The Road To The 1979 Orange Bowl: Oklahoma & Nebraska

The Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry was as good as it got in college football in the 1970s and 1980s, combining regional intensity and national impact. Their November game was almost always for the championship of the old Big Eight and the Orange Bowl bid that went with it. The 1978 college football season saw the rivalry go one step further, as the Sooners and Cornhuskers followed a path that led to a January 1 rematch in the 1979 Orange Bowl.

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Oklahoma had won national championships in 1974 and 1975 under head coach Barry Switzer and nearly won another in 1977 before a stunning Orange Bowl defeat cost them the final #1 ranking. The Sooners opened the ’78 season at #4 in the preseason polls.

Nebraska last won it all when they went back-to-back in 1970-71 with Bob Devaney as the head coach. Since Tom Osborne, Devaney’s offensive coordinator, had taken over, the Cornhuskers kept winning, but not at that level.

Osborne came into the season 0-5 against Oklahoma and after consecutive major bowl victories following the 1973-74 regular seasons, Nebraska had been off the New Year’s stage for two years—including in 1976 when they opened as the preseason #1. This time around, they were ranked 10th to start the year.

Both offenses were built on the ground game, but OU’s went to an extreme. The wishbone attack, best compared to the read-option offenses of the 21st century, but with three backs in the backfield, churned out big plays. Billy Sims ran for over 1,700 yards, led the Big Eight in rushing by over 600 yards and won the Heisman Trophy.

Kenny King, a future NFL starter, was the #2 back. He and quarterback Thomas Lott each finished in the conference’s top 10 in rushing yardage. Lott threw only 55 passes all season, and backup J.C. Watts only threw 38.

Nebraska ran a power-I formation that relied on a great offensive line and backs who could read holes. Rick Berns and I.M. Hipp each went for over 1,000 yards and finished 3-4 among the conference rush leaders. Thus did the Sooners and Cornhuskers have half of the Big Eight’s ten most productive runners.

All-Americans dotted the lineups elsewhere, from OU linebacker George Cumby to Nebraska tight end Junior Miller to Sooner kicker Uwe von Schamann. The two programs were loaded for bear and eyeing their November 11 date in Lincoln.

Nebraska challenged itself right away when they visited preseason #1 Alabama, and it didn’t go well, in a 20-3 loss. The pollsters didn’t penalize the Huskers, although they slipped to #12 a week later after surviving mediocre Cal 36-26. Then Osborne’s team started churning, blowing out Hawaii and Indiana to set the stage for conference play.

Oklahoma played a pretty good Stanford team on the road. The Cardinal had a coach by the name of Bill Walsh who was one year away from making the jump to the NFL and becoming a legend, and a productive quarterback in Steve Dills. The Sooners had to survive 35-29.

Switzer’s team quickly found its second gear the next two weeks, smashing West Virginia and woeful Rice. In the meantime, Alabama was upset by USC, second-ranked Arkansas struggled and third-ranked Penn State also failed to impress in a win. That, combined with Oklahoma’s reputation, moved them to the top of the polls for the start of the Big Eight schedule.

Missouri was a good team that was going to make their mark on this race before it was over, and they were ranked #14 when they visited OU on September 30. But the Sooners won decisively 45-23, and prepared for the annual rivalry battle with sixth-ranked Texas.

Sims set the tone of the Red River War early, with an 18-yard touchdown run. He ran for 131 yards on the day and the Sooners overall rushed for 311 yards. They led 17-3 at half, 24-3 in the third quarter and were never threatened in a 31-10 win.

One week later, Oklahoma had to survive a letdown scare from lowly Kansas, the worst team in the Big Eight and the Sooners only won 17-16. But they got back on track and rolled over a pretty good Iowa State team, Kansas and Colorado and were still atop the polls when they prepared for Nebraska.

In the meantime, the Huskers were rolling through the Big Eight themselves. They went to Iowa State at a time when the Cyclones, who would eventually win eight games, were still ranked #15, and won 23-0. Nebraska blasted Kansas State and Colorado, looked pedestrian in a 22-14 win over a bad Oklahoma State team and then dropped 63 on Kansas. Nebraska was #4 when the rivalry day came.

Sims again looked to set the tone of a big game, bolting 44 yards for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. But a turnover, when Lott’s pitch on the option went awry, set up Nebraska for the tying touchdown. It would prove to be a pattern—the Sooners fumbled nine times on this day and the Cornhuskers recovered six of them.

The game was tied 14-14 early in the fourth quarter when Nebraska got a field goal that marked their first fourth quarter points against Oklahoma since 1971. OU still drove down to the three-yard line with less than five minutes left and looked ready to win it. In a fitting conclusion, Sims fumbled, the Huskers recovered and the Orange Bowl bid was theirs.

Nebraska was now #2 and they were in position to the new #1 team, Penn State, for the national title. But another order of business remained—a home game with Missouri one week later. The Tigers were not only an eight-win team and bowl-bound themselves, but they had two future NFL stars—running back James Wilder and eventual Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow. Osborne was worried and he had every reason to be.

The Cornhuskers got the game off to a strong start, when Berns romped 82 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play. Berns would run for 255 yards, a single-game Nebraska record and he also became the program’s all-time rush leader. But what should have been a day of celebration—the records and an outright Big Eight title went off the rails.

After leading 21-7, the Nebraska defense couldn’t contain Wilder, who scored four touchdowns on the day. Winslow caught a TD pass and Missouri pulled a 35-31 upset. In the meantime, Oklahoma was taking out its frustrations by scoring 62 points against Oklahoma State.

The Sooners and Huskers were co-champs of the Big Eight. Nebraska still had the automatic bid to the Orange Bowl by virtue of the head-to-head win, but now the question of whom to invite loomed. Penn State was redirected to the Sugar Bowl, where Alabama had moved back up to #2. The Orange Bowl Committee, in a decision that justifiably enraged Nebraska, decided to invite Oklahoma and create a rematch.

A rematch always favors the team that lost the previous game, especially when the teams are comparably matched and the unfairness stands out even more when the second game is the only one that will be remembered (unlike a regular home-and-home among NFL divisional rivals where it’s just part of the standard schedule). That proved to be the case here.

The fairer solution would have been to invite seventh-ranked Clemson, with its 10-1 record and passionate fan base. Oklahoma could have gone to the Cotton Bowl over three-loss Notre Dame. But bowl politics then make today look like a golden age, and there was no way Clemson was getting anywhere on New Year’s Day ahead of the Sooners or Fighting Irish.

For the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma made a strategic adjustment and ran in more of a convoy, keeping people around the ballcarrier in the event of a fumble. It turned out to be unnecessary—the only fumbled once. After spotting the Huskers the first touchdown, OU scored the next 24 points and led 31-10 before a couple late Nebraska touchdowns made the final score respectable at 31-24.

Oklahoma finished #3 in the polls and Nebraska finished #8. But the 1979 Orange Bowl will always be most remembered for the rare rematch and second chance it offered the Sooners.