It may not have been Thanksgiving, but Saturday’s game between Nebraska and Oklahoma was reminiscent of old Big Eight match-ups on those chilly November Thursdays — a low-scoring game where it seemed like every play could flip the game to either team.
The stakes did not appear high before Saturday. No. 3 Oklahoma came in as heavy favorites and was seen as everything that Nebraska wasn’t.
“I can’t say enough good about Oklahoma. That was our bitter rival for so many years,” head coach Scott Frost said postgame. “I root for Oklahoma everytime they play unless they play our team.”
When the 87th game between the two schools kicked off, each team showed why the rivalry was, and continues to be, a big deal. In the end, however, the Sooners showed still just how much catching up the Huskers need before they reach Oklahoma’s level, with the Sooners winning 23-16.
“At the end of the day, we lost the game. That’s what matters when you play for a school like Nebraska,” junior quarterback Adrian Martinez said postgame. “I am disappointed we weren't able to come out with a win.”
Martinez came into Norman, Oklahoma, as one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks, but was overshadowed by the shine of Oklahoma sophomore quarterback Spencer Rattler pregame. Rattler was not only a Heisman Trophy contender, but headed into the game also pegged as the top prospect of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Rattler immediately showed his arm on the first drive, as Oklahoma took a nearly seven-minute opening drive that ended in a touchdown. Rattler converted two key third downs, one a third-and-11 to senior wide receiver Michael Woods and another to freshman wide receiver Mario Williams.
Rattler went 7-of-8 on the opening drive, thus setting the bar that Martinez had to perform at. The response: Martinez led his own 72-yard scoring drive, but unfortunately for the Huskers that would not be the takeaway of Nebraska’s first offensive foray on Saturday.
Before Martinez’s first snap, two false starts were called on freshmen offensive lineman Bryce Benhart and Turner Corcoran respectively. The Huskers were already at 1st-and-20 and, after two runs went nowhere, Nebraska faced a long 3rd-and-12.
Then, Martinez found junior wide receiver Omar Manning over the middle that moved the ball to Oklahoma’s 46-yard line. Manning, considered the top junior college wide receiver prospect only a few years back, was questionable throughout the week but kept the drive and game alive.
“They’re dynamic playmakers and I don’t say that as hyperbole,” Martinez said. “We know they would have to step up today and those guys did.”
The offense had overcome its first hurdle, but another one was fast approaching. On a second-and-eight at Oklahoma’s 20, sophomore center Cam Jurgens committed the first of his two unsportsmanlike penalties, one that pushed the drive to 2nd-and-23 at Oklahoma’s 35-yard line. Nebraska shortly settled for a field goal, making it 7-3 with 1:21 left in the first quarter.
The two offenses shone on their first drives, but neither made much noise for the rest of the first half. Rattler threw just 45 yards in the second quarter and almost threw a costly interception to senior outside linebacker JoJo Domann.
Domann led a defense tasked with one challenge: stopping one of the nation’s best offenses. And the defense did so. Domann tied a career high in tackles, totaling 12,and put Rattler into alert mode all afternoon.
“I feel like we were getting back there. Our movements, our calls were pretty great,” freshman defensive lineman Ty Robinson said postgame. “We hit him when we were supposed to...but at the end of the day we still lost.”
Rattler was the talk of the Sooners, but the defense completes their identity. Led by junior outside linebacker Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma wreaked havoc on the Husker offensive line. Bonitto had two sacks and three tackles-for-loss (TFLs) and led a front seven that finished with five sacks and 10 TFLs.
Oklahoma led just 7-3 into halftime as both defenses forced the offenses to struggle mightily. Martinez would take the reins to start the third quarter.
Nebraska’s quarterback led a methodical opening third quarter drive, the biggest play being a 14-yard catch to junior tight end Austin Allen over the middle to Oklahoma’s 18-yard line, where he survived a big hit from senior safety Delarrin Turner-Yell.
