The Nebraska Cornhuskers were as consistent a winner as there was in college football. Unfortunately, there was also as consistent a loser as there was in certain targeted games. They overcame one hurdle in 1981 when they finally beat Oklahoma and won the old Big Eight outright. 1982 Nebraska football overcame another when they won the Orange Bowl, their league’s contract bowl, for the first time under head coach Tom Osborne.
The Cornhuskers were renowned for their running games. Mike Rozier continued the tradition with nearly 1,700 yards on the ground during the 1982 college football season. He got some All-America mention and set the stage for his Heisman run a year later.
Roger Craig would go on to a great NFL career playing with Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers and he was a reliable second running back with this Nebraska team, going for 586 yards. Irving Fryar was a big-play threat at receiver and quarterback Turner Gill was a dual threat. Gill ran for nearly 500 yards himself, while also leading the Big Eight in completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and fewest interceptions.
The offensive front was anchored by All-American center Dave Rimington. National championship hopes were alive in Lincoln and the Cornhuskers opened the season ranked fourth in the nation.
Nebraska visited Iowa to start the season. The Hawkeyes had upset the Huskers a year earlier and it foreshadowed a Rose Bowl season for Iowa. Nebraska got revenge and got it decisively.
They bullied Iowa up front to the tune of a 343-97 in rush yardage, 127 for Rozier. Fryer caught six passes for 127 yards and a touchdown pass that made it 14-0 early. The final was 42-7. After a 68-0 thumping of New Mexico State, the Cornhuskers were up to #2 in the polls and making a visit to State College to play eighth-ranked Penn State.
The result is one that Nebraska fans are still bitter about today and with valid reason. After rallying from 21-7 down to take a 24-21 lead, the Cornhuskers were trying to hold as the Nittany Lions reached the 17-yard line in the closing seconds, but faced 4th-and-10. The pass was completed to tight end Mike McCloskey for a first down, but replays clearly showed McCloskey out of bounds.
For the record, while I’m not a hard-core fan of either team, my sympathies are with Penn State and it’s still very obvious that “blown” is not a harsh enough word for this call. It was massacred. The Lions scored and won the game.
Nebraska continued on in a tough non-conference schedule, winning 41-7 at #20 Auburn, and then settled into Big Eight play. The Cornhuskers blasted lowly Colorado and blew out a respectable, bowl-bound Kansas State team and climbed to #5 in the rankings.
A 23-19 escape at mediocre Missouri resulted in a slip back to #6, but Nebraska gathered themselves to crush Kansas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State by a combined 148-20 and reach the season finale with Oklahoma ranked third in the nation.
The Cornhuskers had their nemesis at home on Black Friday afternoon. Both teams were 6-0 in league play, so it was winner-take-all for the Orange Bowl. After falling behind 10-7 in the second quarter, Nebraska got a pair of rushing touchdowns from Doug Wilkening and took an 11-point lead.
The teams traded touchdowns, before OU cut it to 28-24 and made one last drive, getting inside the Husker 40-yard line with 26 seconds left. Defensive end Scott Strasburg then came up with the interception that sealed the conference title.
Nebraska would go to the Orange Bowl ranked #3, but there was no possible scenario for the national championship. Top-ranked Georgia was tied to the Sugar Bowl and they were going to play the #2 team in the country…Penn State.
The Cornhuskers would play LSU, ranked #13 and coming off a loss to Tulane to end their regular season. The Orange Bowl was opposite the Sugar Bowl in prime-time, so getting viewers outside the local fan bases would be tough. The most serious problem though, was riots in the Overtown ghetto near the stadium. It resulted in 14,000 no-shows.
All of which put the Nebraska-LSU game under a cloud, but for the Cornhuskers there was still the matter of finally getting Osborne a win on this stage.
Nebraska fullback Mark Schellen scored the first touchdown and then a turnover deluge began. Rozier fumbled on his own eight-yard line and LSU scored. Fryar fumbled away a punt that ultimately set up a Hilliard touchdown when he scooted around the left side on 4th-and-1. A drive of Nebraska’s was snuffed out when Schellen fumbled in the end zone.
In spite of it all, Gill hit Fryar with a 28-yard touchdown pass to put the team on the doorstep and Gill leapt over the top for the touchdown. Nebraska took a 21-17 lead. LSU got one more field goal, but in spite of turning it over six times, the Cornhuskers won the football game.
Nebraska’s frustration would only get worse as the word came in that Penn State had beaten Georgia and to this day it’s taken as a given that the Cornhuskers would have won the national title if the officials hadn’t screwed up in September.
It’s possible, but not a guarantee—SMU finished 11-0-1, won the Cotton Bowl and nudged away of Nebraska to #2 in the final polls. And we don’t know if an undefeated Nebraska would have ranked ahead of Georgia at the end of the regular season or how the bowl matchups might have shaken out.
No matter, the Cornhuskers still have a valid gripe and by winning the Orange Bowl in spite of a slew of a mistakes they at least staked their claim in history as one who got robbed of more.