The national respect the “Scoring Explosion” team earned in 1983 carried over to the 1984 season. Despite the loss of nine starters on offense, among them Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier, Irving Fryar, Turner Gill and Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award winner Dean Steinkuhler, Nebraska was ranked second in the Associated Press preseason poll.
Auburn was first, after finishing third in 1983.
The Huskers remained No. 2 after a bye week, even though Auburn was upset by defending national champion Miami in the season-opening Kickoff Classic. The Hurricanes, who moved to No. 1, had followed with a victory over Florida and were 2-0 when they were upset by 14th-ranked Michigan in the second (or third if you count the Kickoff Classic) week of the season.
Nebraska, which opened with a 42-7 victory against Wyoming, replaced Miami at No. 1, where it remained until a 17-9 road loss to a mediocre Syracuse team in the fourth game, after which the Huskers dropped to eighth. Not to worry. Nebraska made a steady climb in the AP poll as Texas and then Washington held the top spot. The Huskers moved to sixth after a 17-3 victory against No. 8 Oklahoma State. They moved to fifth after defeating Missouri 33-23, and fourth after winning at Colorado 24-7.
They climbed to third after defeating Kansas State 62-14 and second after shutting out Iowa State (44-0) in Ames. Then they returned to the top of the poll after a 41-7 victory at Kansas on the Saturday that previously-undefeated Washington (9-0) lost to No. 14 USC 16-7.
Nebraska, at 9-1, got the nod over 9-0 South Carolina and 10-0 BYU, the eventual national champ.
Senior Craig Sundberg started the first five games at quarterback for the Huskers then gave way to junior Travis Turner, who had walked on from Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Sophomore I-back Doug DuBose rushed for 1,040 yards, while senior Jeff Smith shared time and rushed for 935 yards.
The Huskers would rank third nationally in rushing, averaging 311.1 yards per game. Wingback Shane Swanson was their leading receiver, with 16 catches for 203 yards—no, that’s not a misprint.
Todd Frain had 15 catches for 218 yards and one touchdown. Four of Brian Hiemer’s 12 receptions went for touchdowns, a team-high. Frain and Hiemer were tight ends.
The defense, which had struggled at times in 1983, was the foundation for the 1984 team. Nine starters returned, including ends Bill Weber and Scott Strasburger and safety Bret Clark, all of whom earned first-team All-Big Eight honors along with linebacker Marc Munford.
Clark also earned All-America recognition as Nebraska led the nation in total defense.
Nebraska again had positioned itself to play for a national championship. Had the Huskers settled for a tie against Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl, they almost certainly would have been national champions. If not for a controversial loss at Penn State, they could’ve played for a national title in 1982. And given the results on New Year’s Day 1982, they probably would’ve gotten national championship consideration for the 1981 season had they managed to upset Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Osborne’s teams were that close for a fourth consecutive season in 1984.
But Oklahoma, which the Huskers had defeated the previous three seasons, stood in the way. And Coach Barry Switzer again proved to be Tom Osborne’s nemesis.
The Sooners came to Lincoln ranked No. 6, with a 7-1-1 record, the 28-11 loss to a then 2-5 Kansas team, which Nebraska would beat two weeks later 41-7, and the tie with archrival Texas.
Oklahoma, led by Brian Bosworth and Tony Casillas, ranked second to the Huskers in total defense and led the nation in rushing defense—allowing 68.8 yards on the ground per game.
Defense dominated on an overcast afternoon at Memorial Stadium. The temperature at kickoff (officially 2:51 p.m.) was 47 degrees, with a 15-mph wind out of the south.
A sellout crowd of 76,323 was on-hand.
The Sooners scored first, early, after recovering a Turner fumble at the Nebraska 26-yard line. They needed seven plays to cover the 26 yards, with quarterback Danny Bradley scoring from 1 yard out. Six minutes into the game, the score was Oklahoma 7, Nebraska 0.
The Huskers threatened early in the second quarter, reaching the Oklahoma 29-yard line, first down, when a Turner pass was intercepted. Sundberg came off the bench and directed a 10-play, 84-yard touchdown drive on Nebraska’s next possession to tie the score.
Smith scored from 1 yard out on second down.
Nebraska threatened early in the second half after junior defensive tackle Jim Skow recovered a Bradley fumble at the Sooner 11. But the Huskers could get no closer than the 6-yard line and settled for a 23-yard Dale Klein field goal attempt—which failed.
Klein also missed on a 49-yard attempt in the second quarter. And Scott Livingston would miss a 45-yarder late in the third quarter.
In any case, Oklahoma would take over at its own 28 and drive to the Husker 14-yard line. But the defense held, and the Sooners had to settle for a 32-yard Tim Lashar field goal.
Turner, who had returned, lost another fumble and again gave way to Sundberg with 9 minutes remaining in the game and the ball at the Nebraska 11-yard line. The Huskers drove down the field, the big plays an 18-yard pass to split end Scott Kimball on third-and-9 at the Nebraska 33-yard line followed by a 42-yard pass to DuBose on second-and-11 at the 50, setting up first-and-goal at the 8.
First down: Smith gained 3.
Second down: Sundberg gained 4.
Third down: following a timeout, fullback Scott Porter was stopped for no gain.
Fourth down: Smith was forced to the outside and stopped just short of the end zone.
The clock showed 5:32 remaining.
The Nebraska defense forced a punt, Oklahoma’s ninth of the game, three plays and 5 yards later, but Smith fumbled and the Sooners recovered at the Nebraska 43-yard line. Six plays later, Bradley ran 29 yards for a touchdown with 56 seconds remaining.
Final: Oklahoma 17, Nebraska 7.
The Sooners had snapped Nebraska’s 27-game conference winning streak, as well as a 21-game home winning streak, and prevented it from a fourth outright Big Eight title.
Oklahoma managed only 201 yards of offense against the Blackshirts, including 143 rushing on 57 carries. But Nebraska also struggled to run the ball, finishing with 137 yards on 53 carries.
Afterward, Bosworth, who was credited with 12 unassisted tackles, used the word “magic” to describe Oklahoma’s clutch play. “Sooner magic” had its roots in the 1976 game, and Switzer would not be done weaving it. The Huskers wouldn’t win against Oklahoma again until 1988, Switzer’s final season as the Sooners’ coach. His record against Osborne was 12-5.
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.