That loud noise you heard coming from Norman, Okla. last Saturday was not the sound of the Nebraska Cornhuskers falling out of the Orange Bowl and onto their collective aspirations, although given the Huskers' 27-7 loss to Oklahoma, it could have been. It also wasn't the sound of the guys in orange blazers bashing their heads against the walls, although given their dreams of matching Nebraska against unbeaten Penn State for the national championship, perhaps it should have been. The big noise in Norman was the Oklahoma Sooners, who may have the best defense Nebraska has ever heard.
It must have been unsettling for the Huskers, shivering in the cold as they prepared to run onto the field, to hear the terrible prairie howl of the Oklahoma defense welling up from the Sooner locker room. "You'll hear one person bark," said Sooner linebacker Brian Bosworth after the game. "Pretty soon it becomes like a chain reaction, and the whole team is barking like a pack of wild dogs. We call the dogs out to intimidate people, make them wonder if we're really crazy. But you bring the dogs out only when the time comes to bring them out—for big games like Texas, Nebraska and now for the Orange Bowl."
Someone once described the Oklahoma locker room during this charming pregame adrenaline frenzy as sounding "like an animal shelter at feeding time." It is not unlike the yapping that can be heard around the land when bowl bids are about to be dished out. The Sooners were reminded more than once last week how much less desirable they were considered by the Orange Bowl suitors than the second-ranked Cornhuskers. Oklahoma was rated a piddling fifth in the AP poll and third in the UPI, and had difficult games with Oklahoma State and SMU remaining after Nebraska.
Before the season, Nebraska looked like Puppy Chow. Only four Cornhusker starters were returning. At Nebraska, however, numbers like that can be deceiving because of all the redshirting that goes on. This year, for example, coach Tom Osborne had a pool of 200 players from which to choose, many of them farmed out for a year. The Huskers even play an annual game between their redshirts and freshmen, with the varsity sitting in the stands doing a wave. Nebraska hoped to have the same kind of effect on the Sooners, washing over them with an offense that had averaged 39.1 points every time it went on the field. Running backs Doug DuBose and Tom Rathman had accounted for more than 200 yards a game, and together they had run concentric circles around every defense they played.
The strengths of the two teams were neatly balanced, though. Nebraska may have come to Norman with the best rushing attack in the nation (395.6 yards a game), but the Sooners countered that with a scorched-earth defense that had yielded only 65.2 yards a game on the ground. And four minutes into the game, when Oklahoma scored its first TD on an 88-yard end-around by sophomore Keith Jackson, the Huskers began to crumble. By the third quarter, when the score reached 27-0, it was apparent that Oklahoma's bite was even worse than its bark. Jackson got 19 yards on his third end-around of the day, bringing his rushing total to 136 yards, seven more than the entire Nebraska offense at that point.
The Sooners' next two touchdowns were scored by the somewhat more conventional means and somewhat less conventional names of Jamelle Holieway, the gifted freshman quarterback. Holieway might not have been playing at all this season had it not been for the broken ankle of sophomore Troy Aikman, a drop-back passer for whom coach Barry Switzer had tried to modify his wishbone offense. Aikman was hurt during a 27-14 loss to Miami—Oklahoma's only defeat of the season—and in the next five games Holieway revved up the offense to 507.4 yards an outing. "I hate to say it, but it was a blessing when Troy went down," says Bosworth. "With Jamelle in there, it's been back to the wishbone of old." Holieway's first touchdown against Nebraska came with 5:52 remaining in the first quarter on a vintage piece of wishbone running: He faked a hand-off to his fullback, then shed three tacklers as he broke downfield for 43 yards. Holieway ran 17 yards around left end for his second TD. "He's like a field mouse out there," says Nebraska defensive tackle Jim Skow. "He stops and starts, and then he darts."
Many traditional rivalries have followed an uneven course, their importance rising and falling from one year to the next. But not Oklahoma-Nebraska. The winner has won the conference title (now the Big Eight) in 39 of the past 41 years. This was the Sooners' 27th crown in that period. And if they don't lose before the Orange Bowl, this year will be the eighth time in the past 16 seasons that the winner of the Oklahoma-Nebraska game has either won some version of the national championship or at least contended for it in a bowl. "This isn't one of those games where you try to physically abuse the other team, the way we do when we play Texas," says Bosworth. "Our programs are so identical that when the teams go on the field, we try to respectfully abuse each other."
However balanced the two teams may have appeared statistically, Oklahoma's edge was that its defense was so unbalanced mentally. Every time Rathman or DuBose thought he saw a hole, end Kevin Murphy or noseguard Tony Casillas would plug it up. Then, of course, there was the Wizard of Bos. Bosworth led the Sooner defense with nine tackles, two of them in the Nebraska backfield, and recovered a fumble.
A 6'2", 234-pound sophomore, Bosworth may already be the best linebacker in the country. He has those dead-looking linebacker eyes, and a spike haircut he got after he saw Arnold Schwarzenegger's in Commando. "I talked to a barber in Edmond, Oklahoma the other day," says Switzer, "and he told me he'd had a hundred kids come in and say, 'Gimme one of them Bosworth haircuts.' " Which is fine with Bos, because he doesn't mind being a role model for the youth of America.
"I want people to look at me and say, 'He's a space case, he's weird,' " Bos says. "But the truth is, I'm really an introvert." He adds innocently that he would never "go out and throw deer heads through windows," an offense, he concedes, for which the Norman police had recently sized him up.