It was the most memorable fumble in Nebraska’s 17-14 upset of Oklahoma in 1978. Safety Jeff Hansen and cornerback Andy Means combined to tackle Billy Sims, and monster back Jim Pillen recovered at the Husker 3-yard line with 3 minutes and 27 seconds remaining.
Sims, who would win the Heisman Trophy that season, ran 17 yards on the play. The lost fumble was his second in the fourth quarter and Oklahoma’s sixth of the game.
The Sooners fumbled nine times total on that cold, windy, overcast afternoon at Memorial Stadium. Had there been replay back then, the total would have been 10 – and seven.
In fact, for some, the game’s most memorable fumble might have been the one that wasn’t. It occurred early in the fourth quarter, after Billy Todd’s 24-yard field goal broke a tie at 14.
On the ensuing kickoff, Oklahoma’s Kelly Phelps, a back-up quarterback, fielded the ball and was almost immediately hit by the Huskers’ John Ruud, chest high. “Violent” might not accurately reflect the collision. “I don’t think he even saw me,” Ruud was quoted afterward. The ball came loose, and Nebraska recovered at the Sooners’ 11-yard line. But the officials ruled no fumble.
Oklahoma was 9-0 and ranked No. 1. In his 1990 autobiography Bootlegger’s Boy, Sooner Coach Barry Switzer, who coached three national championship teams in 16 seasons in Norman (1974, 1975, 1985), wrote that in retrospect, the “1978 bunch” might have been his best.
But it couldn’t overcome all those fumbles against a determined Nebraska team.
The Huskers had climbed to No. 4 in the Associated Press rankings, after an opening-game loss at Alabama, and led the nation in total offense (515.2 yards per game) and scoring (41.3).
Oklahoma was second in both, 483.1 yards and 40.4 points.
Nebraska sports information director Don Bryant was quoted as saying interest in the game was such that he had received “more requests from out-of-state writers than ever before.” Six bowls sent representatives, including the Orange, Sugar and Cotton. The pressbox was jammed.
In addition, ABC televised the game nationally.
Defense dominated. Linebackers Bruce Dunning and Lee Kunz led the Blackshirts with 19 and 14 tackles, respectively. Middle guard Reggie Kinlaw led Oklahoma with 14.
All but two of the Sooners’ 63 plays from scrimmage were runs. Thomas Lott was 0-for-2 passing. Sims carried 25 times for 159 of Oklahoma’s 339 rushing yards.
Sims scored both Sooner touchdowns, on runs of 44 and 30 yards.
Rick Berns scored Nebraska’s first touchdown on a 5-yard run early in the second quarter. Isaiah Hipp scored the second on an 8-yard run with 9:25 remaining in the third quarter to give the Huskers a 14-7 lead. Berns finished with 117 yards rushing. Tom Sorley was 8-of-19 passing for 111 yards, with one interception. Nebraska finished with 361 total yards.
The victory, Tom Osborne’s first against Switzer, set off a celebration that included the goal posts being pulled down, something that had last happened after the Huskers ended Oklahoma’s 74-game conference unbeaten streak in 1959. Athletic Director Bob Devaney said he figured Nebraska could afford new goal posts every 20 years or so.
Husker fans threw oranges onto the field, symbolic of the Orange Bowl bid Nebraska would receive, an extremely dangerous activity discontinued after causing serious injury.
Sports Illustrated’s Douglas S. Looney wrote that “the behavior of the Nebraska fans was, well, raucous bordering on riotous,” during the week’s build-up as well as after the game.
They were given pause, however, as Sims took the handoff from Lott and ran toward the Husker goal line with less than 4 minutes remaining. “That fumble, without question, cost us the 1978 national championship,” Switzer wrote in Bootlegger’s Boy.
It also put Nebraska in a position to play for a national championship in the Orange Bowl against Penn State, which replaced Oklahoma at No. 1 in the AP poll, moving from No. 2.
The Huskers jumped to No. 2, ahead of No. 3 Alabama. Finally things were falling into place for Osborne . . .
Tom's Time is a regular feature that will take a closer look at the life of Tom Osborne. Nebraska has a storied history in football that dates back to the earliest years of the game, but the tradition to which Husker fans hold Nebraska is mostly a reference to Osborne's 25 years as head coach. And that will always be worth exploring in greater detail. Click here for all of the entries in the series.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.