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A mere three inches stood between Nebraska and a fourth-straight outright Big Eight championship late last Saturday afternoon in Lincoln. Three inches! But against Oklahoma's defense, those three inches might as well have been three miles. Leading 10-7 with less than six minutes to play, the Sooners stopped the Huskers right there at the goal line on two consecutive plays before going on to a 17-7 victory. It all but destroyed Nebraska's hopes for the national championship, and while the Sooners aren't kaput yet, BYU could make all the New Year's Day bowl games academic with a win in the Holiday Bowl at San Diego on Dec. 21.
The winner of this week's Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game in Norman will represent the Big Eight in the Orange Bowl. For the Sooners, a championship of any sort seemed remote as recently as a month ago. On Oct. 27 Oklahoma lost 28-11 to lowly Kansas, and that night safety Keith Stanberry and cornerback Andre Johnson, both starters, were lost for the year, with injuries suffered in an auto accident in Norman. During a 49-7 win over Missouri the next week, first-team defensive tackle Jeff Tupper went down with a season-ending knee injury. The Sooners had already lost All-America defensive end Kevin Murphy when he injured a foot against Pittsburgh. Enough already. It's nothing short of remarkable that Oklahoma's defense is ranked second in the nation.
In fact, the only comparable defensive unit might be Nebraska's, still the nation's leader after holding the Sooners to 201 total yards. But the Cornhuskers gained only 137 yards on the ground, their lowest total since 1978, and failed to score after beginning third-quarter possessions at their 47, Oklahoma's 11, their 40 and Oklahoma's 42. It wasn't that Nebraska was inept; the Sooners were simply too tough.
The usual assortment of gremlins that hang around Nebraska coach Tom Osborne when he gets to sniff a national championship played a part, too. The Huskers missed field goals of 49 and 45 yards (excusable) and a chippie from 23 (inexcusable), any one of which could have changed the outcome. On the play that preceded Tim Lasher's 32-yard field goal, which gave Oklahoma a 10-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, Nebraska cornerback Neil Harris appeared to have made a diving interception, but the pass was ruled incomplete. But that's life for Osborne. He has lost only four of 33 games the last three seasons, yet he remains college football's Sisyphus, pushing his rock to the top of the championship hill only to have it roll back down again. Indeed, over the last 11 months his Huskers have been No. 1 three different times, but not when it counted.
Nebraska began the final, fateful drive from its 11-yard line. The big play was a 42-yard pass to I-back Doug DuBose, giving the Huskers first-and-goal on the Oklahoma eight. After I-back Jeff Smith got three yards on a pitchout and quarterback Craig Sundberg gained four more on a keeper, Nebraska called time out to ponder its options. Everyone else began to ponder the various ways history seemed to be repeating itself.
Five weeks earlier in Dallas, the Sooners had stopped Texas on a first-and-goal from the two with less than six minutes to play in a game that finished at 15-15. Last Jan. 2, with 48 seconds left in the Orange Bowl against Miami, Nebraska, which was 12-0 and ranked No. 1, trailed 31-30. Osborne had to decide between going for the win with a two-point conversion and kicking the extra point for a tie, which assuredly would have given him the national championship. Honorably, he chose the former. Nebraska failed, though, and the Hurricanes wound up atop the polls. Finally, in last year's Oklahoma-Nebraska game, the Sooners, behind 28-21, botched a second-and-one play from the Nebraska two-yard line in the final minute, thus blowing a chance to tie or win.
Now it was happening again. On third down Nebraska tried to pop fullback Scott Porter up the middle, but nose-guard Tony Casillas refused to be moved. The line stacked up, and linebacker Brian Bosworth and a pile of white jerseys made the tackle three inches short of the goal line. "I know about the Refrigerator [Clemson's 310-pound William Perry]," says Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, "but Tony is the best football player in America at that position—period." A few Huskers thought Porter had scored, but guard Harry Grimminger admitted, "I was right there and he wasn't in."
Fourth-and-goal. Time remaining—5:40. A tie would give Nebraska both the Big Eight crown and an Orange Bowl bid because the Huskers had no conference losses; Oklahoma State and Oklahoma already had one Big Eight defeat apiece. But could the Cornhuskers win the national championship with a tie added to their inexplicable 17-9 loss to Syracuse on Sept. 29? Certainly that played on Osborne's mind, as did the memory of his field-goal kicker, Dale Klein, lining that 23-yarder off an upright in the third period. Running three inches for six points seemed at least as safe as kicking 18 yards for three. "I would've done the same thing in his position," said Switzer. "Anyway, I'm not going to second-guess Tom. He's a helluva lot smarter than I am."
Osborne sent Smith off tackle with 41-pitch, a play that has gained about a million yards for the Huskers over the years. Smith took the pitch to his left and looked for a hole. He couldn't find one. Forced outside, Smith ran into cornerback Brian Hall, a steady but unspectacular fifth-year player who had replaced the injured Johnson.
The Huskers still had time to come back after forcing the Sooners to punt from the end zone. But Smith fumbled the kick after a short return and Oklahoma recovered. Even the Nebraska defense crumbled after that, allowing quarterback Danny Bradley to shake loose on a 29-yard TD run with 55 seconds left.