Sooners and Cornhuskers hope to rekindle rivalry

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

It used to be a rivalry that the rest of the college football world noticed.

In the glory days of the Big Eight, Nebraska-Oklahoma was as big as it got. Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne. "Sooner Magic." Keith Jackson's catch. Johnny Rodgers return.

But those days have never seemed further away as the Cornhuskers and Sooners prepare for Saturday's game in Norman.

Now, the Cornhuskers and Sooners appear to be just another cross-divisional rivalry in the Big 12, where much of the mystique of the game has been stripped away because the two teams meet only twice during a four-year period.

Here's a factoid that is rather telling. The Grand Island (Neb.) Independent reported earlier this week that 87 percent of respondents in an unscientific poll conducted by a Nebraska television station voted that the Nebraska-Oklahoma game didn't have as much meaning as before.

The Sporting News came out with a special magazine back in 2001 that commemorated the the rivalry before the matchup between then-No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 3 Nebraska. It's hard to believe something like that would happen today.

And in a sense, that's kind of sad.

Here's an example of how quickly those glory days have been forgotten. Oklahoma wide receiver Ryan Broyles said he had never even heard of Rodgers, a transcendent figure who helped the Cornhuskers win the national championship in 1971 with a key punt return against the Sooners in a 35-31 victory that many still call "The Game of the Century."

"No, I'm not familiar," Broyles told the Oklahoman. "That's my bad."

Some of those feelings are understandable, considering the attention span of young players, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.

"It's funny how they are," Stoops said. "History is the last two years to them."

The rivalry has had its moments since the Big 12 was formed. Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch wrapped up the 2001 Heisman Trophy by catching a throwback from Mike Stuntz that sealed the Cornhuskers' 20-10 victory that year. Oklahoma claimed the 2006 Big 12 title by beating Nebraska in Kansas City.

Former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan touched off a fervor when he referred to Oklahoma fans as "expletive Hillbillies" after Oklahoma's 30-3 victory over the Cornhuskers in Nebraska's last trip to Norman in 2004.

Oklahoma officials are hoping to defuse some of those bad memories by hosting a dinner Friday night where key players from the 1971 game meet again to retell their old war stories. Among those expected to attend are Switzer and Osborne, who still are close today.

In a sense, that relationship matches those of the current head coaches. Stoops and Pelini have been friends since childhood after growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, and attending the same high school, Cardinal Mooney. Pelini served as a member of Stoops' coaching staff in 2004 and the two coaching rivals remain good friends today.

"We've joked that two guys from the south side of Youngstown have ended up coaching in Oklahoma and Nebraska with what the rivalry being what it is," Stoops said. "But this game this week is about a lot more than Bo and I.

"And we're not going to be out there wrestling in the middle of the field. Bo is too young for me."

Oklahoma desperately needs a victory to keep pace with Texas in the South Division. If the Sooners are going to have a chance to defend their conference championship Dec. 6 in Kansas City, they need Texas to lose twice. The Sooners can't afford to drop another game behind the Longhorns with only four games left.

And despite a two-game losing streak to start Big 12 play, the Cornhuskers have played much better in a close loss at Texas Tech and recent victories over Iowa State and Baylor. A ball-control offense has enabled the Cornhuskers average nearly 39 minutes of time of possession during their last three games.

"That's something we've always worked on and will always work on," Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz said. "It doesn't change just because we're facing a big opponent like Oklahoma. We're going to stick to our game plan and what we do best. The time of possession is going to be big, especially to keep that (Oklahoma's) offense off the field."

That strategy has enabled the Cornhuskers to play their way into a tie for the North Division lead, resuscitating bowl hopes and giving some dreamy Nebraska fans hopes of sneaking their way into the title game if Missouri would lose again this season.

"I don't really change who I play or what I do or how I approach it," Pelini said. "I understand we're playing against a heck of a football team. And we need to play our best football, which we still haven't done yet."