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A Rough Start, Then a Long Wait, in the Nebraska-Purdue Series

September 27, 2018

Sixty years ago today, Sept. 27, Nebraska played Purdue for the first time.

The game was played in West Lafayette. And the Huskers lost, 28-0.

Nebraska often lost back then, with only three winning seasons since the 1941 Rose Bowl team. Bill Jennings was the seventh head coach following “Biff” Jones, succeeding Pete Elliott in 1957.

The Huskers’ record in the 16 seasons prior to Jennings’ arrival was 57-87-3.

Jennings’ first season was worse than any of the 16. Nebraska went 1-9.

His second season was two wins better. 

The Huskers opened 1958 with a 14-7 upset of Penn State in Lincoln before traveling to West Lafayette. Jennings was named the United Press International “Coach of the Week,” and Lincoln Star sports editor Don Bryant persuaded Gov. Victor E. Anderson to honor the Huskers by making them admirals in the mythical Nebraska Navy.

Against Penn State, his first varsity game, sophomore Pat Fischer, the starting left halfback, returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown. Fischer didn’t make the trip to Purdue because of the flu. 

He was among five sophomores who were starters and 22 on the 45-man roster, which included eight seniors. A ninth, Mike Lee, was dismissed from the team at the start of fall camp. He had been a co-captain, pictured with Dick McCashland, the other co-captain, on the cover of the ’58 media guide.

Jennings’ second team was “as green as Ireland in springtime . . .” the guide’s season preview, written by sports information director John Bentley, began.

College football was much different then, without two-platoon play. Among the NCAA rules changes in 1958 was allowing players to re-enter a game once during each quarter. Previously, the only players who could re-enter (just once) during a quarter were those who had started the game.

Another rules change allowed the 2-point option following a touchdown. As it turned out, Jennings wouldn’t have to make that decision against Purdue.

According to the media guide, Jennings intended to divide his offense 50-50 between a split-T formation and the single-wing, which used an unbalanced line and a direct snap to the tailback.

Players weren’t nearly as big. Nebraska’s roster included only 11 players who weighed 200 or more pounds. Sophomore tackle Russ Edeal was the heaviest, listed at 219 pounds.

Jennings, who had played at Oklahoma and then been an assistant to Bud Wilkinson there, “was a great guy but not much of a motivator,” McCashland would recall many years later. “He was calm, cool and collected. He wanted to do well, but he couldn’t motivate kids to play for him.”

In addition, he didn’t always have control of his assistants.

“One would say, ‘You block this way,’ and another would say, ‘No, you block this way,’” McCashland recalled. “It’s a wonder we won as many games as we did.”

The legendary Woody Hayes, who was in his eighth season as the head coach at Ohio State, was credited with saying some version of: “Three things can happen when you throw the ball and two of them are bad.” And Jennings’ first team had provided dramatic evidence.

In 1957 Husker passers were 33-of-101 for 428 yards and one touchdown, with 18 interceptions. The 1958 team was only slightly more productive, with four touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

McCashland, who played fullback and linebacker, was Nebraska’s leading rusher against Purdue, with 28 yards on nine carries. The former high school tailback from Geneva, Nebraska, would finish the season as the Huskers’ second-leading rusher with 257 yards on 66 carries.

Senior Larry Naviaux finished as the season’s leading rusher, with 261 yards on 74 carries. Clay White, also a halfback, was the leading receiver with six catches for 137 yards.

In any case, the Huskers finished with 49 yards rushing to the Boilermakers’ 354. Neither team threw much. Nebraska lost three fumbles and had one pass interception.

Jennings used only 24 players in the game. Purdue Coach Jack Mollenkopf used 46.

In the spring of 1958, Lincoln Journal sports editor Dick Becker had written a column implying that Nebraska should be scheduling non-conference opponents less-imposing than “killers” such as Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Ohio State and Army (times were different, remember).

Jennings’ 1958 team upset Pittsburgh in the final home game, its third victory. The Huskers, who also defeated Iowa State the week after the Purdue game, finished the season 3-7.

Becker didn’t mention Purdue among the “killers,” but presumably the Boilermakers would have qualified as well. They finished 6-1-2 and ranked as high as eighth, finishing at No. 13, in 1958.

Nebraska wouldn’t play them again until 2013, a game the Huskers won 44-7. Nebraska is 3-1 against Purdue since then, the only loss coming in Mike Riley’s first season, 55-45.

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