To quote Alice in Wonderland. “Curiouser and curiouser!”
That might describe the context of the 1987 Nebraska-Oklahoma game, which Sports Illustrated’s Rick Telander called the “Battle of the Century II” (the 1971 Nebraska-Oklahoma game had been called the “Game of the Century”), beginning with the week leading up to it when the Huskers moved ahead of the Sooners in the rankings, from No. 2 to No. 1.
Oklahoma had been No. 1 all season, Nebraska No. 2. But the week before the teams were to play in Lincoln, the Sooners, five-touchdown favorites, had edged Missouri 17-13 while Nebraska had the week off. The Huskers had outscored five Big Eight opponents 229-15, including Missouri 42-7.
Still, No. 2 all season and then . . . the timing couldn’t have been better for Oklahoma.
Sooner Coach Barry Switzer had been quoted as saying Nebraska was the better team and should have been No. 1 already. But Switzer was a master motivator. Plus, as if he needed it, he got some surprise help from Steve Taylor, the Huskers’ junior quarterback, who said leading up to the game that the Sooners “can’t play with us. They are not good enough.”
The game “might not even be close,” Taylor said.
Turns out it wasn’t. But more about that shortly.
Lending credence to what Taylor, and Switzer, said, Oklahoma was without its No. 1 quarterback, Jamelle Holieway, who had suffered torn ligaments in his right knee during a 29-10 victory against Oklahoma State. Replacing Holieway was redshirt freshman Charles Thompson, whose first start was against Missouri. Fullback Lydell Carr, who would still finish the season as the team’s leading rusher, also missed the Nebraska game because of injury.
Even so, the Sooners were the more impressive team statistically, leading the nation in rushing offense, total defense, scoring, scoring defense and passing defense. They were second nationally in total offense, averaging 505.3 yards per game to Nebraska’s 524.6.
Oklahoma’s wishbone had averaged 420.8 yards rushing per game. But the Husker defense ranked second nationally against the run, so it seemed a good match-up. It was not.
On the surface, at least, the first half favored Nebraska, which drove 84 yards on 10 plays the second time it had the ball to a touchdown, the only scoring in the first half.
But the Sooners lost two fumbles and Thompson threw an interception to thwart drives. On their first possession halfback Rotnei Anderson lost a fumble at the Nebraska 8-yard line, and in the second quarter, he lost a fumble at the Husker 25-yard line. On Oklahoma’s next possession, Thompson threw the interception on a first-and-10 from the Nebraska 36-yard line.
At halftime, the Sooners had 174 yards rushing, 199 total yards and 14 first downs. They controlled the ball; time of possession was two-to-one. But they had nothing on the scoreboard.
They dominated the second half, intercepting three Taylor passes, rushing for 245 yards and scoring 17 points. The final totals showed Nebraska with 177 yards rushing, less than half of its season average of 390.2, 58 yards passing and 3-of-14 on third-down conversions.
The headline on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which featured a photo of Taylor under pressure, was “OKLAHOMA O.K. THE SOONERS WRAP UP NEBRASKA—AND THE NO. 1 RANKING.”
The headline on the story inside said, simply: “BOOM AND DOOM.”
Oklahoma moved to No. 1, of course, with Nebraska dropping to No. 5. Miami, unbeaten under Coach Jimmy Johnson, moved from No. 3 to No. 2, with two ranked teams yet to play.
Nebraska remained No. 5 after finishing the regular season with a 24-7 victory at Colorado, then lost to No. 3 Florida State in a frustrating Fiesta Bowl, 31-28. Seminole quarterback Danny McManus passed for 375 yards and three touchdowns, the last with 3:07 remaining.
Nebraska responded with a 58-yard Taylor-to-Morgan-Gregory pass that carried to the Florida State 2-yard line. But the play was nullified by penalty, and with it hopes of a Husker victory.
Oklahoma lost to Miami in the Orange Bowl, something of a last hurrah for the Switzer era. Though the Sooners were 9-3 in 1988, Switzer’s final season as head coach, they lost to Nebraska at Norman, 7-3 in a match-up of No. 7 and No. 9—with no talk of a national championship on either side.
Oklahoma would beat the Huskers only once more during the Osborne era.
But that’s for another time, as is the significance of Taylor’s comments before the 1987 Oklahoma game. In a way, such comments helped shape Nebraska’s national championship future.