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Huskers Reach the Pinnacle in 1970

December 27, 2020

Here’s where memory fails me a bit, 50 years later.

On the Friday before the Nebraska-Kansas State game in 1970, I recall driving from Lincoln to Beatrice, the town in which I was born. I recall Dave Jones, my friend from the university fellowship program of which we were a part, riding with me. We ate at a truck-stop café just outside of Beatrice on the way home and talked about what we expected to see at Memorial Stadium the next day.

That’s how I remember it, fairly vividly.

The problem is, why would we have driven to Beatrice? That makes no sense, particularly since Coach Jim Ross’s Husker freshmen played the Kansas State freshmen that Friday afternoon. Why wouldn’t I have been among the estimated 6,000 in Memorial Stadium to watch Nebraska, led by quarterback Dave Humm, pound the Wildcat freshmen 63-29?

Humm was a much-publicized recruit from Las Vegas. The Huskers’ main recruiting competition had been Alabama, Bob Devaney head-to-head with Bear Bryant, who called on Joe Namath to help.

However, Humm’s father, Claire, was a cashier at Caesar’s Palace, where a long-time Devaney friend, Marvin Sillman, ran a baccarat game, and Claire Humm “had confidence in what Marvin Sillman thought,” Devaney wrote in his 1981 autobiography. Without Sillman’s involvement, “Dave Humm would have probably been playing for Alabama or some other school.”

Humm’s recruitment led to an NCAA investigation of Nebraska. He had gone to El Paso, Texas, for the Huskers’ 1969 Sun Bowl game against Georgia, at his own expense. He did eat “a couple of meals with the team,” Devaney wrote, and ride on the team bus to a practice, however.

So, Nebraska drew a reprimand from the NCAA.

The Husker freshmen finished the 1970 season 4-0—the only other home game was against Missouri, a 23-14 victory—and broke 11 individual and team freshman records. Humm, who played only half the game, broke season records for passing yardage and total offense.

I remember watching Humm as a freshman, so it must’ve been the Missouri game. I certainly didn’t drive to McCook, Nebraska, for a game against McCook Junior College nor would I have gotten to Ames, Iowa, in time for a game on the Friday afternoon before the varsity game I attended.

Dave Jones and I might’ve been back in Lincoln for the freshman game kicked off, but I doubt it. What I don’t doubt is we talked about how the weather might affect Kansas State quarterback Lynn Dickey, an exceptional passer who would be selected the All-Time All-Big Eight quarterback when four Texas teams joined the Big Eight to become the Big 12 in 1996.

Saturday was supposed to be cold and windy, and it was. A north wind with gusts up to 20 mph left the windchill near zero at kickoff. That didn’t stop Husker fans, however, and not just because it was Homecoming. Attendance was 67,894, the second-largest at the time.

Only the 1968 Kansas game had been larger, 68,128.

Dickey was from Osawatomie, Kansas. He had been the starter since the fourth game of his sophomore year, though in 1970, bruised ribs had hampered him in the first two games and sidelined him for the third. Even so, he had already broken most Big Eight passing records.

He wore white shoes; he had since the previous season, dying them before each game. The reason? Namath wore white shoes, and Namath was Dickey’s idol.

The Wildcats had been No. 13 in the Associated Press poll after winning their opener at Utah State. They lost the second game at Kentucky and the game Dickey missed at Arizona State, dropping from the rankings. But they had lost only once more since Dickey returned, against rival Kansas, after learning they had been put on three-years’ probation by the NCAA for recruiting violations.

The sanctions included no bowl games or television appearances. ABC had been considering Nebraska-Kansas State as a wildcard game until the sanctions were announced.

That was all a blow to fourth-year Coach Vince Gibson, who had targeted 1970 as the season in which Kansas State would compete for a Big Eight title and play in a bowl for the first time.

When he arrived from Tennessee, where he had been the defensive coordinator, Gibson set about creating “Purple Pride” in long-suffering Manhattan.

According to an Associated Press story, men there wore purple suits and women dyed their hair purple. “Restaurants have purple menus and napkins. Ball point pens, blankets, pillows, long handled underwear, skirts, shirts, blouses, panties and bras . . . they’re all purple,” it said.

It was Nebraska red turned purple.

The Wildcats had gone 1-9 in Gibson’s first season but had improved to 5-5 in 1969, and they came to Lincoln with a No. 20 AP ranking and 6-3 record, including 5-1 in Big Eight play. They were challenging Nebraska and Oklahoma for a share of the conference title—the Sooners were 3-1.

Kansas State couldn’t play in a bowl. The Huskers, of course, could, with a chance to play for a national championship with victories against the Wildcats and Oklahoma. So representatives of the Orange, Sugar and Cotton Bowls were on-hand for the game.

Oranges were thrown onto the field as early as the first quarter, though a writer pointed out according to the Sunday Journal and Star, that didn’t necessarily mean Husker fans preferred the Orange Bowl over the other two. Tossing cotton or sugar onto the field wasn’t much of a statement.

