Tom Osborne detected something out of sync at practice one day last week when he gazed across the field at his Nebraska football team doing calisthenics in preparation for the duel with No. 1 Oklahoma. What was wrong was that there among his players was some clown with a five-day growth of beard and a bottle of beer.
"I don't care if you warm up," said Osborne to the guy, who looked pretty loose, "but you'll have to do it on the sidelines." "Is this an official bust?" asked the intruder. Osborne assured him it wasn't, but when campus police showed up, asked the outsider where he was from and he replied, "Heaven," they made it official.
As it turned out, for Nebraskans, drunk or sober—and there were some of the latter—it was very definitely a weekend made in heaven. On a cold, gray and windy Saturday in Lincoln the No. 4-ranked Cornhuskers, a good but not great football team, went out and whipped Oklahoma 17-14.
Nebraska, which hadn't beaten Oklahoma since winning the national championship in 1971, now has a splendid opportunity to win the Big Eight outright for the first time since 1972, go to the Orange Bowl and maybe slip through the back door and into another national championship. The Huskers' record is 9-1, the loss coming at the hands of No. 3 Alabama in the first game of the season.
Considering all this, the behavior of the Nebraska fans was, well, raucous bordering on riotous. For several nights before the game, students staged mini-melees. Osborne and several of his players slipped away from a pep rally on the eve of the game because of the rooters' rowdiness. Osborne said, "I appreciate their support but it can be frightening." At the game, some among the crowd of 76,015—the 99th straight sellout in Memorial Stadium—threw oranges on the field and at one another, prompting the exasperated public-address announcer to scold, "We request the boys and girls do not throw oranges on the playing field." At game's end there was a full-scale assault on security officers and the goalposts by the delirious Husker rooters. The fans won.
This was not a football game Nebraska appeared likely to win. After all, the Sooners fumbled and lost the ball five times, including losses on the Nebraska 11, 38 and 22. Yet this seemed only to prove Oklahoma's vast supremacy in talent, because after eight fumbles (the Sooners had recovered three) it still appeared that they would win. Then came the last lost fumble.
Unhappily, this critical error was made by Billy Sims, the brilliant Oklahoma running back who thus ended up the afternoon as both hero and goat. The nation's leading rusher, with 1,397 yards going into the game, Sims kept the Sooners close with 153 yards worth of twisting, tackle-breaking runs as he scored both Oklahoma touchdowns. But he lost the ball twice.
The first came with 8:10 to go, the Sooners on the move and the ball at the Nebraska 22. This was bad enough, but Sims' second fumble was the crusher. It came with 3:27 left, after he had made a glorious, 17-yard run around his right end. But as he was being brought down by Jeff Hansen and Andy Means on the Husker three, the ball squirted loose and was rocking on the ground as Nebraska's Jim Pillen covered it. "I was running over, and the ball just popped up," says Pillen. "Nobody was around it."
Pillen is no stranger to heroics. He intercepted two Alabama passes in the fourth quarter last season to preserve a 31-24 Cornhusker win. In fact, this is a trait that runs in the family. In 1975 his brother Clete was in on 27 tackles against the Sooners.
Sims made no excuses. "I just fumbled," he said. "It was carelessness. We beat ourselves. Nobody beat us. When you make mistakes like we did, anybody can beat you." Barry Switzer leaped to the defense of his crestfallen star, saying, "He's a great football player. He made the game."