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Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: Righting the Ship in 1981

May 08, 2018

Turner Gill’s starting debut initiated a Big Eight title run that made the 1-2 start in 1981 something of an afterthought. But the run wasn’t without challenges, most notably at Missouri.

After two weeks out of the rankings following the Penn State loss, Nebraska climbed back into the top 20, at No. 19, following the Colorado victory. The Huskers would be in the Associated Press rankings for 348 consecutive weeks. After coasting past Kansas State – no surprise – they climbed to No. 15 the week of the Missouri game. The Tigers had opened with five consecutive victories and were ranked No. 8 before being upset at Iowa State the week before and plummeting to No. 19.

Still, Coach Warren Powers’ Tigers were a regular problem for Tom Osborne’s teams, and the game in Columbia fit the pattern. Missouri’s defense went after Gill, while its offense was stifled by the Jimmy Williams-Steve Damkroger-led Nebraska Blackshirts. 

The Huskers’ Grant Campbell punted seven times, averaging 40.1 yards per punt and pinning Missouri inside its own 20 five times. The Tigers averaged 34.8 yards on nine punts.

The game was scoreless late in the fourth quarter, when the Huskers took over at their own 36-yard line with 2:36 remaining. Gill, who would finish 9-of-22 passing for 99 yards, took charge. Three of those nine completions came on a 64-yard touchdown drive, a 13-yarder to Irving Fryar and 24- and 21-yard completions to Todd Brown, taking the ball to the Missouri 4-yard line.

Fullback Phil Bates gained the final 3 yards and the touchdown with 23 seconds remaining.

Missouri finished with only 193 yards of offense and 10 first downs.

Nebraska moved up three places to No. 12 and another place to No. 11 after defeating Kansas in Lincoln before going on the road and overwhelming Oklahoma State 54-7. Gill ran for two touchdowns and passed for another before giving way to Mark Mauer to finish up.

There was little suspense. Nebraska led 17-0 after one quarter, and had increased the lead to 38-0 before Oklahoma State finally managed a third-quarter touchdown, to which Mike Rozier responded by returning the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.

Roger Craig gained 121 yards on only 12 carries, Rozier 102 yards on 19 carries.

The Huskers climbed to No. 7 in the rankings going into their final home game against Iowa State.

The game was a battle for three quarters, the score tied at 7 going into the fourth, when Nebraska scored 24 unanswered points, beginning with a 49-yard Eddie Neil field goal and a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown by Fryar. 

The game was something of a foreshadowing of the “Scoring Explosion” two seasons later.

Missouri upset Oklahoma that day, giving the Huskers’ the Big Eight title, their first outright in 10 years. The excitement of that was dampened, however. At some point in the second half, Gill had suffered an injury to his lower right leg. What was diagnosed as nerve damage would sideline him for the remainder of the season and possibly threaten his playing career.

So Nebraska would travel to Norman, Oklahoma, for the final game of the regular season with a No. 5 ranking and seven consecutive victories but without its quarterback.

With Nate Mason already sidelined, the responsibility fell to Mauer, the senior.

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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