There was a smattering of boos when Nebraska left the field at halftime of the 1981 Auburn game. The unpleasant, rainy weather magnified the unhappiness of some in the Memorial Stadium crowd of 76,423, the largest for a non-conference game at that time.
For one thing, the Cornhuskers trailed 3-0. For another, they were unranked following a 30-24 loss against Penn State, also at Memorial Stadium, which left them with a 1-2 record. Nebraska hadn’t started a season 1-2 since 1960, when it won the opener then lost the next two and finished 4-6.
Auburn was also 1-2 and unranked.
Actually, the Penn State loss was no disgrace. The Nittany Lions came to Lincoln ranked No. 3 behind running back Curt Warner, who rushed for 238 yards – just 12 short of the record against Nebraska.
At halftime, Cornhusker linebackers coach John Melton put the responsibility for Warner’s success on the defense, making the sophomore look like Gale Sayers. “We looked at each other: ‘Maybe he is Gale Sayers,’” Jeff Krejci recalled many years later. Krejci was a senior safety.
Despite Warner’s rushing yardage, Penn State managed only two touchdowns against the Blackshirts, the second by Joel Coles, capping a 61-yard drive early in the fourth quarter for what proved to be the winning points. Brian Franco added his fifth field goal with 4:53 remaining.
Nebraska had gone into the final period leading 24-20 after a 14-point third quarter.
Junior Nate Mason and sophomore Turner Gill, the fan favorite, had been one-two at quarterback against Florida State the week before the Penn State game. Mason started against Penn State but gave way to senior Mark Mauer, who passed for the two third-quarter touchdowns.
Mauer finished 8-of-21 passing for 87 yards, with two interceptions.
Mason aggravated an ankle problem that would require surgery to remove calcium deposits and sideline him for the remainder of the season, leading to a medical redshirt.
Tom Osborne said he might go with Gill against Auburn but opted to start Mauer instead.
The Jimmy Williams-led Blackshirts saved the day for Nebraska, stifling Auburn’s wishbone. The weather was a factor as well, but the Tigers fumbled 10 times, losing five. Quarterback Charles Thomas threw two interceptions and was sacked seven times for 44 yards in losses.
Williams had two sacks, Tony Felici, the other end, had three.
Williams forced and recovered a Thomas fumble at the Auburn 4-yard line to set up Nebraska’s first touchdown, scored by Roger Craig, 45 seconds after Kevin Seibel’s 39-yard field goal tied the score with 9:10 remaining in the third quarter. A Krejci fumble recovery at the Tiger 9-yard line set up the second touchdown, scored by Gill on an 8-yard run with 3:57 remaining in the game.
Craig rushed for 87 yards on 22 carries, Mike Rozier 76 yards on 15 carries.
Gill replaced Mauer early in the second quarter. But Mauer started the second half. Mauer completed 5-of-9 passes, Gill only 1-of-6. Both threw interceptions. Nebraska also lost two fumbles to bring its turnover total to 18 through four games.
An Omaha World-Herald headline said: “Blackshirts Cut Through Gloom.” Auburn was limited to 150 total yards, including 55 rushing on 52 carries. Williams and Jeff Merrill each were involved in 12 tackles, linebackers Steve Damkroger and Brent Evans were credited with 11 tackles apiece.
The Birmingham News said: “Nebraska’s football team isn’t No. 1. But its fans are. Or at least they were; most of them may be dead from pneumonia . . . but 76,423 masochists decided sitting through it would be preferable to staying home and thumbing through the latest seed catalog.”
The game wasn’t televised; most couldn’t be because of NCAA restrictions in 1981. Even the Penn State game had been shown on a delayed basis by two-year-old ESPN.
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.