Thompson, Taylor key runs to title game
NORMAN, Okla. -- The kind of championship game that Big 12 founders always envisioned finally will take place Saturday night.
Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne won't be roaming the sidelines at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. But almost every other element that made the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry so special will play out in the first meeting of the two storied rivals in the championship game.
Just like in the good ol' days, the conference title and a berth in a top bowl will be on the line in each team's final game before the bowl season. A chilly night with the possibility of icy conditions will only add to the mystique and the retro feel of the game. All that's missing will be the Selmon Brothers, Jerry Tagge and Jeff Kinney.
"When you get here, Coach Stoops does a great job at showing the traditions with all of the teams and Nebraska is definitely one of them," Oklahoma quarterback Paul Thompson said. "It's kind of died a little bit lately because we don't play them every year, but if you look back on the Big Eight, it was pretty much Nebraska and Oklahoma every year. We're really aware of the tradition between the two schools and hopefully we can keep it going."
And while Nebraska coach Bill Callahan is a relative novice to the rivalry after only two games against the Sooners, he still can sense the importance of the game and its history.
"This is what this game is all about I'm a traditionalist and I respect the tradition," Callahan said. "I respect the Oklahoma program and because of that, I'm really looking forward to this game."
Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor is well-versed on the rivalry after growing up in Norman. His father, Sherwood Taylor, lettered as a defensive back with the Sooners from 1977-79 and later served as a graduate assistant coach on Switzer's staff in the early 1980s. That association kept his family close to the OU program while young Zac was growing up.
"The games I remember more than any others were the Nebraska-Oklahoma game," Taylor said. "They are some of the most vivid memories I have. I was an OU fan growing up, cheering against Nebraska. These are two respected opponents. It's always been a respected rivalry without much hate."
But as much as the past might help frame the battle between the Cornhuskers and Sooners, Saturday's game will be as much about the future of both programs.
Oklahoma (10-2, 7-1 Big 12) sneaked into its fifth Big 12 championship game in seven years after Texas lost its final two regular-season games. Despite playing without top offensive threat Adrian Peterson, the Sooners charge into the championship game with a seven-game winning streak and confidence brimming from their late run.
Stoops said he is not surprised his team is in its current position, despite overcoming a loss to Texas in the conference-opening game.
"If I say yes, it sounds arrogant and I'm really not that way," Stoops said. "But why wouldn't we have thought that way? Some of [Texas'] games were pretty close. You always feel that the door is open and you never shut it. We felt there was a chance and fortunately it worked out for us."
Nebraska's road to its first championship game since 1999 was a little easier. The Cornhuskers (9-3, 6-2 Big 12) swept their North Division rivals and finished with a three-game winning streak after losing two straight games to South Division opponents midway through the conference race.
"We're getting better, I'd like to believe we're getting better," Callahan said. "I see progress across the board. I think the statistics validate the improvement and, of course, the most important statistic is winning here at Nebraska.
"Being in this game is a great accomplishment for our players, but we came here to be in this type of game. That's what Nebraska is all about."
Both teams have overcome challenges throughout the season, starting before the season began. Oklahoma lost quarterback Rhett Bomar and top offensive lineman J.D. Quinn; they were kicked off the team on the day before fall practice began after receiving improper benefits from a Norman auto dealer.
Nebraska lost top projected cornerback Zac Bowman with a knee injury before the season started. His departure sent the Cornhuskers' secondary into an early state of flux.
Thompson was recruited to Oklahoma as a quarterback but switched to wide receiver after Bomar beat him out for the starting job last season. He returned as starting quarterback only after Bomar's dismissal.
Despite the abrupt and unexpected change, Stoops was convinced the Sooners could win with Thompson directing the team.
"Coach Stoops came out and said we couldn't use that as an excuse," Oklahoma linebacker Rufus Alexander said. "If we went out and play hard, there was no reason we couldn't keep winning. We were good enough to keep winning with Paul playing quarterback. And we went from there."
"No excuses" has since become the Sooners' mantra, even after the controversial replay-marred loss at Oregon, a 3-2 start and Peterson's injury.
"In this building, we never took our eyes off what are our goals," Stoops said. "We could meet them. It would be tough, but we could still meet them."
Taylor has similarly battled a circuitous route to his starting position.
Even with his Sooners association, Taylor never fit into Oklahoma's recruiting plans. After almost signing with Oklahoma State coming out of high school, Taylor accepted a scholarship offer at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons' option-based attack didn't suit him, so he ended up at Butler County (Kan.) Community College.
Taylor arrived at Nebraska in the spring of 2005 merely hoping to get Callahan's offense pointed in the right direction. After a disastrous season with Joe Dailey in control, Callahan was looking for consistency from the position.
He's gotten that and more from Taylor, who broke the school single-season passing record last season and then broke his own record this season by passing for 2,789 yards. Taylor has thrown for a school-record 24 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He's had three different streaks of more than 80 passes without an interception.
"I'm human, and when you bounce around three colleges, you begin to wonder if it's all worth it and if it's going to work out," Taylor said. "I think I've been blessed. I've had a lot of great opportunities and things have just worked out for me."
Callahan said that Taylor has been the biggest single instrument in "flipping the culture" of moving Nebraska's traditional option-based offense to a pro-style passing attack.
"Zac has accelerated the program more than any I've seen," Callahan said. "He's done an outstanding job of handling everything we've given him. He's allowed our offense to grow and mature, and he's progressed more than any quarterback I've seen in my history."
Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.
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