Tom Osborne’s first season as head coach ended as it had begun, with Steve Runty, who had walked on from Ogallala, Nebraska, at quarterback.
The 12th-ranked Huskers, 8-2-1, were set to play No. 8 Texas in the 1974 Cotton Bowl. They had learned of the invitation on the bus ride back to Lincoln from Manhattan, Kansas, following a 50-21 victory against Kansas State, six days before losing at Oklahoma 27-0.
The Sooners had to stay home for the holidays because of NCAA sanctions.
Prior to the Cotton Bowl, Osborne told Runty he would get an opportunity in his final game. Runty, a senior, wasn’t sure how that would work considering he had started the 1973 opener, a 40-13 victory against UCLA, only because junior Dave Humm had been injured.
Humm started against the Longhorns and played the first half. Runty started the second half and led Nebraska to 16 points in the final 30 minutes for a 19-3 victory.
Humm threw two interceptions in the first half. Even so, the Huskers missed an opportunity to take a halftime lead when they were stopped on four plays from the 1-yard line as time expired, leaving the score tied at 3. Texas linebacker Wade Johnston was involved in all four tackles on the series and 17 for the game, to earn the award as the outstanding defensive player.
But defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s Blackshirts were a significant factor, limiting the Longhorns’ Wishbone offense to 196 yards, including 106 on the ground.
All-America running back Roosevelt Leaks managed just 48 yards on 13 carries.
Defensive end Steve Manstedt set up the first of two Rich Sanger field goals by catching a Leaks fumble, which bounced off Leaks’ foot, and returning it 65 yards to the Texas 8. The Huskers couldn’t get the ball into the end zone, however, and settled for three early in the second quarter.
The defense also set up Nebraska’s touchdowns, the first when defensive back Bob Thornton returned a missed 54-yard field goal attempt out of the end zone, 41 yards, the second when middle guard John Bell recovered a fumble at the Longhorns’ 19-yard line following the kickoff that followed the first touchdown, on a 12-yard run by wingback Ritch Bahe late in the third quarter.
I-back Tony Davis, the game’s outstanding offensive player, scored the second on a 3-yard run. Davis, who had rushed for 1,008 yards during the regular season, finished with 106 yards rushing on 28 carries. The sophomore from Tecumseh, Nebraska, would agree to move to fullback in 1974.
Osborne’s transition from assistant to head coach wasn’t without blips, as reflected in his suspension of defensive captain John Dutton, an All-America tackle, two weeks before the bowl game. Dutton, who was quoted in the Lincoln Journal and Star as having “led the team against the coaches all year,” called a team meeting to discuss demands regarding bowl practices.
Following a three-day suspension, Dutton apologized to the team and was reinstated, though he didn’t serve as a captain for the game. Offensive tackle Daryl White was Nebraska’s only captain.
An estimated 20,000 Husker fans were among the 67,500 at the Cotton Bowl watching in 30-degree weather. Bowl games were taken for granted under Osborne. Each of his 25 teams went to bowls, winning 12 and losing 13, extending a streak that had begun with the Sun Bowl in 1969.
The Huskers drew consideration for the Liberty Bowl in both 1967 and 1968 going into their final regular-season game against Oklahoma with 6-3 records and needing to win. The Sun Bowl also was considering them in 1968. But as had been the case in 1967, they lost to the Sooners.
Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer was the second head coach who went into the locker room to congratulate the Huskers following the Cotton Bowl victory. Royal was the first, also getting there before Osborne.
Royal climbed onto a table and described the victory as “well-deserved.”
Osborne called Royal a “real gentleman.”
Runty might have described Osborne the same way. His coach was a man of his word.
“He had told me I was going to play,” Runty was quoted by Tom Ash of the Omaha World-Herald. “But I was still surprised when he said at the half I was going to start” the second half.
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.