1985 Nebraska Football: A Strong Title Bid Fades Badly At The End
Nebraska had gone to nine major bowls since Tom Osborne became head coach in 1973. The last two years were marked by heartbreak at the goal-line—a legendary failed two-point conversion in the Orange Bowl that cost them a national title in 1983–and a failed fourth down at the goal line against Oklahoma that cost them a #1 ranking going into the bowls.
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1985 Nebraska football didn’t have the same kind of overwhelming talent those teams had, but they still had an honorable mention All-American on each side of the line of scrimmage—center Bill Lewis and defensive end Jim Skow. The lead running back was Doug DuBose, whose 1,161 yards were second in the old Big Eight.
Nebraska also had Tom Rathman at fullback, who rushed for nearly 900 yards and would end playing with Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers in his NFL career. Paul Miles ran for nearly 700 more, rounding out an exceptionally deep stable of backs.
The depth at running back was needed, because the QB tandem of McCathorn Clayton and Travis Turner was problematic at best. Neither quarterback completed even 40 percent of his passes and they combined to throw only 133 passes all season long.
Nebraska was ranked #9 to start the season and a 17-13 home loss to an eight-win team in Florida State quickly sent the Cornhuskers down to #18. They had a week to lick their wounds and welcome Illinois into Memorial Stadium.
The Huskers jumped out to a 17-0 lead, but the Illini came back and cut it to 17-10 in the second quarter. Clayton then hit a 64-yard pass—a single play that amounted to more than 10 percent of his passing yards on the season—that set up a DuBose touchdown. Nebraska would outrush Illinois 456-98, with DuBose going for 191. They took over the second half and rolled to a 52-24 win.
Expected routs of mediocre Oregon and woeful New Mexico were by a combined 101-7 and moved Nebraska back into the Top 10. The next game up was at Oklahoma State, where the Cowboys were ranked #5 and hungry to break into the Nebraska-Oklahoma duo that ruled the Big Eight.
Okie State also had Thurman Thomas, the future NFL MVP with the Buffalo Bills, whose 1,650 yards rushing easily led this conference. The Nebraska defense met the challenge and held Thomas to 71 yards, while DuBose ran for 139. After a scoreless first quarter, the Cornhuskers spotted the Cowboys a field goal, then ripped off 20 straight points by early in the third quarter.
Just as they had against Illinois though, the defense led Oklahoma State off the mat and the lead was cut to 20-17. It took touchdown runs by Rathman and Clayton to re-extend the lead and finally put the finishing touches on the 34-24 win. Wide receiver Rob Schintzler was an unexpected hero, catching four balls for 119 yards.
Nebraska had a bit of a letdown at woeful Missouri the next week, escaping 28-20, but they still nudged up to #5 in the polls. The Cornhuskers beat a pretty good Colorado team 17-7, and then rolled through the first three games of November. Nebraska beat Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas by a combined 146-9, and were sitting pretty at #2 in the nation. The battle for the conference title against Oklahoma was the last regular season hurdle.
It was already known that top-ranked Penn State was going to the Orange Bowl to play the Nebraska-Oklahoma winner, so the Cornhuskers controlled their own destiny.
What they couldn’t control, or do anything with, was the Sooner defense. The Cornhuskers were completely shut down in a 27-7 loss, where their only touchdown came on a long fumble return in the game’s final minute. They would settle for a Fiesta Bowl bid as a consolation prize.
Nebraska went to Tempe ranked #7 and set to face fifth-ranked Michigan in a really good marquee bowl matchup. And the Cornhuskers looked in control for a half. DuBose ran for two touchdowns and they took a 14-3 lead into halftime. They would ultimately win the rushing yardage battle 304-171 and kept Wolverine quarterback Jim Harbaugh in check all game long.
But if that sounds like we’re leading to a happy ending…well, it’s not the case. Michigan blocked a punt to set up one score. Nebraska turned it over twice, setting up more gift points. They allowed an 88-yard touchdown run.
The Cornhuskers fell behind 27-14 and turned to Steve Taylor at quarterback. The man of the future turned into a man of the present. Taylor led one TD drive. Michigan, backed up near their goal line, took a voluntary safety to make the score 27-23. The Cornhuskers got one final chance. But a final desperation pass to the end zone was intercepted with 28 seconds left.
Nebraska would continue to be on the national stage, regularly competing for Big Eight titles and in the national championship conversation. But 1985 ended on a dour note, as they slipped out of the final AP Top 10, checking in with a #11 final ranking.