The red zone offense could not move after Allen’s catch, as freshman running back Gabe Ervin Jr.’s two consecutive carries went for one yard. On third down, Martinez almost was picked off after Bonitto’s interception was ruled out of bounds.
The worst was to come, as senior kicker Connor Culp lined up for a 35-yard field goal. Culp was 1-for-2 already, but both kicks were from beyond 50-yards. Culp hit his third try of the day too far to the left, keeping the game at 7-3.
A six-minute drive to start the third quarter, and Nebraska had nothing to show for. Rattler, like Martinez, led his Sooners down the field, in part due to some trickery. On second-and-one, the Sooners successfully ran a double-pass play.
Rattler stepped back and found sophomore wide receiver Marvin Mims for 23 yards to Nebraska’s 48-yard line. Rattler kept cool after that play, and facing a 2nd-and-27 he tossed to junior wide receiver Drake Stoops, who beat junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt on his route, for 22 yards to keep the drive alive.
“They had a good quarterback that was good at extending the play,” Domann said postgame. “Their receivers knew that and they do a great job of wiggling around.”
Four plays later, Rattler tossed his first touchdown of the day to senior tight end Jeremiah Hall with 3:50 left in the third quarter. Oklahoma led 14-3, but Martinez kept Nebraska alive.
The next drive, Martinez took Nebraska down the field, despite losing Ervin Jr. to a non-contact knee injury and suffering another false start. Martinez found a wide open junior tight end Travis Vokolek, setting up Nebraska inside Oklahoma’s goalline area.
On second-and-goal, Martinez took a quarterback dive to score Nebraska’s first touchdown, making the game 14-9. What happened next may be considered unsafe for some, as Nebraska trotted out freshman kicker Kelen Meyer over Culp.
Meyer’s extra point was blocked, and the ball ricocheted into the hands of senior safety Patrick Fields. Fields returned the blocked extra point 100 yards for a rare defensive two-point conversion to make it 16-9.
Somehow, a Nebraska touchdown was worth just four points. Rattler impressed in his next drive, taking the Sooners on another touchdown drive and only faced one third down. Rattler was dealing and Nebraska needed another response from Martinez.
Immediately, freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts found a Martinez deep ball for 55 yards and an additional facemask penalty afterward that took Nebraska from its own 13-yard line to Oklahoma’s 24-yard line. After that, Martinez struggled in part with his offensive line not being able to hold up, as he was sacked almost immediately on a 3rd-and-11.
Sooner sophomore cornerback D.J. Graham then pulled the interception of the year, using one hand to pick off a desperate Martinez throw on 4th-and-17 that would ultimately help the Huskers. The defense promptly forced a three-and-out and Martinez once again answered the bell.
Senior wide receiver Samori Toure took Oklahoma’s punt to the opposing 38-yard line. After surviving another broken pocket on second-and-three, Martinez found Manning for a 21-yard touchdown and Nebraska finally made its first extra point.
The junior, tasked with dueling Rattler, was leading multiple successful drives with a combo of explosive plays and pinpoint passing. In total, Martinez went 19-for-25 with 289 yards and one touchdown while Rattler went 24-for-34 with 214 yards and one touchdown as well.
“Adrian and his resiliency and the heart that he plays with, it’s so easy to rally around that guy,” Domann said. “I love playing with him.”
The Husker defense, tasked with one final stop, fell on an old nemesis. The rush defense struggled containing the outside all afternoon, as it did back on Oklahoma’s first drive with Rattler, junior running backs Eric Gray and Kennedy Brooks each converting key first downs.
Still, the defense tightened up, and forced a punt with 1:03 left in the game. Unfortunately, Nebraska’s time management went awry as Nebraska could barely muster a play on its final drive, taking 57 seconds to run just four plays.
With another potential season-defining moment gone, the Huskers are 2-2 and came close to adding another piece of lore to the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry. But that’s what Nebraska seems to be under Frost: close.
“He [Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley] inherited it from coach Stoops and it was in good shape. He’s kept it rolling,” Frost said. “We’re trying to get back to that level and we showed today that we’re close.”