A letter in the Omaha World-Herald’s “The Voice From The Grandstand” published on the day before the Nebraska-Colorado game in 1981 said, in part: “It is time Nebraska fans wake up and realize that the days of beating opponents 50-0 every week are over.”
Taken in context, the letter was ironic.
The next afternoon, the Cornhuskers opened Big Eight play with a 59-0 victory against Colorado at Memorial Stadium. They racked up 719 yards of offense and an NCAA-record 42 first downs.
The start was sophomore Turner Gill’s first at Nebraska. He completed 9-of-14 passes, without an interception, for 178 yards and four touchdowns, tying the school record shared by Vince Ferragamo and Dave Humm. Gill also rushed for 46 yards on six carries.
Four games into the season, Cornhusker fans had seen what they wanted, Gill in charge.
Senior Mark Mauer had started the first and fourth games. Junior Nate Mason had started the second and third, before missing the remainder of the season following ankle surgery.
“The fans want Turner Gill,” Mason said following the opening-game loss at Iowa.
Interest in Gill was “partly the product of the press from freshman ball,” Osborne said at the Extra Point Club Luncheon the Monday after the Iowa game. Gill passed for 678 yards and five touchdowns, without an interception, and averaged 5.9 yards per carry on the freshman team.
Osborne didn’t want Gill to play until he was ready, said Osborne.
Gill, who had opted to stay with the freshman team rather than practice with the varsity in 1980, said he was ready. “When I came here, I wanted to give it a shot as a sophomore,” Gill said.
Senior Jeff Quinn, the starting quarterback in 1980, was considered the first in Osborne’s move from a pass-oriented offense to the option. But Gill was a seminal figure in the change. “He was the kind of guy that was very consistent at quarterback,” Osborne said, looking back years later. “He could do whatever you asked him to do, whether it was run the ball, audible, get the ball to other people.”
Had the offense remained pass-oriented, Gill would have fit as a dropback passer. “He had an excellent combination of abilities,” said Osborne. “He was a very fine passer.”
Gill remained the starter, except for time missed because of a career-threatening injury in the next-to-last regular-season game against Iowa State in 1981, and set the standard at Nebraska.
He didn’t do it alone, however. “He had a lot of good people around him,” Osborne said. “He had (Mike) Rozier. He had Roger Craig, (Tom) Rathman, and (Irving) Fryar. And then, of course, we had some really good offensive linemen, (Dave) Rimington, (Dean) Steinkuhler and others.”
Then, as now, a successful offense starts up-front.
As the writer to “The Voice From The Grandstand” pointed out, Nebraska didn’t beat opponents 50-0 every week under Gill. It hadn’t done that before 1981, either. But the Cornhuskers scored 40 or more points in 20 games Gill started during his career and averaged an NCAA-leading 52.0 points per game when Gill directed the “Scoring Explosion” offense as a senior in 1983.
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.