Even though Nebraska had wrapped up the 1981 Big Eight title and Oklahoma was only 5-3-1 and unranked, there were skeptics who were quick to point to Tom Osborne’s 1-8 record against Barry Switzer. The day before the game at Norman, Daily Oklahoman columnist Jim Lassiter wrote: “Unless Dr. Osborne can carve up the Sooners like a laboratory frog and finish the Big Eight project 7-0 perfect, the championship drum beat will sound as hollow as banging on a tin cup.”
Some considered Oklahoma a slight favorite because the game was at Owen Field. A Sooner assistant questioned how good Nebraska’s offensive line was – it was good but not great, he said – and there was uncertainty because Cornhusker quarterback Turner Gill was sidelined by injury to his lower right leg, leaving the job to senior Mark Mauer, who had been booed after an opening-game loss at Iowa.
Gill had stepped up as the starter in Big Eight play, and directed Nebraska to six victories.
The Tulsa World questioned whether Mauer could handle the pressure.
As it turned out, he could.
Mauer completed 11-of-16 passes, with one interception, for 148 yards and a second-quarter touchdown to tight end Mitch Krenk to give the Cornhuskers a 24-7 lead at halftime.
Mauer’s performance earned him recognition as the Big Eight Offensive Player of the Week.
Nebraska’s transition to an option offense, still in the formative stages, was not without issues. Going into the game, it had lost 24-of-43 fumbles. By comparison, Oklahoma’s wishbone also had fumbled 43 times, losing 25. The Sooners had thrown just seven interceptions – Nebraska had thrown 10. But the Sooner defense had forced only 20 turnovers, for one of the nation’s worst turnover margins.
In marked contrast, the Cornhusker defense had forced 38 turnovers.
On this particular afternoon, Oklahoma lost 3-of-5 fumbles. And Nebraska didn’t fumble.
Mauer’s passing complemented the Cornhusker running game. Nebraska ran the ball 63 times for 314 yards. I-backs Mike Rozier rushed for 105 yards and Roger Craig rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown. Fullback Phil Bates carried 12 times for 75 yards and two touchdowns.
Craig went over 1,000 yards, to 1,060 for the season. Rozier just missed, finishing the regular season with 943 yards. Official NCAA stats had yet to include bowl games, so that’s where they finished. As for the quality of Nebraska’s young offensive line, junior center Dave Rimington was a unanimous All-American, the Outland Trophy winner and the Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year.
Oklahoma led the nation in rushing that season (Nebraska was No. 2), but fumbles hampered the Sooner offense in the first half, and Nebraska’s defense stymied it in the second half. The Sooners had 212 rushing yards by halftime. They finished with 277, well below their season’s average.
Safety Jeff Krejci led the Blackshirts with nine tackles.
The Cornhuskers had climbed to No. 5 in the rankings going into the game and remained there with some teams playing the next week. Pittsburgh, 10-0 and ranked No. 1, lost that next week to No. 11 Penn State and dropped to No. 10. Undefeated and untied Clemson moved to No. 1. Georgia and Alabama, each with one loss, moved to No. 2 and No. 3, respectively.
Nebraska, 9-2, moved to No. 4, with the opportunity to play Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and an outside chance at winning the national championship.
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.