True to his word, Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne disdained a tie and went for a national championship today. And for the second straight season, that decision ended in what Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer described as "an honorable and courageous defeat."
Because Oklahoma was able to stop running back Jeff Smith on fourth and goal at the one with 5 1/2 minutes left to play, the Sooners left Lincoln with a 17-7 victory that knocked top-ranked Nebraska (9-2) out of the Orange Bowl.
Sixth-ranked Oklahoma (8-1-1) can move on to Miami by defeating Oklahoma State Saturday in Norman.
An Oklahoma State victory would leave the Cowboys and Nebraska tied for the Big Eight title. Orange Bowl officials already had decided to invite Oklahoma State if that situation occurred.
On Friday, in his final pregame press conference of the week, Osborne had talked about a different situation. He was asked if he would play for a tie or a victory against the Sooners if it got down to fourth and one or a two-point conversion late in the game.
"The players realize you have to go for it to have a chance for the national championship," he said. "We will try to get the win."
Today, just as he did last season when he went for two points and failed to beat Miami in the Orange Bowl, Osborne never flinched. Still, the 76,323 on hand always will wonder why the Cornhuskers decided to go wide, and not up the middle or over the top.
Trailing, 10-7, Nebraska had moved from its 11 with nine minutes remaining to first and goal at the eight. Three plays later, it was fourth and goal.
"If it had been a couple yards, we probably would have kicked a field goal," Osborne said. "There was enough time left, and with a foot to go, we thought we could score."
Oklahoma had other ideas. Smith took a quick pitchout, headed off left tackle, then veered to the outside looking for room to run. Instead, all he found was cornerback Brian Hall, who stood Smith up for no gain.
"I just knew it was him and me, and he had no place to go," Hall said. "When they huddled, I really thought it was going to be a quarterback sneak. In that situation, it's do or die. You don't worry about a pass. I guess the play was designed to go off tackle, but our defensive line just shut down the inside lanes and he had to go outside.
"You know, I don't even know who it was carrying the ball. I never saw the number. I honestly have no idea."
Of course, there still was some football to play before Oklahoma could end an odious streak of three straight losses to the top-ranked Cornhuskers.
Nebraska's defense, ranked No. 1 in the country, forced the Sooners to punt after three plays. Smith, who also leads the nation in punt returns, fielded the kick cleanly, gained six yards and fumbled. Jeff Hake recovered and the Sooners had the ball back with 3:43 remaining.
Three plays later, they faced fourth and one at the Nebraska 34. Running back Spencer Tillman went off right tackle for two precious yards and a first down that virtually sealed the victory.
But not until quarterback Danny Bradley ran 29 yards on a keeper for his second touchdown of the day, with 1:02 remaining, could the small band of Sooners fans celebrate in a stadium packed full of depressed red-and-white-clad Nebraskans.
No one was giddier than Switzer, who said he was not at all surprised that Osborne went for the game-winning touchdown. "Osborne has always said you have to go for it to win the national championship, and you have to give him credit," Switzer said. "But give our kids credit for stopping him there, and earlier in the game.
"You saw something you don't see maybe once in a lifetime -- twice. They put that thing down there twice and they said stop us. We stopped the No. 1 team in the nation twice."
Indeed, early in the third quarter, Nebraska had a first down at the Oklahoma 11, and, incredibly, came away with no points. A third-and-five pass was batted away by Darrell Reed in the end zone, and Dale Klein's 23-yard field goal attempt -- a low, ugly kick -- hit the left upright and bounced away, no good.
The teams had been tied at halftime, 7-7. Oklahoma took advantage of a fumble for its first touchdown -- Bradley's one-yard keeper in the first period -- and Nebraska drove 84 yards in 10 plays for Smith's one-yard run in the second period.
The Sooners broke the tie by driving from their 28 to a first down at the Nebraska 12 before settling for Tim Lashar's 32-yard field goal on the second play of the fourth quarter.
That kick provided what proved to be the winning points in a game that marked Nebraska's first conference loss in four years. It also sent three men from the Orange Bowl Committee back home to Miami shaking their heads in dismay.
They had hoped to have No.1 Nebraska play No. 2 South Carolina for the national championship on New Year's Day, but that matchup ended earlier in the day after Navy had defeated the Gamecocks.
Orange Bowl sources now say they most likely will match the Big Eight winner -- either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State -- against Washington or Florida. Nebraska seems likely to be headed for the Sugar Bowl to play the Southeastern Conference winner.
However, the national championship will not be on the line for the Cornhuskers, a team that Oklahoma's hero, Hall, said "showed class and courage."
But that wasn't enough to beat the Sooners this day.