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Huskers Falter Against Alabama with a Title on the Line

January 11, 2018

As it turned out, the game would determine the 1965 Associated Press national champion.

The final AP rankings weren’t released until after bowl games. In contrast, the final United Press International poll was released pre-bowl, which meant Michigan State finished atop the rankings and was the UPI national champion, followed by Arkansas, Nebraska and Alabama.

The final regular-season AP poll was the same.

Bob Devaney’s 10-0 Huskers had been preseason No. 1, but dropped to No. 2 after a 34-14 opening-game victory against TCU. After a 27-17 victory at Air Force in the second game, they dropped to No. 3 but returned to No. 2 following a 44-0 victory against Iowa State.

They shut out the next two opponents as well, while scoring a combined 81 points. Even so, they dropped back to No. 3, where they remained. Such was the poll system back then.

Nebraska and Alabama were matched in the Orange Bowl. Michigan State went to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champion. And Arkansas went to the Cotton Bowl as Southwest Conference champ.

The Spartans lost to UCLA and the Razorbacks were upset by LSU, leaving the top spot in the AP rankings open for the winner of the Orange Bowl on New Year’s night.

By halftime, Husker hopes of a national title had diminished and by late in the third quarter, they were all but gone, despite the passing of Bob Churchich. The junior out of Omaha North came off the bench to complete 12-of-17 passes for 232 yards and an Orange Bowl record-tying three touchdowns; he had thrown for only four touchdowns as Fred Duda’s back-up during the regular season.

Churchich was overshadowed by Alabama quarterback Steve Sloan, however. Sloan completed 20-of-28 passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns to Ray Perkins, who finished with nine catches for 159 yards. Sloan’s completion and passing yards were Orange Bowl records.

Coach Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide also set a bowl record with 29 first downs.

The Huskers were surprised by short kickoffs and lost four fumbles, an Orange Bowl record.

Sloan’s passing numbers were something of a head-scratcher given that Nebraska’s defense had allowed an average of only 93.6 passing yards per game during the regular season.

The Sloan-to-Perkins touchdowns came during the first half as Alabama built a 24-7 lead, which increased to 32-13 with just over 4 minutes remaining in the third quarter.

As expected, the Crimson Tide was voted No. 1 in the final AP poll, Nebraska No. 5.

Nebraska and Alabama were rematched in the Sugar Bowl a year later. Despite winning nine in a row, the Huskers were ranked as low as No. 8 during the regular season and went to New Orleans ranked No. 6 following a 10-9 loss at Oklahoma – the Sooners were 5-3 and finished 6-4.

Alabama was 10-0 and ranked No. 3, behind Notre Dame and Michigan State. The Irish and Spartans were undefeated but had played to a 10-10 tie at East Lansing in mid-November. Neither played in a bowl game, which meant the Crimson Tide had little or no chance of repeating as national champion.

Ken Stabler completed 12-of-18 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown to Perkins, who finished with seven receptions for 178 yards – giving him 16 catches for 237 yards and three touchdowns in the two bowls. Nebraska trailed 27-0 before finally scoring in a 34-7 loss.

The bowls were Nebraska’s first games against Alabama. Because of the “fine relations” between the schools, the 1967 Husker media guide said, they had scheduled regular-season games for Lincoln and Birmingham in 1977 and 1978. So they would play again then, “if not before,” it said.

As it turned out, they would play before 1977, in the 1972 Orange Bowl, which was billed as the “Second Game of the Century,” with Nebraska No. 1 and Alabama No. 2.

Devaney got payback against Bryant in a big way, routing the Crimson Tide 38-6.

Nebraska had already won the national title, the media guide said, on Thanksgiving Day in Norman, Oklahoma. The Alabama victory was “simply frosting on the coveted title cake,” it said.

The national championship was Nebraska’s second in as many seasons, of course, and some of the lessons learned in the earlier bowl losses against the Crimson Tide had contributed.

To finish on a personal note, my recollection is that I sent a letter to the Football News prior to the 1967 Sugar Bowl, complaining that it hadn’t given the Huskers sufficient credit during the regular season and that the Sugar Bowl would show they were more deserving despite the Oklahoma loss.

My letter to the Football News was published in its bowl wrap-up issue.

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