Nebraska's defense introduced itself to America last Saturday afternoon. Backed into the shadow of its own goalposts, that nearly anonymous unit made three big plays in a row to preserve a 28-21 victory over Oklahoma, a third straight Big Eight title, an undefeated regular season, a No. 1 ranking and a chance at the national championship, which would come with a win over Miami in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2. Yes, even when you have the Terrific Triumvirate of Tailback Mike Rozier, Quarterback Turner Gill and Wingback Irving Fryar, you still need to play a little D.
The game was a character-building conclusion to a 12-0 regular season for the Cornhuskers, who steamrollered all opponents except those from the state of Oklahoma. Back on Oct. 8, Nebraska escaped from Stillwater with a 14-10 victory over Oklahoma State. And on Saturday at Owen Field in Norman, the Cornhuskers were only slightly better than a proud Oklahoma team that was within two yards, a two-point conversion and—so the Sooners said—two officials' calls of throwing the national championship picture into chaos. Not a bad "almost" for a Sooner team that is 7-4 with one game left (at Hawaii) and won't be going to a bowl.
"You know," said Nebraska Offensive Guard Dean Steinkuhler, "in a way I feel sorry for those guys. Everything seemed so bright for them at the beginning of the year, and it just didn't work out."
Nice sentiment, Dean, but the feeling was hardly mutual. "They were darn lucky to win this game," said Rick Bryan, Oklahoma's outstanding defensive tackle. And Bryan was absolutely correct.
As Orange Bowl representatives watched from the press box, and worried that their showcase attraction might be wrecked, Oklahoma moved steadily downfield in the final five minutes, determined to turn a 28-21 deficit into the upset of the year. With 1:56 left, the Sooners had the ball at the Nebraska two-yard line, second-and-one. From there, freshman Fullback Spencer Tillman could surely vault into the end zone. Hadn't he taken off from the five-yard line, soaring above the screen block of teammate Paul Clewis, at the end of an 18-yard scoring run in the third quarter? Nebraska, meanwhile, was hardly exuding confidence. Coach Tom Osborne had been on the phone to his assistants in the press box all during that last drive, discussing a possible defense for the two-point conversion. Gill said, "I thought OU would score."
It never happened. First, Oklahoma Left Tackle Brent Burks jumped before the count, putting the ball back at the seven. On second-and-six from there, Defensive End Bill Weber nailed Quarterback Danny Bradley for a three-yard loss when Bradley couldn't find his pitch back, Earl Johnson. With good reason, said Bradley, who claimed Johnson had been illegally tackled before the play even developed. On third-and-nine from the 10, Bradley threw down the middle to Wingback Derrick Shepard, who appeared to be knocked down by Cornerback Neil Harris as the ball fell incomplete. The Sooners screamed for pass interference on Harris, but they were unaware (like almost everyone else) that a crashing linebacker had tipped the ball. Finally, on fourth down, Harris knocked down a pass in the end zone intended for Split End Buster Rhymes, who had burned the Cornhuskers on a 73-yard TD bomb in the second period.
No one questioned Harris' defense on the final play, but Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer was plenty upset about the third-down pass. Why, he hadn't been that worked up since one Marcus Dupree flew the coop to Southern Mississippi.
Said Switzer: "They [the officials] lose their guts. It was interference. We've got the slant play called to Shepard, and they splat him right in the mouth with the ball in the air." Yes, the "splat" seemed obvious, but Switzer didn't know that an official had told Harris that he hadn't called the interference because the pass had been deflected. Though replays were inconclusive, Nebraska Linebacker Mike Knox, who was blitzing as Bradley rolled toward him, said he got a piece of the ball. "I didn't get a lot of it," he said, "but a bit of my hand touched it."
Despite the defensive heroics, it was an offensive play that summed up what Nebraska is about this season. It happened in the third period, right after Tillman's leaping touchdown and the ensuing extra point gave Oklahoma a 21-14 lead. The momentum had clearly shifted to the Sooners, who had already forced Nebraska to punt twice in the period. Never had the Cornhuskers' 21-game winning streak, longest in the NCAA, seemed more in jeopardy.
But Nebraska has a simple and savage way to get out of such situations—give the ball to Rozier, knock some people down and watch him run. Rozier went 62 yards around right end before being pushed out at the Oklahoma three-yard line, and two plays later Gill sneaked over for the touchdown that tied the game 21-21. Five minutes later Fullback Mark Schellen ran 17 yards on a trap for the TD that put Nebraska ahead to stay.