, "I was afraid of that."
He was joshing, of course, just as he had been earlier when he said the opponent would be the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Nebraska's Big Red was anxious to play Alabama and avenge the 39-28 loss to the Crimson Tide in last season's Orange Bowl. Both teams had strutted into that game unbeaten, but Alabama came out with the victory and the national title. So the Jan. 2 rematch was a natural.
Nebraska again was cutting down opponents like a row of cornstalks. In the romp over Utah State, Safety Larry Wachholtz, only 5 feet 8 and 166 pounds, returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown, intercepted two passes and kicked a 39-yard field goal. All-America Middle Guard Wayne Meylan blocked punts against Wisconsin and Kansas State and turned them both into touchdowns. At Colorado, Nebraska trailed 19-7 at half time, but fought back to win 21-19. After Missouri was harvested 35-0, Coach Dan Devine said, "I never saw a team with so many big, strong running backs."
But before the Big Red could start plotting against Alabama, there was one more regular-season chore, the matter of a Thanksgiving Day game down in Norman against Oklahoma. There, before about 6� million homes tuned in on TV, fourth-ranked Nebraska lost by one frustrating point to a team that was only No. 4 in the Big Eight—and a little sweetness went out of the Sugar Bowl.
Not that Nebraska coaches, players or fans had overlooked Oklahoma. All remembered the agony two years ago, when the Huskers were undefeated fat cats and already selected for the Cotton Bowl. A stopover in Norman resulted in a 17-7 defeat. Also, there were those millions of turkey-stuffed people to impress, not to mention voters in the polls. "It's the 10th game, and we've won nine already," said Meylan. "If we don't win this one it isn't a good season. I don't think anybody is looking beyond to the Sugar Bowl."
Meylan is one of the players who was most respected in advance by Oklahoma. He went into the game with 35 unassisted tackles, 36 assisted tackles and three blocked punts. It was too bad there were no statistics for havoc wreaked.
"The fact that Meylan is so good at so many things presents special problems," said Sooner Center Bob Craig. "For one thing, he has big, strong arms and can throw you around. He also has exceptional movement for his size.... You don't try to horse him out of there."
Meylan, 6 feet 1, 237 pounds, grew up on his father's navy-bean farm outside Bay City, Mich. And it was there, lifting weights under a tree, throwing fertilizer sacks around and hoeing in the bean fields day after day, that he developed his blacksmith's arms. Last year he could hardly wait for the Thanksgiving Day game to be over so that he could get home to the farm. His father had bought a new tractor, and to Wayne it had twice the allure that a diamond-studded Ferrari would have for almost anybody else. Meylan had another exciting trip planned after this year's Oklahoma game. One of the selectors of All-America teams was flying him back to New York City, his first visit there. He was not worried about meeting muggers—he happens to be Nebraska's intramural heavyweight wrestling champ.
For Oklahoma, the scary thing about Meylan was that he might not be the best of Devaney's linemen. Offensive Tackle Bob Pickens, 274 pounds, could block a threshing machine and was an Olympic wrestler in 1964. Defensive Tackle Card Stith has made more tackles than Meylan, and Offensive Guard LaVerne Allers is just as talented.