Barry Switzer took over the Oklahoma Sooners in 1973 and his coaching reign was an unqualified success. There were three national championships, most recently in 1985. There was a consistent domination of the Big Eight and archrival Nebraska. The 1987 Oklahoma Sooners came into the season on a three-game winning streak over the Cornhuskers, each one sealing a conference title and Orange Bowl berth. And another big year was ahead in ’87.
Oklahoma was loaded with talent. Defensive back Rickey Dixon was one of the nation’s best and intercepted eight passes. Linebacker Dante Jones and defensive lineman Darrell Reed also made 1st-team All-American, giving the defense an elite player on each level. David Vickers gave the secondary a second-team All-American. The OU defense gave up just 8 ½ points per game and ranked first in the nation in scoring defense.
The offense was unconventional, but explosive. Oklahoma used the triple-option wishbone attack, the last major national power to do so. They didn’t pass much—only 99 attempts for the entire season, but the wishbone could hit you in so many different ways on the ground that the offense still had variety.
Jamelle Holieway was the controls and the senior was in his third year as the starting quarterback. Lydell Carr played the fullback spot and was an honorable mention All-American. The halfback carries mostly went to Rotnei Anderson, Anthony Stafford and Patrick Collins.
Of these five players, Holieway ran for 860 yards and everyone else was between 500-700. They ran behind an offensive line anchored by All-American guard Mark Hutson and tackle Greg Johnson, who made second-team All-American.
And though the forward pass was a rarity in Norman, it was exciting when it did happen. Keith Jackson was an All-American at tight end and though he only caught 13 passes, they went for 358 yards. In future years as a pro, Jackson would get further opportunity to demonstrate his receiving skill, catching passes for Randall Cunningham in Philadelphia and Brett Favre on a Super Bowl champion in Green Bay.
Carl Cabiness was another big-play receiver, with his ten catches going for over 235 yards. The offense, like the D, ranked first in the country in scoring.
Oklahoma was ranked #1 to start the season and they were in no hurry to test themselves. They rolled through their first three games against North Texas, mediocre North Carolina and a poor Tulsa team. The combined score in those games was 162-14.
After opening Big Eight play with a 56-3 blasting of woeful Iowa State, OU played their annual Red River Rivalry game with Texas on October 10. The Longhorn program was in a drought of mediocrity and it showed here, as the Sooners cruised to a 44-9 win.
The machine kept on rolling through the Big Eight. Colorado was a respectable seven-win team and put up a decent fight, but there was never any chance Oklahoma would lose, getting a 24-6 win. Sandwiched around the Buffaloes were games against Kansas State and Kansas, two of the worst programs in the nation at the time. The combined score of these two was 130-20.
It was time for the November push and the first real test of the season came when 12th-ranked Oklahoma State paid a visit to Norman.
After leading 10-3 at the half, the Sooners were able to open up in the second half and win 29-10, getting over 400 yards on the ground and shutting down the great Cowboy running back Thurman Thomas.
But the win came at a heavy cost. Holieway tore up his knee. His season—and his career—were history. Carr was also injured and would miss next week’s home finale with Missouri.
The quarterback and the fullback were the key components to the wishbone attack and Oklahoma struggled against a mediocre Tiger team before escaping 17-13. The injury list got another addition—Switzer was injured in a sideline collision and would spend the next six weeks in a cast.
Pollsters responded by dropping to Oklahoma to #2. It was a meaningless gesture. OU and Nebraska had been 1-2 in the polls all season, continued to be so and were about to play head-to-head in Lincoln. But the rankings are indicative of how the nation viewed the wounded Sooners going into the regular season’s most anticipated game. Betting markets followed suit, with OU a full seven-point underdog on the road.
Oklahoma fell behind 7-0 quickly. But for all of OU’s injuries, their defense was healthy, it was still the best in the country and they kept the score at 7-zip going into the locker room. Switzer told his team that if Nebraska hadn’t put away Oklahoma by now, they were never going to. He proved to be prescient.
Charles Thompson was the new man running the wishbone and early in the third quarter he got the attack moving. A touchdown drive ended with an 11-yard run by Anthony Stafford. The game was tied and Oklahoma had the momentum, thanks to control of the ground game.
Nebraska’s own running game was terrific and there was no shortage of All-American talent in the trenches. But the classic power-I formation wasn’t as diverse as the wishbone and that was where the Sooners made their hay. Thompson finished with 126 yards. Anderson added 119. Patrick Collins tacked on another 131—nearly half of them on the play of the game late in the third quarter.
OU was on their own 35-yard line. Thompson took the snap and the classic wishbone option play started to the left side. He pitched it to Collins, who found a seam and quickly attacked. He was gone, 65 yards for a touchdown.
A 14-7 lead at this stage in a game with this style, seemed enormous. The Cornhuskers never seriously threatened. The Sooners added a field goal and the final was 17-7.
It seems strange to say, given Oklahoma’s pedigree and success in this rivalry, but this was, in its own way, a big upset. Oklahoma was back on top of the polls. They were headed back to the Orange Bowl for a fourth straight year. Another 1 vs. 2 battle awaited, this time with Miami.
The Hurricanes had been OU’s Kryptonite the past two seasons, the only team to defeat them in the championship run of 1985 and again the only team to knock off Oklahoma in 1986. Both wins had been decisive, by double-digit margins.
The reason was speed. The ‘Canes could match OU’s speed on the perimeter and prevent big plays in the option game. It was a matchup like this that exposed the lack of a passing game.
The Orange Bowl was tied 7-7 at the half, but Oklahoma’s problems in moving the ball were obvious. Miami controlled the second half, generating just enough from a passing game that had All-American wide receiver Michael Irvin on the outside. Irvin caught one touchdown pass, the ‘Canes got a couple field goals and the lead stretched to 20-7.
The Sooners made it modestly interesting getting a late touchdown off the trick “fumble-rooskie” play, where the quarterback puts the ball on the ground and an offensive lineman scoops it up and goes the opposite direction. But even the need for trickery underscored how outmatched OU’s offense was. They lost 20-14.
Oklahoma finished the 1987 season ranked third in the nation. Little did anyone know, but this would be Switzer’s last time in a major bowl. They lost to Nebraska in 1988 and settled for a Citrus Bowl invite.
The ensuing offseason saw the loose manner the head coach ran the program in come under fire, with a number of serious off-the-field incidents. He was forced out. Oklahoma would not return to a major bowl until Bob Stoops was the coach in the national championship season of 2000.