Regardless of the bowl, the AP reported, Nebraska had already received 11,000 bowl ticket requests. The rules allowed teams to accept bowl bids a week before their final regular-season games, so the Huskers could accept a bid as early as 6 p.m. the day they played Kansas State.

Whatever the discussion in the café just north of Beatrice, it hadn’t accurately projected what would happen at Memorial Stadium the next afternoon. Nebraska intercepted Dickey a record seven times, with sophomore cornerback Joe Blahak accounting for three and junior safety Bill Kosch picking two to bring his season total to seven. Blahak and Kosch had both come from Columbus (Neb.) Scotus High.

Linebacker Jerry Murtaugh made the first interception, and on the first play after the interception, wingback Johnny Rodgers ran 30 yards for a touchdown. The rout was on.

Monster back Dave Morock had the other interception, returning it 43 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Joe Orduna scored four touchdowns. Jerry Tagge passed to fullback Dan Schneiss for 12 yards and a touchdown. And Paul Rogers kicked a 23-yard field goal as well as six extra points.

Final score: Nebraska 51, Kansas State 13.

Dickey finished 22-of-47 for 255 yards and one touchdown. For me, such specific numbers have been long-forgotten, except for those seven interceptions.

Footnote: sons of Blahak, Kosch and Rodgers would also play for Nebraska one day.

The Kansas State weekend included a somber note. That Saturday, a plane carrying the Marshall football team home from a game at East Carolina crashed in West Virginia, killing all 75 on-board, including players and coaches, the athletic director and boosters.

The 2006 Matthew McConaughey movie “We Are Marshall” is based on what happened.

Nebraska officially received an Orange Bowl bid later that Saturday, but Devaney said no decision on whether to accept would be made until after a team meeting on Sunday.

The Huskers wanted to position themselves to play for a national championship. An AP story during the week before the Kansas State game had said Notre Dame held the key to the bowl match-ups. That key was whether the Irish would pick the Cotton Bowl or the Orange Bowl.

They were No. 1 in the AP poll when the story appeared but dropped to No. 2 behind Texas after defeating unranked Georgia Tech 10-7. They would drop to No. 4 the next week, after a 3-0 victory against No. 7 LSU, and to No. 6 the week after that, following a 38-28 loss at unranked USC.

Texas remained No. 1 with decisive victories against Texas A&M and Arkansas, both unranked.

Even though Ohio State defeated Purdue 10-7 the Saturday of the Kansas State game, Nebraska moved ahead of the Buckeyes, to No. 3, behind Texas and Notre Dame.

Ohio State dropped two places. Michigan moved to No. 4. The Buckeyes would leap-frog Nebraska, however, after defeating Michigan on the day the Huskers played Oklahoma. Such was the rankings-drama during the final weeks of the 1970 season, setting the stage for New Year’s Day.

But back to Nebraska. Though he might have preferred to wait, Devaney accepted the Orange Bowl bid after meeting with the team on the Sunday after the Kansas State game.

He wanted the Huskers to focus on Oklahoma, which they had defeated the previous season at Norman, 44-14. The Sooners could still earn a share of the Big Eight title. Their record was 6-3, including 4-1 in conference play, with a game at Oklahoma State remaining.

Devaney’s record against Oklahoma was 3-5, including 1-2 against Sooner Coach Chuck Fairbanks, whom he had coached as an assistant at Michigan State. It was Senior Day—16 Husker seniors, including 10 starters, were playing their final game at Memorial Stadium.

The game program featured the Husker yell squad on the cover and a two-page story on the University Extension Division, which included a photo of Dr. Otto Hoiberg, “head of Community Development” and the grandfather of current Husker basketball coach Fred Hoiberg.

Oklahoma ran a Wishbone offense; I was fascinated by that. And I particularly remember Sooner halfback Joe Wylie, a sophomore from Henderson, Texas.

Wylie’s speed and ability might only have been exceeded by his humility. Hal Brown, sports editor of the Lincoln Star, wrote: “His classroom work from kindergarten through one year of college has been straight-A with one exception. It has been said that he talks like an educated Gomer Pyle.”

The one exception was a B in an art class.

Nebraska, which was without defensive end Willie Harper, the Big Eight Sophomore Lineman of the Year, because of an injury suffered against Kansas State.

The Huskers had to come back twice to tie the score at 14 in the first half. Wylie scored the second touchdown on a 37-yard run. I remember thinking, “Oh no,” as he ran down the field.

Nebraska took a 21-14 lead late in the third quarter on Jerry Tagge’s 13-yard pass to Guy Ingles. Tagge and Rodgers had teamed up for 53 yards on the Huskers’ first touchdown. Orduna had run 3 yards for the second, with Paul Rogers adding both extra-point kicks.

Oklahoma tied the score 12 seconds into the fourth quarter with some trickery, a Wylie pass to flanker Willie Franklin, good for 10 yards and a touchdown.

Nebraska took the lead when Tagge scored from 1 yard out with 7:42 remaining. The key play on the touchdown drive was a 24-yard Tagge-to-Schneiss pass to the 3-yard line, on a third-and-11 from the Sooner 27. Tagge finished 14-of-22 for 200 yards, without an interception and the two touchdowns.

