Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: A QB Quandary Entering the 1989 Season

November 14, 2019

Husker fans were concerned about the departure of Steve Taylor going into the 1989 season. That was understandable. He had started for three seasons and had produced a school-record 62 total-offense touchdowns and the third-most total-offense yards (4,940) in school history.

“The task of replacing him has led to a lot of speculation and worry on the part of Husker partisans,” according to an entry in the 1989 Nebraska football media guide.

The top three candidates for the job apparently were senior Gerry Gdowski and sophomores Mickey Joseph and Mike Grant, who had quarterbacked the freshman team in 1988. Gdowski and Joseph, first and second on the depth chart coming out of the spring, had seen limited action backing up Taylor. 

Joseph, for whom Nebraska won a spirited recruiting battle with rival Oklahoma, had rushed 24 times for 215 yards and three touchdowns but had thrown two interceptions in four attempts—the other two complete. He had redshirted as a freshman in 1987.

To redshirt or not to redshirt, that was the question. And Gdowski had not. After directing the freshman team in 1986, he had been a back-up, his career numbers six-of-10 passing for 72 yards, without an interception, 35 carries for 286 yards and four touchdowns rushing.

Do the math; that’s 8.2 yards per carry.

Tom Osborne had preferred Gdowski, who had played for his dad at Fremont (Neb.) High School, redshirt to preserve a season of eligibility. But he opted not to. 

“Had he redshirted, he definitely would have had one more excellent year, probably would have been even better the next year,” Osborne said in an interview years later.

But for now, we’re going into the 1989 season, when there’s “worry” about the starter. Gdowski? Or Joseph? Or Grant, who had rushed for 157 yards in the spring game?

“He’ll be in the picture in August,” the media guide said of Grant. Actually, the plan was to redshirt him, which meant Keithen McCant and walk-on Jerry Dunlap, both juniors, went into the season competing for the third spot on the depth chart—never mind what the post-spring depth said.

Grant would be pulled from the redshirt in the third game of the season.

As for the rest of the offense, senior I-back Ken Clark was on the cover of the media guide, with the headline: HEISMAN TROPHY CANDIDATE. Clark had rushed for 1,497 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1988, but was overshadowed by another Big Eight running back, Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders, the Heisman Trophy winner. Senior All-America center Jake Young, pictured on the back cover of the Nebraska media guide, again would anchor the line, which included second-team All-Big Eight tackle Doug Glaser. And there were three other returning offensive starters.

Defensively, in addition to two-time All-American, Butkus Award runner-up and Lombardi Award finalist Broderick Thomas, five other All-Big Eight players were lost, including LeRoy Etienne, who, like Thomas and Taylor, had lettered as a true freshman—a rarity under Osborne.

Despite the departures, however, Nebraska was third in the Associated Press preseason poll, behind Michigan and Notre Dame, one place ahead of Miami, which had shut down the Huskers in the 1989 Orange Bowl. Though both teams were off the first week of the season, Miami inexplicably moved ahead of Nebraska. So the Huskers were No. 4 when they opened against Northern Illinois.

Nebraska, the defending Big Eight champion, had earned such national respect with an NCAA-record 27 consecutive winning seasons and a nation-leading 20 consecutive bowl appearances. The Huskers had finished in the top 10 in at least one of the major polls for 19 seasons in a row, and they had won at least nine games in each of the 20 previous seasons. 

As for the quarterback situation, Osborne wasn’t among the “worriers,” according to the media guide, which quoted him: “I feel good about the quarterback position.”

That feeling would prove to be justified.

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