It was a war of words, sort of, with the renewal of a high school rivalry involving Nebraska’s Broderick Thomas and Texas A&M’s John Roper as a sub-plot.
Thomas went to Houston Madison, Roper to Houston Yates.
Both were seniors and both were outside linebackers. The Sporting News rated Thomas the nation’s best linebacker and A&M’s linebackers as the best group, with Roper the leader.
He and Aaron Wallace, the other outside linebacker, earned the nickname “Blitz Brothers.” Roper had been timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.56 seconds, Wallace at 4.49.
The day before the Saturday night game, during media availability at Giants Stadium, Roper, wearing wrap-around sunglasses and speaking after he had declined the previous day, said he didn’t think Husker quarterback Steve Taylor had been hit as hard as the Aggies would be hitting him.
“If we play the way we normally play, we can intimidate them,” Roper said.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This was the lead-up to the 1988 season-opening Kickoff Classic, the sixth to be played, beginning with Nebraska-Penn State to open the 1983 season.
That was the first college football game played in August. This was played on August 27, also in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It was televised by Raycom Sports.
The Huskers were pre-season ranked No. 2. A&M, which had won its final eight games in 1987, capped by a 35-10 victory against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, was No. 10.
Nebraska had seen its national championship hopes dashed by Oklahoma in the “Game of the Century II,” losing 17-7 at Lincoln in the 10th game of the season. The Huskers climbed to No. 1 that week, changing places with Oklahoma. They would finish sixth after losing to No. 3 Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl. Even so, their résumé was such that the Kickoff Classic invited them back.
The Classic had a five-year waiting period between teams’ appearances.
Nebraska was without its No. 1 center, Jake Young, because of a knee injury. Senior Jeff Anderson, who had walked on from Norfolk, Nebraska, was his replacement. Anderson had earned one letter, primarily seeing time as a long-snapper on punts and place-kicks.
A&M scored first and led 7-3 at halftime. Though Taylor wasn’t intimidated, he completed only 5-of-10 passes for 47 yards in the first half, and the Huskers managed just 53 yards rushing.
Nebraska lost a fumble, and John Kroeker averaged 42 yards on four punts.
Kroeker wouldn’t punt in the second half, however, and though the Huskers lost two more fumbles, they rolled up 226 yards of offense, while limiting A&M to 107.
Taylor finished with 11-of-22 passes, without an interception, and a 20-yard touchdown to tight end Todd Millikan, who broke two tackles on the play. I-back Ken Clark rushed for 80 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. He ran a two-point conversion in, after an earlier two-point conversion pass failed.
Sophomore Terry Rodgers, Johnny Rodgers’ son, rushed for 65 yards on 10 carries, with 28 of the yards coming on second-and-15 during the second touchdown drive.
Taylor was named the game MVP, though some in the press box argued that honor belonged to redshirt sophomore Gregg Barrios, a walk-on from Omaha Creighton Prep.
Barrios, who had never kicked a collegiate field goal, missed his first attempt from 35 yards early in the first quarter—the official play-by-play incorrectly indicated 45 yards. But early in the second, he kicked a 44-yarder, then added field goals of 38 and 48 yards in the second half.
The Aggies had cut the lead to 20-14 with 10:15 remaining. Barrios gave Nebraska some breathing room with the 48-yarder, a Kickoff Classic record, with 6:10 left on the clock.
Thomas and LeRoy Etienne had a combined 21 tackles to lead the Blackshirts. The “Blitz Brothers” also combined for 21 tackles but sacked Taylor only once.
“Our goal isn’t to win the national championship,” Taylor said afterward. “It’s to play well. We want to do the things we need to do to win. Then we might have a chance.”
Though he had said the goal wasn’t to win it, just mentioning the national championship reflected a change in Nebraska’s culture. Prior to the recruitment of Taylor and Thomas in 1985, in particular, Husker players were encouraged to focus on what they could control, winning the Big Eight, and not talk about what they couldn’t—national championships were determined by vote.
Even so, ultimately a national title was the Huskers’ goal; it had been dating to Bob Devaney’s tenure as head coach. Taylor and Thomas, who were featured on the cover of Nebraska’s 1988 media guide, were among the first to openly acknowledge it.
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.