Jay Sims and Jay Foreman are standing together on the sideline during the fourth quarter of the Nebraska-Michigan State game at East Lansing, Michigan, in early September of 1995 when Husker freshman I-back Ahman Green runs 57 yards for a touchdown.
“Hey, Sims,” Foreman says, “you gonna let this freshman out-do you?”
Sims is a sophomore, a walk-on from Omaha Central by way of West Memphis (Arkansas) High School. “Six inches of daylight, man, that’s all I need,” he tells Foreman.
A few minutes later, Sims gets the call to enter the game, except he is still standing with Foreman and the other defenders. He is holding his helmet and hasn’t warmed up.
He also is still yapping about “6 inches of daylight.”
Someone yells: “Sims, where the heck is Sims?”
Finally, he pulls on his helmet and runs onto on the field.
The play was “47 tackle trap.” Coach Tom Osborne had put it in for Michigan State. And it had worked well during practice against the Blackshirts. When he heard the call, Sims expected to have room to run if he was handed the ball – which he was.
The play went to the left. Sims stepped right as if he were going that way. The linebacker stepped over and was sealed off by a tackle. Sims was through the hole, into the secondary.
A safety and cornerback converged, but they underestimated Sims’ speed – he had been timed, electronically, at 4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He split the defenders and was in the open field. The play covered 80 yards. Touchdown Nebraska. Ted Retzlaff kicked the extra point.
With 8:23 remaining, the score was 50-10. And that would be the final.
The defending national champion Huskers, ranked No. 2, weren’t running up the score. Sims was the fourth I-back to carry the ball, following Lawrence Phillips, Clinton Childs and Green. And Damon Benning, No. 2 on the depth chart, didn’t make the trip because of injury.
Rather, “we were fairly well-prepared for what we saw,” Osborne said afterward.
That was an understatement. Nebraska rolled up 666 (appropriately, perhaps, a “beast” of a number) yards of offense, including 552 rushing, and averaged nearly a first down per snap.
Even so, “I don’t think we threw as well as we could, or will,” said Osborne.
Tommie Frazier, who left in the second quarter with an injury, and Brook Berringer were a combined 7-of-13 for 114 yards, with no interceptions and no touchdowns.
Phillips rushed for 206 yards and the other four touchdowns, on 22 carries, and Kris Brown kicked two first-half field goals, the second of which made the score 20-7 at halftime.
The preparation to which Osborne referred involved studying film of the Cleveland Browns’ defensive schemes and Virginia Tech’s offense. The Blackshirts limited Michigan State to 45 rushing yards, on 24 carries, and 335 total yards. They intercepted one pass and recovered two-of-six fumbles.
Nebraska studied Virginia Tech’s offense because Michigan State’s offensive coordinator had come from there. And the Huskers studied the Browns’ defense because the Spartan’s first-year head coach had been Cleveland’s defensive coordinator the previous four years.
Michigan State’s head coach was Nick Saban.
Gary Tranquill was the offensive coordinator. Before one season at Virginia Tech, Tranquill had been on the Cleveland staff with Saban as quarterbacks coach.
The score didn’t reflect the quality of the Spartans, according to Osborne. Saban had a “good football team,” said Osborne. “I don’t think they’ll win the Big Ten, but I think they’ll be good.”
For the record, the Spartans would finish 6-5-1, losing to LSU in the Independence Bowl.
While crediting Nebraska, Saban told reporters he was “disappointed in the way we competed in the second half . . . to put it bluntly, guys, I felt that our players quit, and if they quit, they won’t play, not here. I don’t know who we’re going to play or what we’re going to play with.
“But I’m not going to play with people who won’t give effort, that won’t try as hard as they can try, won’t play with toughness and won’t play responsible football like they’re supposed to do.”
Though he had suffered a mild stroke in the spring, Nebraska Athletic Director Emeritus Bob Devaney made the trip to East Lansing with wife Phyllis for the 1995 Michigan State game. It was a homecoming of sorts for the 80-year-old Devaney, who had begun his college coaching at Michigan State as an assistant, first under Clarence “Biggie” Munn and then Hugh “Duffy” Daugherty.
When Nebraska was looking to replace Bill Jennings as head coach following the 1961 season, it contacted Daugherty to see if he’d be interested. Nebraska Chancellor Clifford Hardin had been the Dean of Agriculture at Michigan State before coming to Lincoln.
Daugherty wasn’t interested but recommended Devaney, the coach at Wyoming. Hardin passed along the recommendation to Tippy Dye, the Huskers’ new athletic director.
Michigan State was Saban’s second season as a head coach. Toledo had gone 9-2 in 1990 under his direction before he left for the Browns. Saban, who had served as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach from 1983 to 1987, spent five seasons as head coach in East Lansing before leaving for LSU. His record at Michigan State was 34-24-1.
His college-coaching record since then is 190-36 (.841), though five of those victories were vacated by the NCAA in 2007, his first season at Alabama.
Saban’s Spartans would have to deal with Nebraska again in 1996, with a similar result, losing 55-14.
Scott Frost started for the first time as a Husker, completing 5-of-12 passes for 74 yards and one touchdown, to Brenden Holbein, and rushing 11 yards for a touchdown, the game’s first.
But the story of the game was defense and special teams. The Huskers intercepted three passes, two of which were returned for touchdowns – 84 yards by Mike Minter and 9 yards by Grant Wistrom – had seven sacks, led by Mike Rucker with 2.5; and limited Michigan State to 246 yards, despite the fact the Spartans ran 76 plays and finished with a 9-minute advantage in time of possession.
Brown again kicked a pair of field goals and Mike Fullman returned a punt 62 yards for Nebraska’s second touchdown. Nebraska had control by halftime, leading 27-0.
Sims, the third of four I-backs to play, got two carries in the fourth quarter. The first went for 2 yards, the second for 3.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.