Oklahoma football: Sooners hold off upset-minded Nebraska, 23-16

Sep 18, 2021; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez (2) runs past Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Brian Asamoah (24) during the third quarter at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 18, 2021; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez (2) runs past Oklahoma Sooners linebacker Brian Asamoah (24) during the third quarter at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

For the second time in three weeks, the No. 3-ranked Oklahoma football Sooners held off a scary upset bit by an unranked opponent.

Not something you would expect from a top-five team playing at home. Oklahoma never trailed in the 50-year anniversary of the 1971 “Game of the Century” on Saturday, but they were never able to separate either, holding off a refuse-to-lose Nebraska crew that came ready to play to win by a touchdown, 23-16.

The outcome was much closer than the oddsmakers projected — the Sooners were favored by 22 — but even more surprising was how low scoring the game was.

Nebraska came with a game plan that is likely to become a model for other Sooner opponents this season. On offense, the Cornhuskers wanted to out-physical Oklahoma at the line of scrimmage and run the ball right down the gut at the Sooners. Nebraska also had a height advantage with receivers that were four and five inches taller than the OU defensive backs, and that came into play several times late in the contest.

16. 810. 23. 815. Final

The Sooner defensive front did a good job of shutting down the Nebraska run game, but when Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez chose to put the ball in the air, the tall Husker receivers were able to haul in 19 catches for 289 yards, including a touchdown late that cut into Oklahoma’s 23-9 advantage, pulling the upset-minded Cornhuskers to within seven points with lots of time remaining.

On defense, Nebraska utilized soft zone coverage, taking away Spencer Rattler’s quick reads and forcing him to beat defenders deep. It worked because OU’s longest pass play was just 23 yards. The Cornhuskers wanted to test the Sooners’ patience and ability to sustain long scoring drives.

“It was just a hard fought game,” Lincoln Riley said in his postgame comments. “You knew it would be. There’s a lot of pride in these two programs.

Oklahoma took the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards in 14 plays, consuming a little over eight minutes on the clock. Rattler scored on a quarterback sneak to give the Sooners the early 7-0 lead.

Nebraska countered with a 42-yard opening drive of its own, but the drive stalled at the OU 33. The Huskers were able to add points, however, on a 51-yard field goal by Connor Culp that split the uprights.

The quarter ended with OU touching the ball just twice and Nebraska only one time. That’s the type of game it was — a low-possession game with each offense able to sustain time-consuming drives. Neither team scored in the second quarter, which ended the way the opening quarter ended, with OU holding onto a 7-3 lead.

It marked the first time the Oklahoma offense had been held to single digits in the opening half since the win at Ohio State in 2017.

Nebraska missed a 38-yard field-goal to open the second half, and Oklahoma responded with a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive, capped off by a one-yard TD toss by Rattler to H-back Jeremiah Hall. That stretched the Sooner lead to 14-3 with just under four minutes to go in the third quarter.

ON the Nebraska possession following the Oklahoma touchdown, the Huskers engineered a 75-yard scoring drive to pull back within five points, at 14-9. What happened next, though, on the extra-point try, changed everything and might have cost Nebraska the win.

The Sooners blocked the extra-point kick and OU’s Pat Fields ended up with the deflected ball in the end zone. He took off to the left and down the left sidelines, returning the ball 100 yards to the Nebraska end zone to secure two more points on the scoreboard for Oklahoma. So, instead of a four-point deficit, the Cornhuskers found themselves down by a touchdown.

Oklahoma drove 65 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to widen the margin to 23-9, but Nebraska, as it showed for the entire game, was not done yet. What ended up being the play of the game came on a fourth-down play at the OU 24-yard line. Sooner cornerback D,J, Graham made a spectacular interception of a Martinez pass at the three-yard line, snuffing out a Nebraska scoring attempt and turning the ball back over to the Sooner offense.

As great a defensive play as that was by Oklahoma, it actually ended up costing them. The Cornhuskers forced a three-and-out, and OU had to punt from their own end zone. That gave Nebraska a short field, and Martinez made short work of the scoring opportunity, taking the Huskers the final 38 yards in just over a minute. And just like that, we had a seven-point game, again, 23-16.

This was not one of Oklahoma’s better offensive games. Rattler was 24 of 34 passing for a very un-Oklahoma-like 214 yards and one touchdown (his Heisman candidacy may be slipping away). The Sooner run game delivered a highly respectable 194 yards, with Brooks and backfield teammate Eric Gray gaining 159 yards between them. Jadon Haselwood caught six Rattler passes for 61 yards.

Nebraska’s chances in this game widely rested on the shoulders  of Martinez. And he clearly held up his own, throwing for 289 yards and picking up another 34 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown.

It didn’t help Nebraska’s upset chances that the Husker offensive line was flagged for six penalties (four false starts and two unsportsmanlike conduct calls).

By being held to just 23 total points, Oklahoma’s school-record of scoring at least 27 points was snapped on Saturday after 65 consecutive games.

Next up: Oklahoma (3-0) stays at home for a fourth straight game next weekend, hosting West Virginia in the Big 12 opener for both teams.