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Tom’s Time: Huskers’ Big-Game Struggles Didn’t Turn Around Against Huskies

April 09, 2020

Johnny Mitchell’s words to reporters following the Colorado State game rang true: The next week’s Washington game at Memorial Stadium would determine Nebraska’s season.

So did Derek Brown’s. “People think we get on TV in big games and lose.”

The Huskers had lost four of their previous five televised regular-season games as well as four bowls.

For the better part of three quarters on that warm and breezy evening the third week in September of 1991, it appeared the perception to which Brown referred was inaccurate. 

When he scored his second touchdown on a 2-yard run and Byron Bennett added the extra-point kick, the Huskers led 21-9. Only 5:32 remained in the third quarter.

Not that Washington wasn’t moving the ball. The Huskies had the ball nearly 10 minutes of the third quarter. Brown’s touchdown was set up when Beno Bryant fumbled away a punt at the 2.

Washington, No. 4 in the Associated Press poll, would finish with 618 yards of offense—including 292 in the final 20 minutes—the third-most ever against Nebraska. 

Oklahoma gained 656 yards in a 54-6 victory at Norman in 1956, and Notre Dame gained 620 yards in a 44-13 victory at Memorial Stadium in 1948.

Ultimately, the total-offense statistic and Washington’s 31 first downs were telling. Even with the lead, “we weren’t stopping them,” Tom Osborne said.

The Huskies responded to Brown’s third-quarter score when Bryant ran 14 yards for a touchdown with 19 seconds remaining in the quarter, capping a 12-play, 76-yard drive.

They added three touchdowns, on a Billy Joe Hobert pass and runs by Hobert and Jay Barry, in the fourth quarter while shutting out Nebraska.

After Brown’s third-quarter touchdown, the Huskers went three-and-out on their next four possessions. They wouldn’t pick up their second first down of the half until 4:50 remained.

Final score: Washington 36, Nebraska 21.

The finish was an unpleasant replay of the previous season’s Colorado game at Memorial Stadium in which the Huskers gave up a 12-0 third-quarter lead to lose 27-12.

“This has got to be the best comeback I’ve ever been a part of,” said Washington defensive lineman Steve Emtman, who would win the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award, finish fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy and be the first player selected in the 1992 NFL Draft.

The Huskies would finish 12-0 to earn the United Press International coaches’ national championship. Miami, also 12-0, would be the Associated Press national champion, after defeating the Huskers in the Orange Bowl. For a second season in a row, Nebraska would lose to co-national champions.

Brown finished with 100 yards on 21 carries. It was the only time an opposing player would rush for 100 yards against Washington that season. The Huskies would finish second nationally in rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense.

In contrast, Nebraska’s defense “broke down physically,” defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said.

Sophomore linebacker Mike Anderson, who forced and recovered the fumble that set up Brown’s second touchdown, led the Blackshirts with a game-high 12 tackles.

And junior cornerback Kenny Wilhite intercepted a pass for a third-consecutive game.

In his second career start, Keithen McCant completed 12-of-28 passes for 178 yards with two interceptions and a 42-yard touchdown to split end Jon Bostick to give the Huskers a 14-6 halftime lead. 

Bostick, a sophomore, was from Bellevue, Washington.

The Huskers managed 308 yards of offense, but only 135 on the ground. Junior Mike Stigge, a walk-on from Washington, Kansas, was busy, punting nine times, averaging 44.3 yards.

Nebraska hadn’t punted in its first two games.

The Huskers, ninth in the AP poll going into the game, dropped to 16th.

After losing the 12-point, third-quarter lead against Colorado the previous season, Nebraska dropped two of its remaining three. Mindset might have been part of the problem, according to McBride.

With “all the negativism that’s been thrown at our football team,” he said, he was concerned about whether the Huskers could come back, “what happens to us now?”

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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