Oklahoma-Nebraska: The Midwestern War

CollegeFootballGazette.com Editor Wann Smith chronicles the Battle of the Big Reds. (AP Photo)

It was a crisp, fall afternoon like so many others had been. The Oklahoma football team, having only lost previously to Missouri and Texas A&M, took the field in Lincoln to play the undefeated Cornhuskers, considered by many to be the best team in the nation. The Sooners dazzled using their speed and a new weapon – the forward pass – but eventually succumbed, 13-9.

The year? 1912. This very first meeting of the two teams who were destined to become fiercely competitive rivals over the remainder of the 20th century was played three months after Jim Thorpe won both the pentathlon and decathlon in the summer Olympics in Sweden and six months after the passenger liner Titanic sank on its maiden voyage. This was the first game to be electronically relayed back to Norman (Western Union provided a "play by play" feed to the local druggist who used a megaphone to announce it from the second story window to the throngs in the street below). Although preferring speed to brute force, Coach Bennie Owen, eschewing such frills as helmets and hip pads for his players (he felt it slowed them down) was one of the first coaches to use the forward pass effectively in college football, a full year before Knute Rockne earned fame by defeating a powerful Army squad by putting the ball in the air.

The two universities played intermittently through 1925, did not play each other in 1926 or 1927 and resumed playing in 1928 when the contest became annual and lasted continuously for the next seventy-one years. Directly resulting from the Big 12 Conference's new gerrymandering system, Oklahoma became a member of the southern division, Nebraska went north and the competition went south, so to speak, as the annual rivalry was placed on a two-years-on and two-years-off rotation.

There have been few rivalries in the history of college football that have been able to match the emotion, prestige, passion and intensity of the Oklahoma/Nebraska series. And seldom has a college football rivalry produced such an even result; after playing one another 81 times, the Sooners have won 41 games (51%), the Huskers 37 games (46%) and there have been three ties.

When viewed from the modern football era, the results do not vary significantly. Since 1950 Oklahoma has won 31 games (54%) while Nebraska has won 26 (46%). Additionally, over those 81 years Nebraska has scored a total of 1,316 points averaging 16 points per game, while Oklahoma has racked up 1,546 points while averaging 19 points per game.

While the Oklahoma/Nebraska game remains a source of passion for both schools, it has lost some of its national appeal. When the two teams kick off the 83rd chapter of this story on Saturday in Lincoln, things won't be quite the same. The excitement once generated by Bob Devaney, Jerry Tagge, Jeff Kinney, Johnny Rodgers, Jack Mildren, Leon Crosswhite, Greg Pruitt, Tim Welsh, Jon Harrison, Barry Switzer, Steve Davis, Tinker Owens, Joe Washington, Billy Brooks, Billy Sims, and Tom Osborne and his dangerous triplets – the list goes on and on – while not lost to us, has certainly provided an example of excellence that has been difficult for ensuing coaches and teams to follow.

Additionally, the irregular schedule and the reversal of fortunes both schools have suffered at one time or another over the past decade have served to dilute the impact on the national scene that this game has enjoyed for so long. In 1998, a generation of Americans, whether affiliated with Oklahoma, Nebraska or simply just lovers of the game, who had grown up watching these two dominating programs throw down the gloves and go at it in their traditional Thanksgiving Day game found themselves relegated to watching the Texas/Texas A&M game with their turkey dinners. The seventy-one years of uninterrupted head-to-head competition between the Sooners and Huskers was broken that year with the implementation of the Big 12 schedule.

As Oklahoma emerged from its late-century depression, Nebraska began struggling. In 1998 Frank Solich replaced Tom Osborne, whose 1997 Nebraska team had gone 13-0 and wrapped up their third national title in four years. Solich's 1998 team logged in a respectable 9-4 year but still lost more games than Osborne had lost in the previous five years combined (his record from 1993 – 1997 was 60-3-0).

Solich then took the Huskers back to the summit in each of his next three seasons as he posted records of 12-1, 10-2 and 11-2. But in 2001, things dramatically changed for Solich's Huskers. Undefeated going into the Colorado game, Nebraska fell apart in a 62-36 loss. Although they had lost their last regular season game in dramatic fashion, the Big 12 runner-up Cornhuskers, through the beneficence of the BCS, were tagged to play Miami for the national championship.

Miami took NU to the woodshed in a 37-14 massacre that pushed Frank Solich one step closer to termination. But more significantly, the last two games of 2001 set the stage for the decline of Nebraska's college football empire.

Solich's 2002 Huskers posted the worst single season record, 7-7-0 (.375) seen in Lincoln since the Bill Jennings era (1961, 3-6-1, .286). In 2003 Solich was unceremoniously fired in late-season.

But the deterioration of self-confidence, pride and motivation in Lincoln were already at critical mass. The physical and mental beatings the Husker organization endured from late 2001 through 2003 had created a team psychological problem that Nebraska hadn't experienced in forty-one years. They found themselves in a position where they had to "relearn how to win," to find a way to restore the swagger. This is a problem the Huskers are still dealing with in 2005.

In 2004 Nebraska hired Bill Callahan to reinvent the football team. Callahan's first season endured serious problems. In what appears to have been a misguided effort to break the team down before building it back up, Callahan alienated an important core of blue-chip players and was subsequently faced with an exodus of talent from campus.

As his Huskers lost in Lincoln to Southern Mississippi in their second game fans began to see the handwriting on the wall. This loss was followed by a watershed 70-10 beating by Texas Tech in Lubbock as well as losses to Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma and once again, to Colorado.

