Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: Huskers Offense Makes its Mark Early in 1982

May 29, 2018

“Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor was near the top of the charts in September of 1982, the theme song of “Rocky III,” released earlier that year. Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” topped “Eye of the Tiger” on the Billboard chart. It was followed by the Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra.”

Tom Osborne was preparing for his 10thseason as Nebraska’s head coach, and though his team returned the fewest starters among Big Eight schools, the consensus was the Cornhuskers would repeat as conference champions. And not because of any magic incantation. Though he hadn’t shaken the Oklahoma nemesis, Osborne’s record over nine seasons was 84-23-2 (.780).

Even though Nebraska had the fewest returning starters, from a team that finished 9-3 and ranked 11thby the Associated Press, the number was still a reasonable 12. 

The concern was defense, where no one in the secondary returned. “You don’t win championships with a great offense and a pretty good defense,” Osborne was quoted.

Still, the elements were there according to Charlie McBride, who had added defensive coordinator to his defensive line-coaching responsibilities. Tackle Toby Williams, linebacker Steve Damkroger and All-Big Eight end Tony Felici provided a good foundation on which to build.

The only concern on offense was whether Turner Gill could return at full-speed from the leg injury suffered in the Iowa State game the previous season. Nate Mason was coming off a medical redshirt because of a knee injury, which meant sophomore Craig Sundberg and senior Bruce Mathison also drew some mention in pre-season discussions about who’d be the quarterback. What if?

Senior Roger Craig went into fall camp as the No. 1 I-back, with junior Mike Rozier at No. 2, though the coaches had experimented in the spring with Craig at fullback so he and Rozier could be on the field at the same time. Both were first-team All-Big Eight in 1981, with Craig rushing for 1,060 yards. 

That’s how the fall began, but Craig was plagued by injuries and the fullback plan was scrapped.

The receivers were solid. And the line was vintage Nebraska: Randy Theiss and Jeff Kwapick at the tackles, Mike Mandelko and Dean Steinkuhler at the guards, and consensus All-American and Outland Trophy winner Dave Rimington, the 1981 Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year, at center.

The national championship teams in the 1990s had the “Pipeline.” But a discussion of Nebraska’s all-time best offensive lines would definitely include the one in 1982 – as well as the one in 1983.

The Cornhuskers were No. 4 in the AP pre-season poll, behind Pittsburgh, Washington and Alabama. They moved ahead of Alabama in week one, even though neither played, so that’s where they were when they opened the season in week two against Iowa at Memorial Stadium.

The Hawkeyes had stunned Nebraska the previous season in Iowa City, 10-7. But there was no such drama this time. Nebraska led 28-0 at halftime on the way to a 42-7 victory.

Rozier rushed for 127 yards, on only 18 carries, and Gill looked fine, completing 9-of-16 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns, without an interception. Iowa managed 190 yards of offense and 11 first downs. The Cornhuskers were off and running.

The second game was a monumental mismatch. New Mexico State, then a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, came to Lincoln and absorbed a 68-0 beating. Nebraska set four NCAA single-game records: total offense (883 yards), rushing offense (677 yards), first downs rushing (36) and total first downs (43). The Cornhuskers had 78 running plays, none of which lost yardage.

Rozier carried 14 times for 149 yards and three touchdowns. Back-up I-back Jeff Smith rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. And Gill completed 10-of-13 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown to split end Todd Brown. Neither Rozier nor Gill played in the second half.

Nebraska used 80 players.

New Mexico State managed 182 yards and 10 first downs.

Despite the obvious disparity in the opponents, the Cornhuskers slipped past Pittsburgh, a 37-17 winner at unranked Florida State, in the AP rankings. So they were No. 2 when they went to Penn State the next week, The Eye of the Nittany Lion not the Tiger, you might say.

And if you ask Husker fans, where there was an “Abracadabra” finish . . . 

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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