Troy Aikman’s name might’ve been familiar to Nebraska. He had been a quarterback at Oklahoma, after all, enough of a passing talent that Sooner Coach Barry Switzer was willing to go away from the wishbone offense when Danny Bradley finished in 1984—Aikman’s freshman year.
Aikman was born in California, but his family moved to Henryetta, Oklahoma, when he was 12-years-old. That’s where he went to high school. And that’s how the Sooners found him.
In any case, he started the first three games in the new offense in 1985, all victories, but suffered a broken leg in the fourth game, a loss against Miami. He was replaced by true freshman Jamelle Holieway, and Oklahoma returned to the run-heavy wishbone.
Holieway led the Sooners to eight consecutive victories, including against No. 1 Penn State in the Orange Bowl, and Oklahoma finished as the national champion. Given Holieway’s presence, and success, Aikman decided to transfer, with Switzer’s blessing, to UCLA. And after sitting out the 1986 season, he stepped in as the Bruins’ starting quarterback.
UCLA, coming off a 7-3-1 season, was ranked No. 3 in the 1987 Associated Press preseason poll.
Aikman’s first game as a Bruin was a 47-14 victory against San Diego State. His second was at No. 2-ranked Nebraska, which had opened with a 56-12 victory against Utah State.
The UCLA-Nebraska game was to be televised nationally by ESPN.
Even though Aikman would be the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year in 1987, UCLA’s most prominent player going into the game was senior running back Gaston Green, considered a Heisman Trophy candidate after rushing for 1,405 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior.
But Nebraska’s defense, led by junior linebacker LeRoy Etienne, was prepared for Green, who managed only 46 yards on 19 carries. Etienne had 13 tackles.
Green did score three touchdowns, however.
UCLA’s defense also shut down the Huskers’ running game, limiting it to 117 yards on 47 carries. As a result, both teams relied on the arms of their quarterbacks. Aikman and back-up Brendan McCracken combined to complete 18-of-29, without an interception, for 267 yards.
Nebraska junior Steve Taylor completed 10-of-15 for 217 yards, without an interception, and five touchdowns, breaking the school record and tying the Big Eight record, set in 1938.
Afterward, Husker wide receiver Rod Smith, who caught one of the touchdown passes, said Taylor, who had rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries in the opener against Utah State, should seriously be considered for the Heisman Trophy.
I-back Ken Clark and tight ends Tom Banderas and Todd Millikan caught the other Taylor touchdown passes. Millikan caught two, both in the fourth quarter to give Nebraska a 42-17 lead with 5:37 remaining. UCLA mounted a two-touchdown, fourth quarter, comeback under McCracken, aided by one-of-four lost fumbles by the Huskers. But an on-side kick after the second touchdown failed.
Final score: Nebraska 42, UCLA 33.
Despite the score, the Blackshirts limited UCLA to 94 net yards rushing, a total reflecting six sacks for 50 yards in losses, and recovered three-of-four fumbles. Defensive tackle Tim Rother was credited with two of the sacks and nine tackles, eight of them unassisted. Linebacker Steve Forch also was involved in nine tackles, and two of linebacker Doug Welniak’s five tackles were sacks.
Nebraska had rebounded from the frustration of the previous season’s 20-17 last-second loss to Oklahoma in the final game of the regular season to defeat No. 5 LSU in the Sugar Bowl 30-15 and finish with a No. 5 national ranking, where they had been going into the Oklahoma game.
Had things fallen right, had they not been upset by Colorado as well, they might have found themselves in position to play for a national championship in 1986, as has had been the case, really, every season since 1978. And that was the expectation in 1987, with the No. 2 preseason ranking.
After the UCLA game, Osborne said he planned to vote the Huskers No. 1 in the United Press International coaches’ poll. But Nebraska remained No. 2 in both that poll and the AP poll.
The Huskers would stay at No. 2, despite seven consecutive victories including five Big Eight games in which they allowed one touchdown, two field goals and a safety, because Oklahoma continued to win as well. Then, after a bye week, they replaced Oklahoma atop the rankings.
That’s where the next story begins.
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.