Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: A Preview of the Scoring Explosion to Come

March 20, 2018

Rewind to the final day of October in 1980, the day before Nebraska would play nemesis Missouri at Memorial Stadium. The Cornhuskers were ranked No. 8, Missouri No. 15.

Nemesis? A Tom Osborne-coached team had yet to beat the Tigers in Lincoln. Nebraska’s last victory against them in Lincoln had come in Bob Devaney’s final season, 62-0.

Osborne was 3-4 against Missouri, which had been ranked only once – No. 17, to the Huskers’ No. 3, when it came to Memorial Stadium and won 34-24.

Nebraska would win on Nov. 1, 1980, decisively, 38-16. The Tigers wouldn’t win again in Lincoln until 2008, five seasons after they snapped a 24-game losing streak against Nebraska in Columbia.

The subject here, however, is the day before, when the Husker freshmen played the University of Nebraska at Omaha jayvees for a second time that season. The Husker freshmen had been scheduled to play the Missouri jayvees that day. But Missouri canceled in the late summer.

The Nebraska freshmen won the first game in Lincoln in early October 45-0.

The rematch was played in Omaha, at Omaha’s Al Caniglia Field, and televised on the Nebraska Educational Television Network. Nebraska-Omaha charged admission, from $1.50 to $3.50, with proceeds going to the school’s athletic fund. Such was interest in the Husker freshmen.

Attendance was estimated at 1,200 for the Friday-night contest.

Turner Gill was the most notable of Nebraska’s freshmen, and not just because he was a quarterback who had picked the Huskers over Oklahoma, though that added to his résumé and appeal. There were others in the class, which included 11 in-state athletes, drawing attention, among them Jeff Smith, a running back from Wichita, Kansas, and Scott Kimball, a split end from Camarillo, California.

In its annual pre-season football edition, the Sunday Journal and Star speculated that Smith and Kimball might play with the varsity right away, Smith as a kick returner.

Osborne saw “shades of” Johnny Rodgers in Smith as a kick returner, he said.

Even so, “in our system, it’s difficult to move right in,” freshman coach Frank Solich was quoted.

That was especially true for a quarterback. So Gill almost certainly would play with the freshmen. “But that won’t stop fans from instantly analyzing” him, the newspaper said.

Nebraska fans were just happy Gill had picked the Huskers, and had decided not to sign with the Chicago White Sox, who had selected him in the second round of the June draft.

Longshot or not, early in the season Osborne discussed with Gill the possibility of his playing with the varsity. Gill indicated he didn’t think he was prepared for that and would be best served learning the system with the freshmen, evidence of his maturity and what would make him a three-time, first-team All-Big Eight performer – and fourth-place finisher in voting for the 1983 Heisman Trophy.

The 1983 Heisman winner, of course, was teammate Mike Rozier, a member of the 1980 recruiting class who spent the season at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College because of eligibility issues.

The I-back from Camden – he played in a wishbone offense in junior college – was one of two from New Jersey in the 1980 recruiting class. The other was Irving Fryar from Mt. Holly.

Fryar was listed as a split end-defensive back when he arrived.

Fryar, who would be an unanimous All-America wingback and kick returner as well as the first pick in the 1984 NFL Draft, was injured on the final play of the first quarter in the second game against Nebraska-Omaha, but not before he had caught a Gill pass and carried it 46 yards for the night’s first touchdown.

He had caught five passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns the first time the teams played.

Nebraska scored on five of its first six possessions and led 31-0 at halftime. Reserves among the 75 or so Solich took to Omaha scored once in the second half. Final score: 38-7.

Gill completed 11-of-13 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns. Top back-up Craig Sundberg was 6-for-6 for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Neither was intercepted.

Gill was also the leading rusher, with 59 yards on 18 carries. Smith, who battled injuries early in the fall, carried seven times for 31 yards and one touchdown and caught the second Sundberg touchdown pass, which went for 58 yards. Walk-on Jim Thompson caught the other two touchdowns.

The 1980 freshman team finished 5-0, its other wins against the Oklahoma State jayvees (62-7), Triton Junior College (73-34) and Waldorf Junior College (49-21), and broke several Nebraska freshman records, including individual total offense by Gill – previously held by Dave Humm.

Gill completed 34-of-52 passes for 679 yards and eight touchdowns, without an interception, and rushed for 302 yards, averaging 5.9 yards per carry, and five touchdowns.

He threw one incomplete pass in mop-up duty in the varsity season-opener against Utah, a 55-9 victory. He was willing to wait a season and learn before taking charge, however, a seminal figure in the change in Osborne’s offensive philosophy that would lead to three national championships.

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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