Pepper Rodgers, UCLA’s third-year coach, was always good for a quote. Early in the week before the Bruins’ 1973 opener, he reportedly said: “I’d rather be playing Alaska than Nebraska.”
He said he got a call from Alaska, wanting to know why he said that. “I told them the first reason was that it rhymed and the second reason was that they didn’t have a football team.”
As you might know, UCLA’s opener that season was Tom Osborne’s first game as Husker head coach, Sept. 8, 1973, at Memorial Stadium, with a 3:50 p.m. kickoff to accommodate ABC TV.
The game was originally slated for a 1:30 p.m. start, and a week later.
It was attractive to television not only because Nebraska was pre-season ranked No. 4, the Bruins No 10, but also because UCLA had snapped a 32-game Husker unbeaten streak, which included back-to-back national championships, to open the 1972 season at the LA Coliseum 20-17.
Junior Efren Herrera had kicked a 30-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining.
Prior to the 1973 rematch, Rodgers also said he wouldn’t try to punt away from Nebraska as he had the previous season because Johnny Rodgers, who would win the Heisman Trophy, was no longer a Husker. That statement characterized what would happen, you might say.
With 6:13 remaining in the first quarter, Randy Borg returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown to give Nebraska a 14-0 lead. The Huskers wouldn’t pull away for a 40-13 victory until the second half, outscoring UCLA 20-0 after the intermission. Still, the comment seemed injudicious.
The Huskers were regarded as 8-to-10-point favorites, even though junior Dave Humm, the returning starter at quarterback, was injured and senior Steve Runty, who had walked on from Ogallala (Neb.) High School and earned a scholarship the previous year, would be starting for the first time.
UCLA’s Wishbone offense under the direction of senior Mark Harmon, who had engineered the 1972 upset, posed a problem for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and his Blackshirts to solve.
The Bruins’ offense featured the “Blair Twins,” James McAlister and Kermit Johnson, so nicknamed because they had come from Blair High in Los Angeles. The Blackshirts didn’t completely snap the Wishbone. UCLA rushed for 239 yards, led by Johnson’s 82 on only 10 carries.
But Harmon and back-up John Sciarra completed only 2-of-9 passes for 20 yards, and, again, the Bruins couldn’t score in the second half.
What Kiffin did “was 50 percent based on his athletes and 50 percent based on his coaching ability. He must be close to a defensive genius,” McAlister was quoted in the Sunday Journal and Star.
Among the athletes Kiffin coached were senior co-captain and tackle John Dutton, a unanimous All-American and first-round NFL draft pick; senior end Steve Manstedt, a first-team All-Big Eight honoree; and linebacker Tom Ruud, first-team all-conference and a first-round NFL draft pick the next year.
Sophomore I-back Tony Davis rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns in his first game as a Husker, smashing the chain-link fence beneath the stands beyond the end zone after the second touchdown – an iconic image from Osborne’s first game as head coach – on a 43-yard run led by fullback Maury Damkroger’s block early in the third quarter.
Runty managed the game well, his mobility a concern for UCLA’s defense, which had prepared for Humm, a drop-back passer. Runty completed 9-of-11 passes for 105 yards and one touchdown, with one interception. He also scored the game’s first touchdown from 1 yard out.
The touchdown pass, a 10-yarder, went to senior split end Frosty Anderson, one of five Huskers who started both the 1972 and 1973 games.
According to Pepper Rodgers, the key to the game was Nebraska’s 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to open the third quarter. During a timeout on that drive, Runty tugged on Anderson’s jersey and announced to those in the huddle that it was on backward, the bigger number on the front.
He tried to get Runty to shut up, Anderson recalled with a laugh years later, “which was impossible. I hated those jerseys. They were so tight in the neck.”
Runty’s good-natured jab helped relax his teammates.
The jerseys were new, as were the varsity locker room and the coaches’ offices in the South Stadium Complex – and, of course, the head coach.
According to a newspaper account, as Osborne left the field, one among the 74,966 at Memorial Stadium that day yelled down: “Just 10 more to go.”
The Huskers would win eight more that season, including a 19-3 victory against Texas in the Cotton Bowl, and finish 9-2-1. The losses were at Missouri and Oklahoma, the tie at Oklahoma State.
Osborne would coach 254 more victories total, with only 49 losses and three ties.
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.