Again, the drama wasn’t over. Doug Johnson, who was playing in place of Harper, stopped Wylie on a fake punt to give Nebraska the ball at the Oklahoma 26 with time running out. But the Huskers couldn’t move the ball, and a Rogers’ field goal attempt from 37 yards went wide right.

Oklahoma got the ball at its own 20-yard line with 1:25 remaining. The Sooners moved to the Nebraska 27-yard line, fourth down with 5 seconds remaining. Mildren threw to the end zone, where Kosch, Blahak and Morock went for the pass, intended for Jon Harrison.

Husker cornerback Jim Anderson grabbed the deflection to preserve the victory.

Nebraska had won its sixth Big Eight title in nine years, its fifth outright. It was on to the Orange Bowl, as it would turn out, against No. 5 LSU, playing for a national championship.

A little over a week before the 1971 Orange Bowl game, the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City was topped off, making it taller than the Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world, an achievement to which I paid little or no attention.

Nor would I have noticed Congress passing legislation banning cigarette advertising on radio and television. The ban would go into effect on January 2, 1972. NBC reportedly charged $75,000 a minute for advertising during the Orange Bowl, and the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company bought 4 minutes.

On December 31, The New York Times reported, the Beatles broke up over a lawsuit for dissolution of the group brought by Paul McCartney, an event to which I might have been interested. I don’t recall. My focus was on what would happen in Miami on New Year’s Day night.

After attending Nebraska’s final three games, I was back to watching on television as the Huskers would play for the AP national championship. The NBC telecast, with Jim Simpson and Al DeRogatis, was carried by Omaha’s KMTV, Channel 3, and Hastings’ KHAS, Channel 5.

I probably tuned to Channel 3, but I can’t say for sure.

The UPI national champion, Texas, was determined pre-bowl. But the Longhorns were upset by No. 6 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl 24-11 that afternoon. When the Huskers, some of whom watched the upset on television in their rooms, boarded buses to leave the Ivanhoe Hotel on Miami Beach for the Orange Bowl Stadium, No. 2 Ohio State led Stanford in the Rose Bowl 20-17.

Traffic was understandably heavy and slowed the buses.

“Get this damn thing rolling,” said impatient senior Eddie Periard, the All-Big Eight middle guard.

While Nebraska was warming up on the AstroTurf field—the first Orange Bowl to be played on an artificial surface—Stanford took a 20-17 lead over Ohio State. By kickoff of the Orange Bowl, Stanford had won 27-17, the upset opening the door for the Huskers.

Attendance was an Orange Bowl record 80,699. An estimated 15,000 Husker fans were on-hand, some of whom had listened to the Rose Bowl upset on transistor radios. Word of the upset spread quickly in the stands. And the Huskers knew the opportunity that awaited.

Because the Rose Bowl, also on NBC, ran long, Nebraska and LSU starters weren’t introduced for television before the game. Nebraska jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first 13 minutes of the game, on a 25-yard Rogers’ field goal and a 3-yard run by Orduna. The scores came just 34 seconds apart.

On LSU’s first play from scrimmage after the field goal, defensive tackle Larry Jacobson had forced a fumble by quarterback Buddy Lee, and Harper had recovered at the Tigers’ 15-yard line.

“When we went up 10-0, a lot of people thought the score might get worse,” Devaney wrote in his 1981 autobiography. But LSU controlled the second and third quarters, with a pair of field goals and a 31-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the third quarter to take a 12-10 lead.

The Huskers responded with 13-play, 67-yard touchdown drive, converting on three third downs, the first a 7-yard run by Orduna, the second a 17-yard Tagge pass to Kinney, and the third from 1 yard out by Tagge for what proved to be the winning touchdown with 8:50 remaining.

Tagge pushed the ball over LSU defenders to break the plane of the goal line after moving down the line, making “one of the smartest plays I’ve ever seen,” LSU Coach Charlie McClendon said, according Loran Smith’s Fifty Years on the Fifty: The Orange Story.

Victory wouldn’t be sealed, however, until linebacker Bob Terrio intercepted a Bert Jones’ pass at the Nebraska 38-yard line with 45 seconds remaining.

The AP reported that 46,200 Husker fans had signed a telegram delivered to the team before the game by way of the Omaha Western Union office. Such was Nebraska’s passion.

Afterward, Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins wrote of the Orange Bowl victory, and the national championship it would mean, it would “go down in college football history as certainly the greatest thing to happen to Nebraska since the Union Pacific started laying track out of Omaha.”

I was a loyal subscriber to Sports Illustrated, as many sports fans were, and fan of Jenkins, who also wrote: “History gives Nebraska little chance of repeating as national champions. Since 1936, it’s happened only five times, including joint awards.”

He would be wrong about that. The 1971 season belonged to the Huskers, among the greatest teams in college football history. I was in Illinois then, teaching at Parkland Community College.

I had to watch that title run from afar, as former Husker Coach Bill Callahan would have said.

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