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In a sea of misplaced citrus, a homesick freshman halfback helped the Oklahoma Sooners peel off a stunning 80-yard drive Saturday that killed Nebraska's high hopes of an outright Big Eight Conference championship in the final minute of the regular season.
Buster Rhymes, the celebrated freshman from Miami, Fla., set up two Sooner touchdowns with long runs, the second a 43-yard dash with 2:32 left in the game.
With just 56 seconds left, Rhymes devastated a Memorial Stadium crowd of 76,322 with a one-yard leap into the end zone, securing a 21-17 OU victory in another improbable finish to a Sooner-Cornhusker game.
Just 34 seconds before Rhymes' key romp to the Nebraska 14, quarterback Jeff Quinn scored on a one-yard sneak that had given the Huskers a 17-14 lead and sparked a torrent of oranges from strong-armed fans, delirious over what looked like an Orange Bowl-clinching victory.
But the Sooners took over at their 20 with 3:16 to play and the oranges began to look like lemons, the better fruit to symbolize Nebraska coach Tom Osborne's luck against Barry Switzer.
Osborne, given a raise and a contract extension on the eve of the game, bowed to a Switzer-coached team for the eighth time in nine meetings.
For Switzer, the victory insured at least a share of what will be his eighth Big Eight title in eight years as a head coach. The Sooners can clinch a second straight outright title next week with a victory next Saturday over Oklahoma State in Norman.
OU must win that game to earn the conference's berth in the Orange Bowl, New Year's Night against Florida State. A loss against OSU would mean a tie at the top of the conference standings, and Orange Bowl officials last week declared they would invite the Huskers in the event of a tie.
But even the boldest Nebraska fan could not conjure hope for an OSU upset next week that would save their team from a consolation trip to the Sun Bowl to face Mississippi State.
As they filed from the stadium, a few spoke the unthinkable word that now hangs over Nebraska's efforts to unseat OU: "Jinx."
Once-beaten and fourth-ranked Nebraska was regarded locally as up to a 12-point favorite over the twice beaten and ninth-ranked Sooners. "I'm not going to go through this again," said one fan, who then admitted relief that he is moving to Texas.
"This is like a morgue," said another. And it was.
Even after a goal line interception by sophomore Darrell Songy with two seconds left, most of the spectators stood and stared as OU quarterback J. C. Watts fell once on the ball to kill the clock.
There were no shock victims on the OU bench. Sooner players erupted in jubilation. Assistant coach Wendell Mosley cleared a path to the dressing room with a high-strutting victory jig.
Rhymes, who rushed for 85 yards on 10 carries in what was his second collegiate start, was mobbed after the game by television crews and writers from across the country.
"That's a free trip to the house," he said, emphasizing that an Orange Bowl trip means a trip home.
Rhymes' heroics left some with a feeling of déjà vu. His hometown hero, Elvis Peacock, starred four years ago in a 20-17 Sooner upset here that featured another come-from-behind effort. Rhymes and Peacock carry similar builds and Rhymes wears Peacock's old No. 4 on his jersey.
Switzer, who has brought his freshman race horse along slowly this season while another freshman, Georgia's Herschel Walker, has played his way into Heisman Trophy contention, may be hard-pressed to understate Rhymes' abilities in the future. Even Switzer's tongue slipped slightly.
"That's what can happen," Switzer said, "when you get the ball pitched to a great back, I mean, a great speed back."
In the other locker room, Nebraska players sat dazed and disappointed. "I always felt that we could win," Osborne said. "We just didn't win."
The winning Sooner drive was a mirror of some of the misfortune that has haunted Nebraska teams the past nine years.
Starting from their 20 after Quinn's score, the Sooners got only two yards from Rhymes on first down, but Nebraska defensive end Derrie Nelson was flagged for a late hit.
On first down from the 37, fullback Stanley Wilson fumbled after a short gain. The ball eluded a pair of Husker pursuers and Louis Oubre, OU's All-America tackle, recovered it at the 43.
Then, with 2:45 remaining, came OU's biggest play of the season.
Watts optioned to the right. Halfback Chet Winters took out defensive end Jimmy Williams with a lead block. Wilson, in motion to the right from his fullback spot, shoved cornerback Rodney Lewis to the sidelines.
When strong safety Sammy Smith came up to take Watts, the senior quarterback dumped the ball to Rhymes, the trailing halfback. The run was really less perfect than the execution. Rhymes had a chance to cut back and go the distance, but stumbled slightly and was hauled down at the NU 14.
Recalled Rhymes: "I just kept telling myself, 'No fumble! No fumble!'" With just 2:32 left now, Wilson picked up three to the 11. But Nelson and Sims got the yardage back, dropping Winters after an option pitch.
On third-and-10, the Sooners had the perfect play. Bobby Grayson ran an out route from his right split end position and Watts, playing with an injured throwing hand, drilled him at the one. Grayson toppled out of bounds with a first down and 1:20 left.
"That play was open the whole game," Grayson said. "Their cornerback was playing me heads up and would backpedal about five or six yards. It gave me an advantage on the stop route and the out route.
Rhymes was walled out on the next play. But on second down, Watts optioned right behind an underbalanced line stacked to the right side.
Oubre and tight end Forrest Valora sealed the interior and Winters made the lead block for Rhymes who dived head-long over the goal. Mike Keeling's extra point made it 21-17 with just 56 seconds left.
Excellent kickoff coverage left Nebraska with 86 yards to cover in the remaining time. Quinn completed two passes for first downs, but was tripped up for no gain at his 39 while trying to scramble.
