On the first play from scrimmage Richard (Rick) Berns ran 82 yards for a touchdown, much to the delight most of the 75,850 in Memorial Stadium.
By game’s end, the Huskers’ senior I-back would score another touchdown and rush for 173 more yards to break the school single-game rushing record by a single yard.
Teammate I.M. Hipp had rushed for 254 yards against Indiana the previous season.
Berns’ run fueled optimism that No. 2-ranked Nebraska would beat Missouri for the first time at home under Coach Tom Osborne. The Tigers had come to Lincoln and won in 1974 and 1976. Osborne’s two victories against them had been at Columbia, in 1975 and 1977.
Osborne was also 0-1 against Warren Powers, in his first season as head coach at Missouri after bringing Washington State to Memorial Stadium in 1977 and leaving with a 19-10 upset.
Prior to that, he had been an Osborne assistant, a carryover from Bob Devaney’s staff.
Powers’ staff included former Huskers John Faiman, Zavan Yaralian, Mark Heydorff, Bill Thornton and Dave Redding, as well as Dick Beechner, a grad assistant under Devaney in 1965.
A victory would be Nebraska’s 10th in a row as well and give Osborne his first out-right Big Eight championship. The Huskers had tied Oklahoma for the title in 1975.
Berns, who became Nebraska’s career-rushing leader during the game, also caught three passes for 34 yards as Nebraska amassed 517 yards and 31 points against the Tiger defense on that windy November afternoon, winning numbers to be sure.
Except this time they weren’t.
Missouri scored 35. The Blackshirts couldn’t contain Phil Bradley, Kellen Winslow and James Wilder, a sophomore running back who carried 28 times for 181 yards and four touchdowns, the last with 3:42 remaining, following a seven-play, 74-yard drive. The key play on the drive was a 33-yard Bradley-to-Winslow pass. Bradley was a sophomore quarterback, Winslow a senior tight end.
Winslow finished with six catches for 132 yards and Missouri’s other touchdown.
The Huskers tried everything they had, defensive coordinator Lance Van Zandt was quoted afterward, “our standard 5-2; we tried to blitz, dog, a ‘59’ alignment, eagle – everything. It seemed like the game lasted two weeks. It was a nightmare.”
Missouri’s first lead came late in the third quarter following an interception of a Tom Sorley pass, which gave the Tigers the ball at the Nebraska 31-yard line. Bradley picked up 27 of the yards on a scramble and Wilder carried the final 4 yards to make the score 28-24.
The Huskers responded with a 14-play, 89-yard drive. Sorley had to leave the game with what was first thought to be a shoulder separation but was determined to be a pinched nerve. Back-up Tim Hager came on and finished the drive with a 4-yard run – 52 seconds remained in the quarter.
Nebraska’s final series, directed by Sorley, reached the Missouri 32-yard line. But Berns was dropped for a loss on third-and-3, and Sorley’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
The Saturday before, the Huskers had upset top-ranked Oklahoma. Two days later, the Orange Bowl announced they had picked Nebraska to represent the Big Eight on New Year’s Day.
Depending on the source, the Huskers’ opponent in Miami, with a victory against Missouri, would have been No. 1 Penn State, assuming the Nittany Lions defeated Pittsburgh in their final game. Unnamed sources claimed that Penn State Coach Joe Paterno would decline an Orange Bowl bid because of a snub the previous year, when Arkansas was chosen to play Oklahoma. But the consensus seemed to be a Penn State-Nebraska match-up for the national title, if . . .
Ninety minutes after the Missouri loss, Orange Bowl officials contacted Osborne, Devaney and University of Nebraska Chancellor Roy Young on a conference call to tell them the Huskers’ opponent on New Year’s Day would be Oklahoma – an unprecedented bowl rematch they said, though such a rematch had occurred. LSU and Mississippi played a second time in the 1960 Sugar Bowl.
Osborne was stunned. The Orange Bowl officials asked what he thought about the rematch. Did he have a choice in the matter, Osborne wanted to know. No, they told him.
“Then I guess I don’t have a comment,” he said.
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.
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.