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November 1, 2008


The early returns were a bad omen for Nebraska Saturday night in Norman, Okla. Then things just kept getting worse.

The result: as many expected, a Sooner landslide.

This state of the rivalry between two of the reddest states in the Union shows that the pendulum has swung almost completely toward Oklahoma. The Sooners have most of the size and speed. Things have completely turned around from 1997, when the Cornhuskers got Tom Osborne his 250th career win by pounding John Blake's Sooners, 69-7, when the superheavyweight Huskers were on their way to their third national title in four seasons.

This year's result – a 62-28 Oklahoma victory – was almost as decisive in the opposite direction. What will this series look like 10 years from now?

Nebraska's first play from scrimmage was possibly the most telling of all. When Dominique Franks jumped Nebraska's wide receiver screen and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown, it said something undeniable.

The Sooners' defensive backs, which had been advertised as the weakness of their team, are more athletic than anyone Nebraska currently has to counter with. Oklahoma obviously has more than its share of college football wealth. The same could be said for Texas. And maybe even Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.

What should Nebraska do? Other teams in the middle and lower end of the conference – teams like Colorado, Kansas State, Baylor and Iowa State – should be asking the same question right now.

Wait for a new Big 12 share-the-wealth program designed to benefit everyone who has recruited fewer than 25 blue-chip high school athletes or received less than $25 million in donations over the past decade?

Not on your life. Just stop feeling sorry for yourself and go out and build some wealth on your own.

Nebraska has the tradition, facilities and academic support to rebuild its program, regain the upper hand in the Big 12 North and compete with the Big 12 South. It will get tougher competition from Missouri over the next decade than it used to face, but it can pull out of its current downturn.

The issues are quite simple, really. As vice presidential candidate Joe Biden could tell you, the biggest issue in this campaign is a simple three-letter word: S-P-E-E-D. The Huskers need to go out and get some prime athletes on defense.

Right now, Nebraska is paying its dues. The Huskers already have a few redshirts on defense who could start making a difference next fall. First-year coach Bo Pelini has resisted the temptation to throw them into action too early. He has chosen to build for the future, and his investments could start to pay dividends as early as next year.

But first, the Huskers need to keep showing some resolve and finish the year strong. Despite the savage first-half beating they absorbed, the Huskers gave their fans a few hopeful indicators to pick out of the wreckage of the loss in Norman.

Here's the most notable one. Outsized and outquicked by a large margin, the Cornhuskers got up off the deck, their faces covered with blood, and kept swinging. And some of the blows landed – most notably a few right hooks thrown by sophomore running back Roy Helu Jr. That is the image I will take away from this game.

Not the disastrous first quarter, where almost everything that could have gone wrong for the Huskers, did.

Not their three turnovers in their first five plays from scrimmage.

Not the disgusted look on Pelini's face as he tried to rally his frustrated players against his old hometown buddy, Bob Stoops.

Well, wait a minute – cancel that last sentence. I saw a coach and a team with a chip on its collective shoulder. I saw a team that finished last season as a 98-pound Big 12 weakling that worked hard in the off-season and grew to 145 pounds, and still got kicked around by a conference heavyweight. I saw that team leaving the field, believing all the while that it should have fought better.

There is some fight left in this year's Huskers. Helu's 157 yards rushing on 16 carries are encouraging, as is the way Joe Ganz kept clawing and scratching his way back from throwing two interceptions to get his team downfield. I like the fight in the kid, if nothing else.

Next week is the big one for Nebraska. The 5-4 Huskers get Kansas (6-3) at home, and can get the inside track on second place in the North if they can outscrap the Jayhawks. NU has shown plenty of resilience this year, and can set itself up for a strong finish.

The Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry may never recapture its glory days of the 1970s and 80s, when it used to decide the conference title almost every year. But 10 years from now, the games between Stoops and Pelini will be much more evenly-contested than this one was.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive