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Oklahoma defeats Nebraska 31-24 in rematch of Big 8 kings

Rick Berns
Rick Berns

Miami, Fla. (Jan. 1, 1979) — In a game between the 1978 Big 8 champions — Nebraska had defeated Oklahoma 17-14 a month earlier — Oklahoma this time came out on top and withstood a furious Nebraska fourth quarter rally to defeat the Huskers, 31-24, in the 45th annual Orange Bowl, played before 66,365 fans and an NBC-TV national television audience.

At the start of the fourth quarter, the Sooners were comfortably ahead 31-10, when the Huskers' charge began. Nebraska took the ball as the final period began and drove 78 yards in 15 plays, when senior I-back Rick Berns scored from the one yard line, with 9:12 left. Billy Todd's extra point was good, and Nebraska trailed 31-17. Nebraska's big plays in that drive were a 19-yard pass from quarterback Tom Sorley to junior tight end Junior Miller — early in the drive which made it third and three at the Nebraska 35 yard line — and an 11 yard dash by Sorley — making it first and ten at the OU 22 yard line as the Huskers got closer for the score.

With plenty of time left and on Oklahoma's next possession, Sooner senior quarterback Thomas Lott fumbled on the Oklahoma 42-yard line and the ball was recovered by Nebraska sophomore tackle David Clark, with 8:07 left.

The Huskers then took the ball and drove 35 yards in eight plays — aided by an opening 15-yard gallop by junior I-back I.M. Hipp that moved the ball to the OU 27 yard line. Seven yards from the Sooner goal, Nebraska was faced with a fourth and one situation. Sophomore I-Back Craig Johnson tried the middle but was stopped by OU linebacker George Cumby for no gain with 4:24 left in the contest. Time was beginning to run out for the Huskers.

Tim Smith
Tim Smith
The Cornhuskers had one more opportunity to score before the game ended and put it to good use. Starting at the Nebraska 42 yard line with 2:21 remaining following a Sooner punt, the Cornhuskers drove 58 yards in 10 plays and scored on a one-yard toss from Sorley to Miller, with :03 left. Todd's extra point with no time remaining made the final margin OU 31-NU 24. Sorley had completed two important plays in the final drive, a 10-yard pass to junior wingback Kenny Brown and a 12-yarder to sophomore fullback Jim Kotera.

Nebraska opened the game with a 7-0 lead, when the Huskers took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in 15 plays, scoring on a 21-yard pass from Sorley to junior split end Tim Smith.

But it was the Sooners who took a 14-7 lead into the locker rooms at halftime. OU drove 69 yards in 12 plays late in the first period and scored on a three-yard run by the Heisman Trophy winner, junior halfback Billy Sims, with :07 remaining in the opening period to even the tilt at 7-7.

And in the second quarter, following a Todd missed field goal, the Sooners drove 73 yards in seven plays and struck paydirt as Lott scored from three yards out, with 2:54 left in the half, to make it OU 14-NU 7.

Oklahoma seemed to break the game open in the third period by scoring all three times it had the ball, while Nebraska could manage only a 31-yard field goal by Billy Todd, with 4:29 left in the third quarter. But Nebraska made a gallant effort going into the final frame, and possibly could have been only a first down away from a miracle finish.

The Orange Bowl matchup between the two Big 8 and national powers became reality on Nov. 18. Just a week before that, the Huskers defeated No. 1 ranked Oklahoma 17-14 in Lincoln and vaulted to the No. 2 position in the nation. But on Nov. 18 in Lincoln, Nebraska was upset by Missouri 35-31, while Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State, 62-7, to tie for the Big 8 crown with the Huskers. Late that afternoon, the Orange Bowl surprised the college football world by rematching the Huskers and Sooners for the Jan. 1, 1979 Orange Bowl classic.