Sometimes, the boys who play defense for the Oklahoma Sooners get to barking in the dressing room before the game. A lone staccato puppy yelp leads to a mad chorus of voices clipped and hammered and made to sound like the local SPCA at feeding time. More often than not, a big fellow with a commando-style hairdo and little pink scars on his knuckles starts foaming at the mouth.
Brian Bosworth once said he can't figure out why barking like dogs so fires up the fifth-ranked Sooners. Neither can he make sense of what drives him to belly up against life's hard edge and take a look-see on the acreage below. He says he's mostly quiet and keeps to himself, except for an occasional incident, such as last year when the Texas Longhorns came to town for a baseball game. That day, old Boz directed all the pain and thunder he was feeling in his heart to the roof of the visiting dugout, which he pummeled with both fists and forearms before finding the good sense to relax.
"Maybe I'm crazy," he conceded the other day, "but I don't run around throwing deer heads through windows like some people I know."
It is a rare week when Coach Barry Switzer does not come out and announce that Bosworth is the best linebacker ever to play for the Sooners (7-1), who take on No. 2 Nebraska (9-1) today at 3 p.m. (EST) for at least a share of the Big Eight title and an Orange Bowl berth should they win again next week against Oklahoma State at Stillwater. The stakes are equally high for Nebraska, playing its final regular-season game. With a win, the Cornhuskers will clinch their fifth straight crown and a shot at top-ranked Penn State in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day.
Said Bosworth, "This is the biggest week for us because of what's at stake. You have a lot of people saying that Nebraska is better than we are, but nobody here believes that."
"This is what we shoot for," Switzer said, "a chance to play Nebraska for all the marbles."
For the first time in seven years, the Cornhuskers enter the Oklahoma game as the underdogs. While bolstering their reputation as a team of enormous talent, the Sooners have rallied around the play of freshman quarterback Jamelle Holieway, whose wizardry running the wishbone has given Switzer cause for celebration, and the toughest all-around defense in the nation.
Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne says this may be the best Oklahoma team he's faced, and adds, "From what I've seen on film, they have no obvious weaknesses. Not one."
The game matches the two winningest active coaches in NCAA Division I-A: Switzer, who owns an .827 winning percentage on a 122-24-4 record, and Osborne, who stands only .012 percentage points shy of matching Switzer's mark. In the 40 years since World War II, the winner of the Oklahoma-Nebraska game has won the Big Eight title 38 times.
Last year's game saw the Cornhuskers, trailing, 10-7, with time running out, move all the way down to the Oklahoma one-yard line before stalling. On fourth down, Osborne might have ordered a field goal and earned a tie, which would have sent the Cornhuskers to the Orange Bowl and probably kept them ranked No. 1. He chose, instead, to gamble and go for the win. Tailback Jeff Smith took the pitch but was stopped short of the goal line by cornerback Brian Hall. The Sooners went on to win, 17-7, in one of the most exciting games the series has known.
"The best team doesn't always win in this series," Switzer said. "I expect the same thing every year: a tight fit to the end with very little margin separating the two teams."
Said Bosworth, "Last year, we were fortunate to get the win because we knew who had the better team. They might have won, but we just wanted it more than they did. Now, I'd say we have the better talent. We've proven ourselves all year long. Still, they're ranked higher than us and we've got a lot to prove. We just want to go out Saturday and show everybody that we should be way up high (in the polls), too."
Oklahoma's only defeat came against Miami (Fla.) in the fourth game of the season, and some of the players point to that frustrating 27-14 loss as a blessing in disguise, mainly because Troy Aikman, then the starter at quarterback, injured his ankle and was replaced by Holieway. Offensive tackle Anthony Phillips said Holieway's presence on the field "all of a sudden made us come together. Everything began to work right. It was phenomenal."
"You hate to say it," Bosworth said, "but it was almost a blessing when Troy went down. Jamelle got the wishbone going, and it's become a hard offense to stop. Couple that with a mean, tenacious defense that doesn't wait for things to come to it. Things happen out there on the field and they usually happen for us."
Switzer says Holieway's ability to run the option off the wishbone has made him a star in an offense that was less-suited for Aikman, whose strength was as a drop-back passer. "Jamelle Holieway makes people miss him," Switzer said. "He can make things happen, and that has nothing to do with our playbook."
Players from both teams say that the winner of this game should have no trouble beating Penn State in the Orange Bowl and taking home the national championship. Bosworth says either Nebraska or Oklahoma will come away from Owen Field "shell-shocked."
"It's a give-take type thing," he said. "We like to give a lot more punishment than we like to take. A lot of teams wear down against a team like Nebraska, especially in the fourth quarter when they can't take on the blockers anymore and can't come up with the big tackles.
"But we get stronger and more excited when the closing quarters come about. That's when you see somebody down on the ropes. Instead of walking away, you want to go ahead and push him off."