Cornhuskers, Sooners hope to return to elite level

Nebraska and Oklahoma used to be the kind of must-see football rivalry that fans salivated about.

Remember those Orange Bowl-or-bust games that once dotted the Big Eight's landscape? Johnny Rodgers and Greg Pruitt in the "Game of the Century" in 1971. Barry Switzer vs. Tom Osborne.

It was the series that gave us "the fumblerooski." And it was so big that the two teams staged an epic Orange Bowl rematch in 1979 after slugging it out for the conference championship earlier that season.
It also gave us memorable games in recent Big 12 history, like Oklahoma's 2000 upset victory in Norman that sparked its "red October" run to the national championship. Or Mike Stuntz's throwback pass to Eric Crouch the following season that helped Crouch win the Heisman and helped boost the Cornhuskers into the national title game.

Those dusty memories have never seemed farther away heading into Saturday's game in Lincoln. It will be the first time since 1961 -- a span of 40 games -- that neither team is ranked when they meet.
The Sooners and Cornhuskers used to be tradition-laden power teams joined at the hip at the pinnacle of college football. Both have now skidded to the middle of the pack of the Big 12.

An indication of how far these teams have dropped can be found in their recent schedule, with both teams' most recent victory coming against Baylor. And it was a cause of celebration for both teams after gritty triumphs over the resurgent Bears.

Entering Saturday's game, the Huskers are 91st nationally in total offense and the Sooners are 97th. What in the holy name of the wishbone is going on?

Players from both teams say the renewal of the rivalry has caught their attention, even if the rest of the nation might have greeted the game with a collective yawn.

"A lot of people say this [Oklahoma vs. Nebraska] is a bigger game than the OU-Texas game, at least historically," Oklahoma defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek said. "It's an awesome game with two of the greatest programs ever. They are going to be a really good team and come to play hard, and it's the same with us."

It's also big for Nebraska players, who know that the Sooners haven't won in Lincoln since 1987.

"Most people know how big this is. I think growing up, they always see the ESPN Classics, and Nebraska-Oklahoma is on those a lot," Nebraska linebacker Bo Ruud said. "It may be the biggest game that comes around. It's a big deal."

Even the rhetoric from Nebraska coach Bill Callahan's outburst after Oklahoma's victory in Norman last year appears to have been forgotten. After a late field goal in last season's 30-3 Oklahoma victory, fans celebrated by pelting the field with oranges -- just like in the old days. Callahan referred to Sooner fans as "[expletive] hillbillies."

Nebraska needs one more victory to become bowl eligible, which, considering the Cornhuskers' struggles last season, will be an accomplishment. The Cornhuskers missed a bowl game in 2004 after making 36 straight trips.
And Oklahoma -- like the rest of the South Division -- has been merely a spectator to Texas' charge to the Bowl Championship Series title game.

The Sooners (4-3) have already lost to Texas, TCU and UCLA. Those three teams are all in the top 20 and are a combined 21-1. They are out of the Top 25 at this point of the season for the first time since 1999 -- coach Bob Stoops' first season with the program.

Both teams are limping into Saturday's game after struggling mightily last week.

Nebraska's defense was gashed for 480 yards by Missouri quarterback Brad Smith in a 41-24 loss in Columbia. Smith accounted for 287 yards in the first quarter alone in a game that dropped Nebraska out of a share for first place in the Big 12 North.

And the Cornhuskers' offense wasn't much better. Nebraska receivers dropped at least six passes against Missouri and committed turnovers on three straight third-quarter possessions.
Missouri entered last week's game ranked 89th nationally in rushing defense. But Nebraska produced minus-2 yards on the ground against them last week -- the fewest by a Nebraska team since it was limited to minus-17 yards by Oklahoma in 1951.

"Our ego isn't bruised," Ruud said. "It was just a terrible performance on our part. We're disappointed in ourselves, but we've just got to put that behind us. We've got a big game this week, and we've got to have our minds set right."

Oklahoma was fortunate to limp past Baylor in a 37-30 double-overtime battle of attrition. With Adrian Peterson hobbling and his two top backups not in uniform, the Sooners were down to their fourth- and fifth-string running backs by the end of the game. Rhett Bomar's game-winning touchdown pass in the second overtime went to freshman wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias, who was barely recruited coming out of high school.

The Sooners are tied for third nationally for having the most freshmen play this season with 12. Only Arkansas (16), Duke (14) and Kentucky (12) have played more.

Peterson, who was expected to carry the offensive load with so many young players around him, has been hobbled since he was hurt in the conference opener against Kansas State. After seven games this year, Peterson has 93 rushing attempts. That's 84 fewer than the 177 he had at this point in the 2004 season.

Both teams will make bowl appearances this season, but will be eating black-eyed peas at home on New Year's Day with their fans. And that's the rub.

Their youth should mean that both eventually will return to take their place among the national elite -- probably sooner than later.

But it won't make Saturday's game any more important, even with the storied tradition of the rivalry.

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.