Rank Nebraska’s top-10 quarterbacks—or top 15, even. Gerry Gdowski probably wouldn’t be in the discussion. He played only one season, really. But that one season as the starter, 1989, ranks with the best in Husker history by a quarterback, statistically speaking.
Nebraska didn’t win the Big Eight. It finished second to Colorado. More about that to come. But Gdowski’s play reflected a step in the development of the Huskers’ option offense and earned him recognition as the coaches’ co-Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year.
He completed 71-of-136 passes for 1,326 yards and 19 touchdowns, with only two interceptions*, for an NCAA passer rating of 177.3—slightly better than the nation’s passing leader, BYU’s Ty Detmer, and still a school single-season record. None of the passers in the top 10 nationally in 1989 were close to Gdowski’s touchdown-to-interception ratio.
And even though Nebraska’s backfield included unanimous All-Big Eight I-back Ken Clark, who rushed for 1,196 yards and 12 touchdowns despite battling injuries, Gdowski came close to being the first Husker quarterback to pass for 1,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
He carried only 117 times but gained 925 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. He averaged 7.9 yards per carry, which means he wasn’t that many carries away from 1,000 yards, though it should be noted that he managed a net of 1 yard on 12 carries and threw two interceptions against a Florida State defense that shut down the Huskers pretty much across the board in the Fiesta Bowl.
Bowl game statistics weren’t counted in season totals, however.
Gdowski “had speed, (was an) excellent runner, smart guy, didn’t have the greatest throwing motion, but he got the ball where it had to go,” Tom Osborne said in an interview years later.
“He was very good.”
When the No. 4 Huskers opened the 1989 season against Northern Illinois at Memorial Stadium, there was still some uncertainty about whether Gdowski would hold the starting job. But he had emerged from the spring and then fall camp atop the depth chart. Osborne typically gave upperclassmen, and particularly seniors, first crack at the starting job.
Northern Illinois was an independent in 1989. The Huskies were coached by Jerry Pettibone, who had been a Nebraska assistant in 1980-81. And though the Huskers were expected to have no problem with the visitor from Dekalb, Illinois, Northern Illinois would finish the season 9-2.
Appropriately enough, Gdowski’s season started with a 28-yard pass to tight end Monte Kratzenstein on the game’s first play from scrimmage. Then he turned things over to Clark, who gained 9 yards off left tackle, took an option pitch to the right for 30 yards, then after being stopped for no gain took the ball into the end zone. Greg Barrios kicked the extra point.
Just over 2 minutes into the game, Nebraska led 7-0.
The Northern Illinois defense had no answer for Clark, who carried 14 times for 168 yards in the game’s first 18 minutes before a bruised knee ended his afternoon.
The Huskies were opportunistic, however, recovering four fumbles and intercepting a Gdowski pass in the first half to prevent too much damage. The first fumble recovery, when they punted on their first possession, preceded a nine-play, 55-yard touchdown drive which tied the game.
And the fourth fumble, on a poor pitch, gave Northern Illinois the ball at the Husker 20-yard line with 2:30 remaining in the first half. The Huskies managed a field goal with 15 seconds remaining.
The halftime score, to the dissatisfaction of most in the crowd of 76,194, was tied at 17.
Nebraska quit self-destructing in the second half. The Huskers scored on their first four possessions after the intermission. Gdowski opened the scoring with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Kratzenstein. Back-up I-back Leodis Flowers scored from 4 yards out following a Marvin Sanders interception. Tight end Chris Garrett caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Mickey Joseph, who entered the game with 6:32 remaining in the third quarter, and Barrios kicked a school-record 55-yard field goal.
Thirty-two seconds into the fourth quarter, Nebraska led 41-17.
Reserve wingback Mark Dowse finished a three-play, 64-yard drive/series with a 10-yard touchdown run with 1:41 remaining. The first 53 of those 64 yards came on a run by Keithen McCant, the fourth Husker quarterback to play that day. Walk-on Jerry Dunlap was the third.
On the day, Gdowski carried five times for 74 yards and completed six-of-eight passes for 83 yards and the touchdown to Kratzenstein, with the one interception. He would throw only one more interception that season, not counting the Fiesta Bowl, and 18 more touchdown passes.
*Scott Frost threw only three interceptions in 200 attempts in 1996, 104 completions for 1,440 yards and 13 touchdowns. The next season he would be the first Husker quarterback to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.
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.