At the end of his first season, Callahan had done the unthinkable; instead of rejuvenating the team by implementing the west coast offense and restoring lost self-confidence, he had led them down the road to their first losing season in modern times. Both Athletic Director Steve Pederson and Bill Callahan, feeling the disapprobation of faculty, players and fans, called a ‘town-hall' meeting attended by past Husker players and administration in an attempt to win them over to Callahan's administration.

After the meeting, it was announced that resentments had been dispelled, concerns had been alleviated and that Callahan was receiving a vote of confidence from the Husker nation. But unofficial word from the meeting told quite another story. Far from winning over the crowd, Callahan and Pederson were barely able to hold their ground and the meeting adjourned with only faint endorsement for the program's course.

As the two teams prepare to kick off this coming Saturday, the issue of who will win the game has never been more in doubt. The Nebraska offense has been singularly non-offensive in 2005.

After beating Maine 25-7 and Wake Forest 31-3, the Huskers looked toothless in a 7-6 stumble-fest against Dave Wannstadt's Pittsburgh team. The Huskers then proceeded to beat an overrated Iowa State team in overtime, 27-20.

Their first loss of the season came in a ‘grudge match' against the same Texas Tech team that handed them their jockey shorts at midfield in Lubbock the previous season. Next, the Huskers played respectably in a 23-14 win in Waco over a surprisingly tough Baylor team.

And then there was Missouri. Coming into their game with Nebraska, Missouri's critics were screaming about Gary Pinkel's poor defense and erratic offense. The Tigers had allowed Iowa State to rush for decent yardage without an experienced running back and were fielding what many considered to be their most porous defense of the new century. And to top off the long list of Missouri's woes, all-world senior quarterback Brad Smith had not lived up to expectations since his freshman year.

Nebraska appeared to be a good bet going into Columbia, but it wasn't to be. Not only did Missouri shred the taunted NU defense for 523 yards (480 of those yards were accrued by Smith alone), but the lightly-regarded Tiger defense embarrassed the Husker attack, holding them to only one major touchdown-producing drive on the day (NU's other two touchdowns came in short-field situations created by Missouri turnovers).

Oklahoma will enter the Nebraska game having taken a different path in 2005. The Sooners began the season with a traumatic loss to TCU in Norman, followed by an alarmingly tight win over Tulsa and then a head-on collision loss to the UCLA Bruins.

Standing at an uncharacteristic 1-2, the Sooners were more cohesive in a 42-21 win over Kansas State. The Sooners' ego took a bruising in an early October 45-12 vengeance beating by Texas, but came bouncing back with victories over Kansas and Baylor.

As Oklahoma prepares to take the field against Nebraska this Saturday afternoon, they will do so with more confidence and self-assurance than they've possessed at any time in 2005. Rhett Bomar appears to have settled into a comfort zone. He performed well against Kansas and extremely well against Baylor. Aiding his improvement is a young offensive line that makes fewer mistakes with each coming week.

The Sooners have also witnessed the on-field birth of a group of young receivers – the freshman triumvirate of Juaquin Iglesias, Malcolm Kelly and Manuel Johnson – who have displayed an excitement not seen on Owen Field since 2000. On the ground, Jacob Gutierrez and Allen Patrick have done a splendid job of filling in for the injured Adrian Peterson and Kejuan Jones.

If Oklahoma is to have a chance against the Huskers, the offensive line must continue to protect Rhett Bomar. As mentioned, Bomar has displayed poise and confidence over the past two weeks. But if the Huskers manage to disrupt Bomar's rhythm, he could lose his composure and revert to his mistake-prone habits. This, in a nutshell, will be the Huskers defensive game plan.

On defense, Oklahoma must continue to play the run well in order to contain Cory Ross and Marlon Lucky. And the Sooners absolutely must eliminate the profusion of errors that have plagued their defensive secondary. Zac Taylor, while no Peyton Manning, is still capable of disrupting the OU defense with the same type of short and intermediate passes that have caused so much trouble for the Sooners this season.

However, in spite of the ebb and flow of fortunes and the erratic schedule, the rivalry continues. Replacing the pressure and emotion that once accompanied the pursuit of a national title is the recently developed animosity between the two teams.

At the end of the 2004 Oklahoma/Nebraska game in Norman, Callahan was overheard using profanity to describe Sooner fans (the quote was too vulgar to print in this article). This derogatory, classless comment created resentment within the State of Oklahoma that has not appeared in eighty-three years of competition between these two institutions.

Also, during that same afternoon, a Nebraska player assaulted a member of the Oklahoma spirit squad, the Ruf-Neks, affecting serious bodily harm. And while it speaks to the credit of both universities that they've played for so many years without the series becoming a hate-match, perhaps when two schools compete for so long with so much passion with so much at stake, bad blood is bound to occur.

This coming weekend, Nebraska will be playing in the hopes that a victory will keep their hopes for a long-shot Big 12 North victory alive. Bill Callahan also realizes that losing to Oklahoma in Lincoln would be an enormous step backwards towards the gaping chasm of unemployment.

Oklahoma will be playing to enhance their overall record and to take one more step towards recovering from a painfully poor start. But both teams will also be playing for pride.

And in spite of recent problems and resentments, both teams would like nothing better than to put one more win in the victory column against a old, honorable foe.


Wann Smith has served two years as national columnist for the Pigskin Post, contributed to the College Football News (a contributor to Fox Sports and the Sporting News) and is currently the editor of the College Football Gazette. Smith lives in St. Louis with his family.

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You can also contact Wann Smith at wsmith@collegefootballgazette.com

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