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It was at one of those $10-a-plate pregame bowl luncheons where much is said and nothing is said seriously that Bo Schembechler, narrating a brief highlight film of his Michigan football team, suddenly found himself narrating a blank screen. "This must be Oklahoma," he ad-libbed. The laughter from the luncheon crowd at the downtown Miami hotel all but drowned out Bo's hasty coverup: "They're so fast you can't see 'em."
Hardly anyone had seen the Sooners since they fell from grace and went on probation a couple of years ago. But now they are back—back on television, big as life in redressed red and newly cleansed white; back in the bowls and polls (both polls, not just the Associated Press), and back, with the heavens and the wire services declaring their glory, to the top as national champions. Michigan saw them, all right. Going thataway.
On a glittering Miami night fit for a coronation, Oklahoma Selmonized the Wolverines on defense with the brothers Dewey and Leroy and gave them some newtime religion in the person of Minister-Quarterback Steve Davis on offense and won the Orange Bowl convincingly 14-6. Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer said, "I hope the pollsters don't hold Michigan's two-yard touchdown drive against us," it having occurred late in the game after still another in a season-long series of Oklahoma fumbles to ruin a merited shutout. Only a man fresh out of solitary could have thought such a thing.
An hour before he left for the Indian Creek Country Club and the last round of Orange Bowl parties the next evening, Switzer got the word: Oklahoma in a twin landslide (AP and UPI), with Arizona State, the only major unbeaten team left at season's end, second; Alabama third; and woebegone Ohio State and its coach, Woody Hayes, fourth. Hayes was rendered speechless by his team's 23-10 fold up to UCLA in the Rose Bowl, the game that immediately preceded the Orange on New Year's Day and set the stage for Oklahoma's ascent. Oklahoma had a television hookup into its dressing room to catch Ohio State's descent. "I knew NBC would be selling our game as the national championship," said Switzer, "so I did, too [in a pre-game peptalk to the Sooners]. But, hell, they already knew it."
Thus the process that elevated USC as champion last year was reversed. Then it was Alabama tumbling from the top at Notre Dame's hand in the Orange after USC upset Ohio State in the Rose. Oklahoma, favored by six, was one of just a handful of teams to hold form in a fortnight of bowl games disastrous for favorites (Nebraska, N.C. State, Florida, Texas A&M and Ohio State). It did so by going about its business as usual, by being murderous on defense with Dewey Selmon plowing them under and Leroy Selmon notifying the next of kin, to use Bob Hope's line, and by making enough big plays and spectacular mistakes on offense to keep the 80,307 fans from nodding off.
The matchup of the two defensive giants did not live down to some of the more dire pregame predictions. A Miami News columnist foresaw the game as having just the right ingredients for tedium: a team, Oklahoma, that would not pass against a team, Michigan, that could not defend against the pass; the writer said he was attending just for the halftime show. And it might not have been as much fun for the non-Oklahoman were it not for the marvelously erratic beat of the Oklahoma wishbone. In the hands of a young devil-may-care (pardon the expression, preacher) quarterback like Davis, the ball tends to fly around, even if the passes are not always spiral or downfield. Oklahoma fumbled 58 times this year, 13 times in one game.
But Davis is not the discourageable type, not if being 32-1-1 as the regular Sooner quarterback lo these three years is any indication. As a licensed Baptist preacher, he is said to be a charged-up speaker; a stand-up, take-no-nonsense guy with a rock-of-ages chin and an enviable shock of brown hair. A man, Switzer likes to say, "with good connections." This is not to imply that Davis is more than human. A couple of seasons ago one of the Selmons got some snapshots from a girl fan in Michigan—at least Publicist John Keith says she was from Michigan, and it makes a better story—that included a number of breathtaking poses in a bikini. "Gee," said Davis as the pin-ups made the locker-room rounds, "all I ever get are Bible tracts."
Davis said beforehand his play had been "inconsistent" this year; he joked that he had been advised to "stop praying and start playing." Nevertheless, he was the honored speaker at an Orange Bowl breakfast, and delivered, on the 50-yard line, the pregame invocation—which was interrupted in mid-prayer by the public-address announcer's giddy if irreverent bulletin that UCLA was knocking Ohio State's block off in the Rose Bowl. "Shall we try again?" smiled Davis, and bowed his head.
It was his only intercept of the night. After a fitful start, the Oklahoma wishbone ripped through the vaunted Michigan defense for 345 yards, 282 by land and Davis' 63 by air on three completions in five throws, and quieted for a time those who have been saying that the once dread formation now has more wish in it than bone.
Early in the game, however, the Sooners were offered a boggling variety of stunts and slants by the smallish Michigan forwards, and instead of making a positive opening address the offense stammered. One Sooner lineman complained to his coaches that "when we look to block a guy he isn't there. We're calling audibles on an awful lot of plays." Oklahoma did not make a first down until its third possession.