Football Writers Association of America 2002 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: GAME (IMMEDIATE DEADLINE)
Vahé Gregorian, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A week before, University of Nebraska freshman receiver Mike Stuntz wasn't allowed on the field against Texas Tech.

"I just wasn't needed in that game, I suppose," Stuntz said.

And on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, as the No. 3- ranked Cornhuskers and second-ranked Oklahoma Sooners were pulverizing each other in the most significant game of the college season to date, Stuntz again had scant reason to believe his services would be required.

So he spent much of his afternoon gazing at the HuskerVision board, which featured past scenes from this majestic rivalry. "I try to keep my head in the game," he said, "but some of those TV timeouts are kind of long, you know?"

Vahé Gregorian
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Age: 39
College: Pennsylvania, Missouri
Background: Vahe was born in Beirut, Lebanon. His beats at the P-D have been preps, University of Illinois basketball, Mizzou football and basketball and, most recently, national college football and basketball beat and the Olympics. He has written two books: "Ride of a Lifetime," with George Perles, and "High Hopes," with Gary Barnett. Vahe has previously won three FWAA writing awards.

But midway through the fourth quarter, the heretofore anonymous Stuntz assured his place in Nebraska highlight reels of the foreseeable future.

His pinpoint pass to quarterback Eric Crouch on a play called "Black 41 Flash Reverse Pass" was good for a stupefying 63-yard touchdown that propelled Nebraska to a 20-10 victory.

And, perhaps, the inside track to a national title, even if the Cornhuskers can't quite admit it yet.

"The big picture is still unclear," Nebraska coach Frank Solich said.

Yes. But it got less fuzzy after Nebraska extended its home winning streak to 20 games and finally snipped the 20-game winning string of defending national champion Oklahoma.

Nebraska (9-0) had been No. 2-ranked in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, which determine the participants in the national title game. Oklahoma (7-1) had been first. They may meet again in the Big 12 title game in Dallas, but OU's title hopes are hanging by a strand now.

"It's a strange feeling in our locker room ... because we haven't experienced this in quite a while," said OU coach Bob Stoops, a loser for the first time in nine games against top 10 teams.

Stoops also had a peculiar feeling as he saw Nebraska's trick play unfold with 6 minutes, 57 seconds left; Oklahoma had botched an attempt at virtually the same sleight-of-hand earlier.

"I almost had to half-chuckle to myself," he said. It was perhaps odd that the decisive play in a bruising defensive game, which featured 10 punts from each team, essentially was a scam. But the teams had been so well-prepared for each other and had been so aggressive on defense that deception became a natural resort.

The teams spent much of the first half either scraping the sleep out of their own eyes for the 11 a.m. start or feeling each other out – albeit by thumping each other silly.

With both offenses straitjacketed, every ... single ... play seemed precious and perhaps game-deciding. It was 10-10 at halftime, with Nebraska going to the locker room surging from holding OU to a field goal after the Sooners had first and goal at the 2-yard line.

The 'Huskers took a 13-10 lead on their first drive of the second half on Josh Brown's 26-yard field goal, and neither team would threaten again until midway through the fourth quarter.

That's when Oklahoma lined up for a 53-yard field goal attempt. But kicker Tim Duncan instead executed a pooch punt to seemingly hem in Nebraska at its 4.

Stoops was torn over whether to attempt a field goal, which was within Duncan's range, but he ultimately thought working for field position was the better move.

When Nebraska was stuck with second and 9 from its 5, the strategy looked good. But then Crouch, a Heisman Trophy candidate who had been contained all game, broke loose for 19 yards to give Nebraska breathing room.

Enter Stuntz, an 18-year-old from Council Bluffs, Iowa, who played quarterback in high school and will return to that position next year. A few series earlier, he had been told to warm up for the special play that Nebraska had practiced all week but that Stuntz didn't really believe would be called.

To avoid tipping off too much, the left-handed Stuntz was sent in for one play before what would become his marquee moment. But when he came in for The Play, he was spooked to see Oklahoma coaches making a throwing motion to their defense.

But the play was on: Crouch handed off to Thunder Collins, running right. Collins then flipped the ball to Stuntz, running left behind him. Stuntz looked downfield for Crouch. If he were covered, Stuntz was to run.

Stuntz saw the speedy Crouch being "shadowed" only by 6-foot-2, 275-pound defensive tackle Kory Klein. He was anxious about his grip on the ball, worried about having it caught in a gust of wind or rifling it too low. But his pass was flawless. Crouch hauled it in and zoomed to the end zone. OU never recovered.

As for Stuntz, 90 minutes after the game, he still was waiting for it all to overwhelm him.

"Maybe it will hit me later," he said, smiling. "Maybe this is all there is to it."

And maybe he'll be seeing himself next time he looks up at HuskerVision.

•

Comment from the judge, Mickey Spagnola: A wonderful job of weaving a game story inside the play of the game and the player of the game. Captured the spirit of this Nebraska-Oklahoma game in a concise but revealing manner.

• Second place: Wright Thompson, New Orleans Times-Picayune
• Third place: Richie Rosenblatt, Associated Press
• Honorable Mention: John Bohnenkamp, The Hawk Eye; Tommy Hicks, Mobile Register; Steve Henson, Los Angeles Times