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THE BATTLE FOR NO. 1 : Sooner or Later, It's Always the Sooners

November 22, 1987|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

LINCOLN, Neb. — The Oklahoma Sooners, whose late-season nonchalance fooled voters and gave false cheer to Nebraska players and fans, returned to frightening form Saturday. With greatness on the line, as it often is in this game, Oklahoma grimly and quietly dismantled Nebraska, top-ranked and smug for just one short week.

The final score, 17-7, does not tell of Oklahoma's dominance or suggest the depth of Nebraska's failure. The Sooners (11-0), who will proceed to a national championship game with Miami in the Orange Bowl Jan. 1, made a contest of it only to the extent that they kept turning the ball over to the Cornhuskers (9-1). Without three lost fumbles, three interceptions and two missed field goals, Oklahoma might have had a score that would discourage future scheduling.

Certainly, it wasn't the Game of the Century II. It had been promoted as such, the thinking being that two teams ranked so closely so long, co-leaders in all kinds of statistical categories, would make the same kind of match that thrilled fans in 1971, when the two top-ranked teams went down to the wire, Nebraska pulling it out on a late drive.

This, however, was barely a game. Oklahoma, top-ranked for nine weeks, allowed some anticipation when it lost its starting quarterback and fullback and then struggled to beat Missouri last week. But even with a red-shirt freshman running the tricky option offense, Oklahoma outdistanced Nebraska with the same ease it had other Big Eight opponents.

The Charles Thompson-led Sooners nearly doubled the injury-free 'Huskers--23 first downs to 11 and 444 yards on offense (151 of them from Thompson) to 235.

For Nebraska, this result is another point on a downward curve of Big Eight confidence. The 'Huskers, who had reason to believe they were co-contenders, have lost four in a row in this series. Coach Tom Osborne, despite his overall record of 146-33-2, is 4-12 against Oklahoma in general and Coach Barry Switzer in particular.

Quizzed about this apparent mastery, Oklahoma linebacker Dante Jones said, kindly: "Nebraska always has great players. But maybe we just want it more."

Based on need, Nebraska should be the winner. This state, its only industry a faltering agriculture, has no pro franchise, no other major college, no other symbol of excellence. When 76,663 gather in Memorial Stadium, making it the third-largest "city" in the state, as well as the most astonishing concentration of red in the world, it is with a desperate need for a winning representation.

That need is often answered, but not in games with Oklahoma, not Saturday on a surprisingly warm and sunny afternoon. And so another national championship season is precluded. Nebraskans haven't enjoyed one since 1971, while Oklahoma has had three, and you know why they call that game the century's greatest.

Oklahoma, admittedly lackluster in recent games with overmatched opponents, got its button pushed by the Nebraska players, who were piping up uncharacteristically. Quarterback Steve Taylor had insisted in one publication that the game wouldn't be close. Defensive end Broderick Thomas said the Nebraska scout team was probably better opposition than the real thing.

Oklahoma is not used to hearing this. "Coach Osborne seems to have turned his players loose," speculated Mark Hutson, one of two matching, 280-pound Oklahoma guards. "We didn't used to hear anything out of them, before the game or after. It gave us something to prove."

But the bravado was false. Taylor had a miserable day, passing for just 58 yards, rushing for 54, and Thomas became invisible, if not quite inaudible.

Nebraska scored first and held a 7-0 halftime lead. In the same half that Nebraska managed an 84-yard scoring drive--Keith Jones skirting the right sideline for a 24-yard score--Oklahoma was consistently moving the ball. It had four first-half drives, totaling 217 yards, that aborted near the goal line.

On the first, Rotnei Anderson, Lydell Carr's replacement at fullback, fumbled at the 9-yard line after 71 yards progress. Anderson would fumble a second time at the 25, after a 50-yard drive. Thompson, who was no great shakes passing (2 of 9, 25 yards) was intercepted after a 44-yard drive. And kicker R.D. Lashar was wide on a 45-yard field goal after a 52-yard drive.

Swtizer's team had not been held scoreless in the first half since 1985, but he was not concerned. "I knew the second half was ours," he said. "I said, 'Hey, men, you proved to me you can move the football. Just keep doing what you've been doing.' "

They even did it a little better. Oklahoma, top ranked nationally in general, and against the pass, got a Steve Taylor pass three plays into the half. It was badly thrown, tipped by Nebraska's Dean Brinson into Rickey Dixon's hands. Oklahoma, beginning at the Nebraska 13, scored two plays later when Anthony Stafford took the trademark pitch 11 yards.

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