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Tom’s Time: 44 First Downs, 787 Yards and McCant Gets His Chance

March 26, 2020

At one point in the game, Keithen McCant lined up behind Will Shields, Nebraska’s right guard, who told him to “scoot over” to his left, one place, behind center. 

The mistake was probably understandable. McCant, the Husker quarterback, was looking at the defense, going through audibles, processing what he saw from the defense.

The misalignment happened just once.

McCant, though a fifth-year senior, was seeing his first significant action in Nebraska’s 1991 opener against Utah State at Memorial Stadium. In his first four seasons, including a second-year redshirt, McCant had thrown three passes, one intercepted, and run the ball eight times.

But he had stayed the course, with encouragement from his mom to “ride it out,” he has said. She always “told me, you start something, you finish. That was kind of my thing.”

Mickey Joseph, also a senior, started and directed the Huskers to a 17-7 first-quarter lead, throwing a 22-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Hawkins. That was his only completion in seven passes, however. Late in the first quarter some in the Memorial Stadium crowd of 76,115 booed him.

Early in the second quarter, after his seventh pass sailed over the head of an open Nate Turner—his first pass also had sailed over Turner’s head—and he lost a fumble after being sacked, Joseph gave way to McCant, who directed Nebraska to four touchdowns and a field goal on six possessions.

Joseph returned in the fourth quarter, scoring on a 10-yard run, and Todd Gragnano finished the game, completing his only pass to tight end Billy Wade for 1 yard and a touchdown.

The final score was Nebraska 59, Utah State 28.

The Huskers broke their own NCAA record with 44 first downs. They rushed for 617 yards, second-most in school history; the most was 677 against New Mexico State in 1982. And they amassed 787 yards of total offense, also second-most in school history.

They gained 790 yards in an 84-13 victory at Minnesota in 1983.

Starting I-back Scott Baldwin left the game after suffering an ankle injury on a 29-yard touchdown run, his third carry on Nebraska’s first possession. Sophomore Derek Brown came off the bench to rush for a game-high 175 yards on 23 carries. Then true freshman Calvin Jones got his first chance as a Husker, rushing for 81 yards and two touchdowns, on 14 carries.

Some in the Memorial Stadium crowd also got onto the field late in the third quarter, when the game was delayed for 19 minutes because of rain and lightning. Despite the conditions, and with the teams in the locker rooms, some came out of the stands to frolic on the field.

Not everything was frolic-worthy for Husker fans, though.

The combined yardage of both teams was 1,290, a Nebraska record. Utah State managed only 48 yards rushing, but Aggie quarterback Ron Lopez completed 23-of-41 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns. The yardage was the most-ever against Nebraska in a regular-season game.

Nebraska did intercept two of Lopez’s passes but didn’t sack him.

Husker quarterbacks were a combined 11-for-21 for 170 yards and three touchdowns, with the Joseph interception and sack. “We’re throwing the heck out of it,” Osborne said.

There was a tongue-in-cheek element to his comment, which reflected the attitude of some Nebraska fans. The Huskers weren’t throwing enough to satisfy them.

That and the booing of Joseph were indications of some, perhaps subtle, fan disaffection. The Omaha World-Herald had conducted a poll, the results of which were published that morning. They showed Osborne’s approval rating was 81 percent, Athletic Director Bob Devaney’s 71 percent.

The Huskers went into the game 14th in the Associated Press poll. They would move up one place.

As for whether McCant, who went into fall camp behind Joseph and senior Tom Haase—who was atop the post-spring depth chart—would start the next game against Colorado State?

“I don’t know,” said Osborne.

Tom's Time is a regular feature that will take a closer look at the life of Tom Osborne. Nebraska has a storied history in football that dates back to the earliest years of the game, but the tradition to which Husker fans hold Nebraska is mostly a reference to Osborne's 25 years as head coach. And that will always be worth exploring in greater detail. Click here for all of the entries in the series.

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