Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: Was It All on the Line in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl?

December 19, 2017

Following Nebraska’s 27-24 victory against Texas Tech in the 1976 Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl, during a conversation with a member of the university’s Board of Regents, Tom Osborne was told it was a good thing the Huskers had won.

The implication was had they lost, his fourth season as Nebraska’s head coach might have been his last. Never mind that his record was 37-10-2, including 3-1 in bowls. Or that during his first four seasons, Nebraska had been in the Associated Press top 10, including preseason, 31 weeks, 16 of them in the top five and as high as second six times.

The problem was his Huskers were 0-4 against Oklahoma and 1-3 against Missouri during those four seasons. They lost to both in 1976 – but more about those games later.

They also lost to Iowa State in 1976, for the first time since 1960, losing 6-of-8 fumbles and throwing an interception on a frigid afternoon in Ames. The score was 37-28.

Nebraska was preseason-ranked No. 1 in 1976. But a 6-6 tie at LSU knocked the Huskers out of the top spot and set the tone for a frustrating season that left fans wondering what might’ve been.

Nebraska drove 65 yards for a touchdown on the opening series in Baton Rouge, scoring on a 3-yard pass from Vince Ferragamo to tight end Ken Spaeth with 11:01 remaining in the first quarter. But the center snap on the extra-point kick was mishandled and it was all downhill from there.

The Huskers couldn’t score again, while LSU managed two second-half field goals and just missed a third in the final minute, only to get the ball back. On the final play of the game, Nebraska defensive end Ray Phillips intercepted a pass and lateraled to linebacker James Wightman, who carried the ball into the end zone for what would have been a winning touchdown.

Except that an official ruled he had stepped out of bounds before getting there.

Nebraska had climbed back to No. 3 in the rankings when Missouri came to Lincoln.    After losses to Missouri in Osborne’s first two seasons, the Huskers had broken the jinx in 1975, winning at Columbia 30-7. But it emerged again at Memorial Stadium in 1976.

Nebraska led 24-23 early in the fourth quarter and had the Tigers pinned at their own 2-yard line. Quarterback Pete Woods and wide receiver Joe Stewart teamed up for a touchdown, 98 yards, a Big Eight record, then added a two-point conversion, also on a Woods-to-Stewart pass.

Missouri added a 34-yard field goal with 1:19 remaining for a 34-24 victory.

Even so, Nebraska could have clinched a share of the Big Eight title and a trip to the Orange Bowl with a victory at Iowa State, 13 days before the Oklahoma game. Instead of Nebraska being atop the conference standings, however, five teams were tied with 4-2 records in conference play.

Oklahoma was also among the five, of course, and the Huskers had them knocked from the tie for 59 minutes and 22 seconds. Here’s how the game ended . . .

With 3:30 remaining, the Sooners attempted their first pass of the game, only their third in three games. Quarterback Thomas Lott handed the ball to halfback Woodie Shepard, who pulled up and passed to split end Steve Rhodes for 47 yards to the Nebraska 37-yard line.

Oklahoma’s second pass would come a little less than 3 minutes later, on third-and-19. Back-up quarterback Dean Blevins passed to Rhodes, who lateraled to halfback Elvis Peacock. The play, an example of what Coach Barry Switzer would call “Sooner Magic,” gained 38 yards to the Husker 2-yard line. On the next play, Peacock scored – final 20-17, Sooners.

The Huskers took out their frustrations at Hawaii, 68-3,  and 27 days later scored two third-quarter touchdowns in the come-from-behind victory against No. 9 Texas Tech – a head-coaching job for which Osborne had interviewed while a Bob Devaney assistant in 1969.

Steve Sloan was in his second of three seasons as Red Raiders head coach.

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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