With 24 seconds left, Quinn was on the lam again. He finally hurled a desperation bomb for tight end Steve Davies at the OU two. Davies, Songy and safety Jay Jimerson leaped for the pass. The ball deflected off their hands and Songy finally grabbed it with two seconds left.
The Huskers jumped to a 10-0 first quarter lead, but the OU defense sparkled thereafter, holding Nebraska, the nation's top rushing team, to just one first down in the second quarter.
The Sooners made what appeared to be an early break when Scott Dawson made an excellent play to kill Keeling's punt at the NU one. It only forced the Huskers to drive 99 yards with their first possession.
An offsides penalty against OU on a successful third-down stand enabled Quinn to pick up the first down, by two inches.
On second down, Jarvis Redwine, the Huskers flashy I-back, took a pitch from Quinn on a delayed counter option and blazed down the right sideline 89 yards for a touchdown and the day's first shower of oranges.
Sooner safety Steve Haworth was late to cut Redwine off on the boundary and Redwine's speed was no match for strong safety Ken Sitton. Kevin Seibel's kick put Nebraska on top 7-0 with 8:43 left in the opening quarter.
Redwine finished the day with 152 yards on 21 carries. Fullback Andra Franklin added 122 on 20 carries.
A 17-yard pop by Franklin and 13-yard pickup by Redwine helped Nebraska drive 48 yards later in the quarter. Seibel arrived to boom a 47-yard field goal and the Huskers led 10-0 with 0:43 on the first period clock.
OU claimed an advantageous south wind for the second period and stormed back to take the lead with two touchdowns in the final 4:17 of the first half, the second score set up on an incredible option pitch from Watts to Rhymes.
Rhymes started a 68-yard march with a 13-yard pickup and Watts connected with Steve Rhodes on a comeback pass for 13 more to the NU 38. Watts worked the option to convert a short third-down play to the 24.
Wilson then caromed off an obstruction in the line, broke outside and rolled 20 yards to the four. The sophomore, who sat out last week's victory over Missouri with a shoulder injury, finished with 91 yards on 19 carries against the Huskers' nationally ranked defense.
The Sooners needed three plays to reach the end zone for the first time, the last a three-yard run by Watts behind a line unbalanced to the left. A pair of key stops by defensive end Orlando Flanagan helped the Sooners get the ball again with 2:17 left.
Starting from the OU 45, Watts picked up six yards, and then 15 more when defensive tackle Tody Williams was flagged for a questionable facemask grab.
From the NU 34 came the most beautifully executed play of the day. Watts cut upfield on an option keeper around right end and picked up a screen block from Wilson.
Still standing at the 21, Watts lateraled to Rhymes, running open throttle down the sideline. Rhymes took the ball off his shins, never breaking stride, and streaked to the three, a combined 31-yard gain.
"I had run a play like that earlier," Watts said, "and I noticed that when I got upfield, everybody would come at me and leave the pitch open. But I looked around and nobody was there. So I told Chet and Buster anytime I turn up, stay with me for a few more yards."
Winters got the call on the next play, carrying a Watts pitch three yards behind a seal block from Rhodes. Keeling kicked the Sooners into a 14-0 advantage with 1:47 to play in the half.
OU elected to take the wind in the third quarter and squandered the entire opportunity, failing to pick up a first down and twice providing Nebraska scoring opportunities with turnovers.
Nebraska punter Scott Gemar dropped a snap two minutes into the second half and was pressured by Sherdeill Breathett into a kick of minus-five yards. But Rhymes fumbled on a third-down carry to the NU 13 and Toby Williams recovered.
A 13-yard bang by Franklin and a third-down pass interference penalty on Songy helped the Huskers reach the OU 35. Facing the wind, Nebraska gambled on a fourth-and-three play and lost. Mike Reilly and Keith Gary stacked Redwine for a yard loss.
Watts fumbled with 27 seconds to play in the quarter and defensive tackle Henry Waechter recovered for the Huskers at the Sooner 37.
Franklin knocked off 22 yards on the first play. Three snaps later, as the final quarter began, Nebraska gambled again, trying to regain the lead in one swoop. But on a fourth-and-two from the OU seven, nose guard Johnnie Lewis corked the middle and Redwine leaped into the grateful arms of linebacker Mike Coast for no gain.
Yet, the Huskers hadn't been dealt the worst of their luck.
Quinn drove his team 59 yards to the OU 13, completing a flea-flicker pass to Anthony Steels for 16 yards, then hitting Steels again for 14.
The drive seemed unstoppable. Then it stopped. Franklin blasted inside the 10, but lost the ball. It disappeared under a pileup at the one and Songy came up with it amid a chorus of groans.
The field position, however, eventually put the Huskers in the end zone. Forced to punt from the end line, Keeling managed only a 14-yard boot.
From the OU 17, Redwine whirled 10 to the seven. Franklin missed but Quinn made it with a sneak off center Dave Rimington's right hip. The Huskers took a 17-14 lead with 3:16 to play.
"We knew we could pull it together one last time," Winters said.
Valora admitted to some doubts. But it happened, a clutch drive took just 2:20 and put the Sooners' 8-2 season into a new perspective.
"This was the biggest game of my career," Valora said. "This turned a season that wasn't supposed to be that good into an excellent season."
Source: EMan/SoonerTimes.com and The Oklahoman
Video courtesy JimsOklahomaSportsPage.com