Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: Huskers Overcome OU, Weather, to Secure Orange Bowl Bid

May 07, 2020

If Colorado football players were huddled around a television set on the day after Thanksgiving in 1991 watching the Nebraska-Oklahoma game, as Buffalo free safety Greg Thomas indicated they should be after a tie with Nebraska in Boulder early in the month, they were disappointed.

Colorado needed an Oklahoma victory for an Orange Bowl bid.

For much of the game, televised by ABC, the Buffaloes had hope. Oklahoma took a 14-0 lead in the second quarter and still led, 14-13, with 3:08 remaining. 

Nebraska had the ball fourth-and-1 at the Sooner 19-yard line, however.

Kick a field goal? 

Byron Bennett had already kicked two, from 22 and 33 yards.

But the weather was less than ideal for field goals, or anything else offensively. Temperature at kickoff had been 32 degrees, with rain. That helped explain why Oklahoma Coach Gary Gibbs, after winning the toss, elected to defer his decision to the second half and then give Nebraska the ball to start it. He chose to rely on his nationally ranked defense.

In any case, Tom Osborne took a timeout and asked his players what they wanted to do—attempt a field goal or try to pick up a first down? 

In the third quarter, on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Husker I-back Derek Brown had been tackled for a 2-yard loss. Even so, it was their team, their decision.

They opted to go for the first down.

Quarterback Keithen McCant pitched to I-back Calvin Jones, who picked up 4 yards to the outside. On the next play, Jones again got the ball and ran up the middle, 15 yards for a touchdown.

A two-point conversion pass failed. But Nebraska’s defense held the last 2:57 of the game.

“When you make up 14 points in this kind of weather, against this kind of defense, in this kind of game, and win . . . that was excellent,” said Husker middle guard Pat Engelbert.

The Huskers’ self-proclaimed “no name” defense allowed Oklahoma 187 total yards.

Gibbs’ decision to defend the north end zone and give Nebraska the ball to start the second half “backfired,” according to Oklahoma. The Huskers, who trailed 14-3, took the kickoff and drove 70 yards on 10 plays, the last a 5-yard run by McCant.

Brown carried on eight of the plays, gaining 41 yards. He finished with 98 yards on 24 carries, to bring his season total to 1,313 yards—he scored 14 touchdowns.

Jones was the game’s leading rusher with 118 yards on only 17 carries. The touchdown also gave him 14 for the season. He finished with 900 rushing yards, averaging 8.3 per carry.

The victory left the Huskers tied with Colorado for the Big Eight title and since the Buffaloes had gone to the previous two, the Huskers would get the Orange Bowl bid. 

Nebraska’s “greatest fans” had taken a hit on national television when some in the crowd of 76,386 tossed oranges on the field in the second half, causing Osborne to take the referee’s mic and tell fans he had asked officials to penalize the Huskers if the tossing continued.

“This is baloney. We can’t have you behave this way,” he said.

Afterward, Osborne told reporters: “It was a bush league thing to do. I don’t understand that. It’s dangerous and I hate to see other teams treated like that . . . But there are about 100 or 200 hammerheads out there.”

Johnny Mitchell, who caught a school-tight-end-record-tying seven passes for 137 yards, was ready to play Miami in the Orange Bowl. Going wasn’t enough though, he said, he wanted to win.

The Hurricanes were 11-0 and had replaced Florida State in the top spot after defeating the Seminoles 17-16 in Tallahassee in mid-November. Miami ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense, allowing only 9.1 points per game.

“I hope Miami prepares itself because Nebraska is going to come in and play football,” said Mitchell. “They’re supposed to be the No. 1 team and No. 1 defense and unbeatable.”

And so, he and his teammates would find out, the Hurricanes were.

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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