The Road To The 1983 Orange Bowl: Nebraska & LSU

The 1983 Orange Bowl didn’t have national implications, the way its predecessors often had or its famous immediate successor would. But they still produced an exciting, if sloppy game with Nebraska and LSU.

Start reading today. 

Nebraska had yet to win the Orange Bowl under head coach Tom Osborne. Given that Osborne had taken over from the legendary Bob Devaney in 1973 and the Orange was the contract bowl for the old Big Eight Conference, this was a significant omission from Osborne’s resume.

But Oklahoma usually stood in the way, and Osborne had only taken his talent to South Beach for New Year’s twice—once had resulted in a loss to Oklahoma and the previous year’s trip was a defeat at the hands of top-ranked Clemson.

Nebraska was still a consistent national power and 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.

LSU is a respected national contender today, but that was not the case when the 1982 college football season began. The Tigers had not won a major bowl game since 1967 and while they had five consecutive winning seasons under Charles McClendon and Jerry Stovall from 1976-80, the program slipped back to 3-7-1 under Stovall in 1981.

The resurgence of 1982 was led by a good running game, with Dalton Hilliard leading the way and Garry James providing valuable support. Hilliard’s 910 yards were second in the SEC behind only Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker at Georgia (although it was a very distant second). James added 710 more.

Eric Martin’s 800-plus receiving yards were second in the SEC and quarterback Alan Risher operated at high efficiency. While Risher only threw for a little over 1,800 yards on the year, that was still respectable by 1982 standards. And more to the point, his 64% completion rate, 7.8 yards-per-attempt and 17-8 TD/INT ratio were all excellent.

LSU also had an offensive coordinator who would go on to some notoriety—a guy named Mack Brown. And they had an All-American defensive back in the secondary with James Britt.

The Tigers opened the season by blasting two bad teams in Oregon State and Rice, 45-7 and 52-13 respectively. On the surface it’s not impressive, but when you’ve been a bad team yourself, blowing out others suggest improvement is coming.

And the results at fourth-ranked Florida on the first Saturday of October sent an even louder message. LSU stopped Gator quarterback Wayne Peace, the top passer in the SEC and won 24-13. Now the Tigers had the attention of the pollsters and they were ranked #18.

LSU played Tennessee—a good, but not outstanding team—to a 24-24 tie, but still nudged up to #16. The Tigers blew out a Kentucky team that ended the year winless and then won a tough 14-6 game over subpar South Carolina. After another win over a bad team, a 45-8 pounding of Ole Miss, LSU was up to #11 and still undefeated as they entered November.

A trip to Alabama to face the eighth-ranked Crimson Tide in what would be the legendary Bear Bryant’s final season was next. LSU played its best game of the year, recovering four fumbles, while Risher efficiently carved up ‘Bama with short passes and completed 20/26. LSU built a 17-0 lead and won 20-10.

Now they were 4-0-1 in SEC play and trailing only undefeated Georgia, who was 5-0. The Sugar Bowl, the reward for the conference champ was in play, but LSU had a letdown at mediocre Mississippi State and lost 27-24.

There was still opportunity to play on New Year’s Day and the following week brought seventh-ranked Florida State to town. The Orange Bowl had already settled on inviting the winner of this game, while the loser would go to the Gator.

The high stakes made it attractive for national television, but two things happened that show how different the world of 1982 was. The first is that TV was only interested if LSU would agree to move the game to the afternoon. The second is that someone actually said no to TV. “We want them under the lights” said Stovall. There was no TV and that leads us to something about 1982 that’s exactly the same as it is today—no one wanted to go to Death Valley.

It was tied 14-14 in the second quarter when LSU took over. Hilliard finished with 233 all-purpose yards. The Tigers as a team gained 620 yards of offense. Two second-quarter touchdowns put them in control and then the rout was on, all the way to a 55-21 win and an Orange Bowl bid.

Bowl bids in those days were formalized early, so LSU’s surprising 31-28 loss to Tulane on the Saturday after Thanksgiving was more about hurt pride and lost national standing than anything else. They entered the Orange Bowl ranked #13.

The LSU loss was the first thing to go wrong as far as Orange Bowl organizers were concerned and by far the least serious. The game was also alongside the Georgia-Penn State 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.

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 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 that at least staked their claim in history as one who got robbed of more.