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During a timeout on Nebraska’s 16-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to start the second half, quarterback Steve Runty tugged on Frosty Anderson’s jersey.
The jersey was on backward Runty told his teammate.
Sure enough, it was, much to Anderson’s chagrin.
“I tried to get Runty to shut up, which was impossible,” Anderson would recall years later.
The mistake was, no doubt, a result of his pre-game focus, and perhaps a little opening-game nervousness. Unlike the previous year’s jerseys, these didn’t have players’ names on the backs. The only difference was the size of the numbers front and back – where they were slightly larger.
Whatever the reason, Anderson, a senior from Scottsbluff, Neb., hadn’t noticed when he pulled on his No. 89 in the team’s new locker room beneath the south stands at Memorial Stadium.
The year before the varsity locker room was located where it had been since the 1940s, at the stadium’s north end, in Schulte Field House, now hidden beneath the stands.
On the Tuesday before the game, the horseshoe that hung over the field house doors was moved to the end of the tunnel leading from the hallway outside the new locker room.
Captains John Dutton and Daryl White hoisted teammate Bob Thornton, who put the horseshoe in place so the Huskers could tap it for luck on their way to the field.
Jerseys and an air-conditioned locker room weren’t the only things new on that overcast Saturday afternoon. The Cornhuskers also had a new head coach, 36-year-old Tom Osborne.
The date was Sept. 8, 1973, the opponent, UCLA.
The game originally was scheduled for a week later but had been moved, as had kickoff, from 1:30 p.m. to 3:50 p.m. Both changes were made to accommodate ABC television.
Moving the game had created a conflict with the Nebraska State Fair, which had one more day to run. Traffic was a concern. Memorial Stadium was soldout, 74,966, and attendance at the fair that day was 60,000. But those attending both had no major problems getting from one to the other.
Nebraska-UCLA was an appealing opener for television. Osborne’s succeeding Bob Devaney wasn’t the only storyline. Both teams were ranked in the Associated Press pre-season Top 10, the Huskers at No. 4, UCLA at No. 10. Plus, the Bruins had ended two-time defending national champion Nebraska’s 32-game unbeaten streak the year before, winning 20-17 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Efren Herrera had kicked a 30-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining.
Despite that opening-game loss, the Huskers had climbed back to No. 3 in mid-November, before a 23-23 tie at Iowa State had effectively ended hopes of a third consecutive national title.
A 40-6 pounding of Notre Dame in the 1973 Orange Bowl had capped Devaney’s Hall of Fame career and led to optimism about another title run in Nebraska’s first season under his hand-picked successor, even though the personnel losses had been considerable, including two-time All-American and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers and Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award winner Rich Glover.
Looking back several years later, Osborne would say: “In 1973, we ran basically the same plays and did the same things; we threw the ball a whole lot. But a lot of people thought we were very drab and unexciting and that somehow the coaching change had caused that.”
Drab and unexciting would come later, not on this day, even though Osborne had to turn to Runty, the back-up. Dave Humm, who had passed for a school-record 2,074 yards and a Big Eight-record 17 touchdowns as a sophomore, was sidelined by a knee injury and infected elbow.
The situation was such at quarterback that Osborne indicated Earl Everett, a true freshman, needed to be ready, just in case. The NCAA had reinstated freshman eligibility in 1972.
Nevertheless, since there was a chance Humm would play, UCLA coach Pepper Rodgers prepared his team to defend against Humm’s drop-back passing. Instead, the Bruins had to contend with Runty’s rolling out of the pocket when he wasn’t handing or pitching the ball to Tony Davis. The sophomore from Tecumseh, Neb., rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns in his Husker varsity debut.
After his second touchdown, on a 43-yard run less than 2 minutes into the fourth quarter, the exuberant Davis, whom radio broadcast legend Lyell Bremser called “the tornado from Tecumseh,” kicked at the ball and punched the chain-link fence beneath the stands.
By then, Nebraska had taken control of the game.
The Huskers had scored on their first possession, driving 56 yards on 11 plays, with Runty carrying the final yard and Rich Sanger adding the extra point.
UCLA failed to pick up a first down on three plays and was forced to punt. The previous season, Pepper Rodgers had instructed his punter not to kick the ball to Johnny Rodgers. With Johnny gone, however, Bruin punter John Sullivan would be under no such restriction, Pepper Rodgers said before the game. UCLA would kick to Randy Borg, the Huskers’ up-back on punts in 1972.
With Johnny Rodgers behind him, Borg’s orders had been to call for a fair catch if the ball wasn’t going to reach Rodgers. But there was no “Johnny the Jet” behind him now. So Borg caught the punt and returned it 77 yards for a touchdown. Sanger’s kick made the score 14-0.
So much for that bit of strategy.
SNAPPING THE WISHBONE
Husker defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s concern was a UCLA Wishbone directed by quarterback Mark Harmon, now Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on the television series NCIS, and featuring three backs with sprinters’ speed: Kermit Johnson, James McAlister and Eddie Ayers.
Johnson and McAlister were nicknamed the “Blair Pair” because they were also teammates at Blair High School in Pasadena. Calif., while Ayers was from Meridian, Miss.
Johnson’s 12-yard touchdown run following a Nebraska fumble at its own 14-yard line cut into the lead, but Herrera’s extra-point kick went wide to the left.
The Huskers responded by driving 77 yards on eight plays, the last a 10-yard Runty-to-Anderson touchdown pass. Sanger’s kick was blocked – as his next one would be – leaving the score 20-6.
UCLA came back. A 43-yard Johnson run took the ball to the Nebraska 3-yard line, and Harmon carried into the end zone with 11 seconds remaining. Herrera’s kick made the score 20-13.
The Huskers’ touchdown drive to open the second half was the key to the game Pepper Rodgers told reporters afterward; had the Bruins been able to hold, the outcome might have been different.
Two fourth-quarter touchdowns made the final score 40-13.
As Osborne left the field, a fan yelled: “Just 10 more (victories) to go.”
Runty, a walk-on from Ogallala, Neb., who had been put on scholarship his junior year, and Davis were named co-national backs of the week by the Associated Press, and the Huskers moved up to No. 2 in the rankings. They would remain No. 2 until a 13-12 loss at Missouri in mid-October. Those driving to Lincoln for the UCLA game might have listened to a Top 40 radio station playing Grand Funk’s “We’re An American Band,” Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose,” or the No. 1 single on the Billboard chart that week, Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
The Huskers had certainly gotten it on against the Bruins, who would win nine in a row and climb to No. 8 before a season-ending loss against rival USC.
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