By Steve Beideck
Once upon a time in Lincoln, Nebraska fans eagerly anticipated the next time Oklahoma would roll into town for a Big Eight or Big 12 showdown.
Everyone fortunate enough to have a ticket knew they would be treated to a competitive game, one that often-decided which team and its fan base would get to go to Miami for the Orange Bowl as conference champions.
Two Orange Bowl representatives were in Lincoln Saturday, but they were focused on only one of the combatants in the latest iteration of one of college football’s most historic rivalries.
That focus was on No. 6 Oklahoma, primarily because it wasn’t a competitive game.
After scoring on its opening drive Saturday, elevating the hopes of Husker fans in the Memorial Stadium crowd of 87,161, Oklahoma controlled the action for the final 56-plus minutes while rolling to a 49-14 victory.
“This comes back to me,” Interim head coach Mickey Joseph said. “It’s not my kids’ fault, it’s not my assistant coaches’ fault, this is on me. I’ve got to accept responsibility for it, and I have. We’re going to get better next week. We’ve got eight games left. We’re going to get ready to win some games.”
Oklahoma now has won the last three games between the two teams. The Sooners lead the all-time series 47-38-3. Nebraska still has a 22-19-2 advantage in games played in Lincoln after losing the 88th game in the series, and this was just the second loss for the Huskers to OU in the last nine games played in Lincoln.
The loss dropped Nebraska’s record at the start of its 133rd season of football to 1-3, a record that includes a 1-2 finish in the nonconference schedule. The final eight games of the season are against Big Ten foes.
Following a bye week, the week in which Nebraska would have traveled to Evanston, Illinois, to play Northwestern if the teams had not opened the season in Dublin, Ireland, the Huskers play two games in six days.
Indiana travels to Lincoln for the Huskers’ Oct. 1 homecoming game, which will begin at either 6 or 6:30 p.m. Then it’s a short week to get ready for the first true conference road game on Friday, Oct. 7 at Rutgers. That game will kick off at 6 p.m. CDT and be televised on FS1.
There’s plenty for the Huskers to work on during the bye week as Joseph will be able to make more adjustments leading up to the final eight games.
Joseph said the focus during the bye week – and even beyond, if necessary – is more drill work instead of team work.
“We have to do some individual work, some more drill work next week, less team work and get some fundamentals straightened up,” Joseph said. “More 9-on-7 drills, more turnover drills, less team work. Because the teamwork doesn’t matter if they don’t do the individual work.
“Nobody played very good with a score like that. We’re going to dissect this film. We’re going to find the kids who were doing what we asked them to do, kids that can tackle and that can block.”
Oklahoma made the necessary in-game adjustments to overcome being stopped on its opening drive, a stop that was followed by Nebraska’s only touchdown drive until the final four minutes of the game.
The Sooner offense racked up 355 yards of total offense in the first 30 minutes to put themselves in position to reset the program’s record 656 yards offense the 1956 Sooners hung on the Huskers nearly 66 years ago.
As both teams turned to their backups for the final 20 minutes, that 1956 mark still stands. The 3-0 Sooners had third-team offensive linemen in the game for the final few plays after the Huskers scored their second touchdown.
The final total for the Sooners, after taking a knee on the final two plays, was 580 yards on 84 plays. The totals were evenly distributed – 312 rushing and 268 passing.
NU gave up 642 last week in a 45-42 loss to Georgia Southern. Combine that with OU’s 580 yards, and that’s 1,222 total yards allowed by the Blackshirts the past two games.
Senior running back Eric Gray led the Sooners with 113 yards on 11 carries and two touchdowns. Ten different players had at least one reception for OU, with Marvin Mims leading the way with four catches for 66 yards.
Quarterback Dillon Gabriel dissected the Nebraska back seven through the first three quarters, completing 16-of-27 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns. The junior transfer from Central Florida, who hails from Mililani, Hawaii, also scored a rushing touchdown and finished with 55 yards on six carries.
It was Gabriel’s 61-yard TD run down the west sideline that muted any momentum Nebraska had after scoring its first touchdown. That score came just 1:49 after Casey Thompson finished the Huskers six-play, 77-yard opening drive with a 32-yard TD pass to Trey Palmer.
Oklahoma did what none of Nebraska’s first three opponents could do – slow the Huskers’ running game. In the first half, NU’s Anthony Grant was limited to 30 yards on 11 carries.
In Nebraska’s first three games, Grant averaged 142.7 yards per game. Ajay Allen was Nebraska’s leading rushing in the first 30 minutes, gaining 40 yards on nine carries.
Gabe Ervin Jr. finished as Nebraska’s leading rusher, gaining 60 yards on seven second-half carries. Allen finished with 49 yards on 11 carries while Grant gained 36 on 13. NU totaled just 163 rushing yards on 45 carries.
NU’s passing game netted just one more yard than the running game. Thompson completed 14-of-20 passes for 129 yards and one touchdown; he also was sacked four times.
Chubba Purdy saw his first action as a Husker quarterback. The Florida State transfer was 7-of-11 with one interception for 35 yards. Purdy also scored Nebraska’s second TD on an 8-yard run around the right end with 3:17 remaining in the game.
Joseph said Purdy played in the second half because he needed some reps, not because Thompson was hurt.
“I thought Chubba played OK when he got in there,” Joseph said. “He made some mistakes, but I thought he was aggressive and he gave us a chance to sustain drives.”
Does that mean there might be a change at quarterback on the horizon to give Purdy a bigger opportunity to show what he could do?
Would Joseph be bold enough to try what Jim Harbaugh did at Michigan at the start of the season, giving his top two quarterbacks a chance to start one game and decide on a starter for the final six games?
It’s the kind of decision an interim coach faces with the primary goal of finding the best way to win games.
And right now, Nebraska seems a long way from winning anything.