Still, the consequences of those fourth-quarter fumbles is inescapable. Had Sims hung onto the ball, especially the second time, Oklahoma almost certainly would have scored its third touchdown. In turn, this would have virtually assured the Sooners of their sixth straight Big Eight championship, buttressed their No. 1 ranking, and made Sims, a junior from Hooks, Texas, the hands-down favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. Sims might still win the Heisman—who else has 1,550 yards or has tied an NCAA record by stringing together three 200-yard games in a row this season as Sims did against Iowa State (231 yards), Kansas State (202) and Colorado (221)?—but Oklahoma will now need a lot of outside help if it is going to win anything.
In Norman the week of the game, Sims was lounging around his dorm room talking of the Heisman ("If the voters look at the stats, I'm right up there") when a cricket scampered across the rug. He stepped on it, and his girl friend, Brenda Campbell, admonished him, "That's bad luck."
But deep in their hearts, the Sooners didn't think they would need any luck to beat Nebraska. With their big, fast wishbone backfield—Sims, Kenny King and David Overstreet, along with Thomas Lott, who really is a running back masquerading as a quarterback—it seemed as though they would sweep Nebraska dizzy. Even Lance Van Zandt, the Huskers' defensive coordinator, feared such a possibility. He fretted that Nebraska's secondary was simply not big enough or fast enough to plug any leaks in the Husker line, and that it would spend the afternoon being trampled or outrun by the spectacular Sooner backs. How did Van Zandt figure to stop Oklahoma? "Maybe if we had 12 guys on the field, that would do it." As it turned out, 11 was sufficient. The disciplined Husker defense, led by Linebacker Bruce Dunning's 19 tackles, outmuscled Oklahoma at the line of scrimmage, held the Sooners to reasonable yardage and generated that blizzard of fumbles.
Despite Oklahoma's 9-0 record, its defense seemed vulnerable up the middle. Certainly, it proved to be vulnerable up the middle to the Nebraska backs—especially slashing Rick Berns, who gained 113 yards on 25 carries. Rex Norris, the Sooners' defensive coordinator, lamented, "Every time you look up, he's running over you." But while neither side would admit it, both figured their defenses only had to keep the game close until their meteorlike offenses got a chance to light up the scorebard. Why not? Nebraska was first in the country in total offense, (515.2 yards per game) and scoring (41.3 points) and Oklahoma was second in the same categories, 483.1 yards and 40.4 points. While the Oklahoma backs had the glossier reputations, Osborne wasn't conceding much. "We have the best group of backs that we've had in 16 or 17 years," he said before the game, "but maybe only one that Oklahoma would have recruited." That's Berns. Most notable among the other Husker runners is I. M. Hipp, a onetime walk-on who as of last week was the second-leading rusher in the conference—and frequently second team at Nebraska because of a tendency to fumble that he has developed this year.
As the pregame hype grew more frenetic, it was increasingly apparent that Oklahoma had the psychological edge. The consensus was that Oklahoma wins each year just because it's Oklahoma. Osborne understandably sees it differently. "Oklahoma wins because it has better players," he said. "But the obsession with Oklahoma is getting to me. It's getting pretty hard around here for fans to appreciate a good year without beating Oklahoma."
It was fitting that two of the nation's leading coaches—Osborne with his 55-14-2 record and Switzer at 60-6-2—fretted about problems that turned out to be the very factors that would determine the game. And their darkest thoughts always came as they sat brooding over films in dark rooms. Gloomed Osborne, "They do a pretty good job of throwing everything at you but the kitchen sink until you finally screw up." Gloomed Switzer, "I'm damn worried about turning over the football. Look at that. They're as big as us."
In the Oklahoma dressing room before the game, each of the players was getting his ankles taped, as usual, with 20 yards of adhesive, which costs about $2.50. Sims, as usual, was also getting most of his body taped, which costs about $14. It's considered a good investment. Trainer Ken Rawlinson insists there's nothing wrong with Sims "but he just likes it." Sims, however, says he has to block so much in the Wishbone that he needs the extra shoulder protection, in particular.
Nearby, Switzer was spitting tobacco juice into a soft-drink can—an old Indian trick, he insisted. "Funny how a big game like this builds tension and affects so many people," he said. Then, reaffirming his own observation, he began to pace and holler. "They have no respect for our defense," he shouted. "None. They're going to run right at you. There will be 80 million people watching. That's 160 million eyeballs, give or take a few. Poise, keep our poise, no mistakes." Assistant Head Coach Don Duncan added, "Just remember who we are."
At first the Sooners did. Sims broke loose on a twisting, turning touchdown run of 44 yards with 8:09 to go in the first quarter. Then, still in the first period, Berns fumbled—the only blot on a brilliant day for the senior from Wichita Falls, Texas—and the Sooners had the ball on the Nebraska 13. But Lott fumbled on the Husker eight three plays later—the first of four charged to him—and Nebraska recovered.
Early in the second quarter, after a 26-yard Husker punt, Lott again fumbled, losing the ball this time on the Nebraska 38, and Quarterback Tom Sorley guided the Cornhuskers back up the field. Sorley admits he's not a great quarterback but says, "I know what to do and when to do it." This march, with a 20-mph wind at his back, was a perfect example. The key plays were a drive-sustaining third-down play-action pass over the middle to 6'4" Tight End Junior Miller, and a 17-yard pass to Berns at the Oklahoma 10. Moments later, Berns crashed five yards for the score. "They were giving us the middle," said Berns. "All we had to do was take it. There was no reason we couldn't win but there was no reason why they couldn't win either."