Football in Nebraska was on a high in the early 1970s. The legendary head coach Bob Devaney had won back-to-back national titles in 1970 and 1971. In 1972, the Cornhuskers capped off another strong season by crushing Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. The 1973 Nebraska football season marked the beginning of a new era. Devaney stepped down and handed the reins to his offensive coordinator. Tom Osborne would go on to his own Hall of Fame career as a head coach and his opening season was a good one. But it was a modest step back.
The I-formation offense that Osborne utilized was led by running back Tony Davis and his 1,114 yards. Davis ran behind an offensive line that was keyed by second-team All-American tackle Daryl White. Dave Humm was at quarterback and his numbers—54 percent completion rate, 7.7 yards-per-attempt and 12-14 TD/INT ratio were manageable by the standards of the era. Even so, the offense as a whole still ranked a pedestrian #32 nationally for points scored.
Defensively, Nebraska was a little bit better, ranking #19 in points allowed. The key was the play of the defensive ends, where John Dutton was an All-American and future All-Pro player in the NFL. Steve Manstedt on the other edge was an All-Big Eight performer.
Expectations were high. At #4 in the country, Nebraska was favored to win a tough Big Eight and stay in contention for a national title. Osborne’s first game was a high-profile road trip to 10th-ranked UCLA. And the coach’s career could not have started much better.
Even with Humm injured, backup quarterback Steve Runty played well—9/12 for 105 yards. An early punt return, 77 yards to the house, by Randy Borg helped spur the Cornhuskers to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Nebraska led 20-13 at halftime and then broke the game open. Davis ripped off a pair of second-half touchdown runs, one from 43 yards out. The final score, over a team that would win nine games in 1973, was 40-13.
A good N.C. State team, bound for the ACC title and coached by Lou Holtz was on tap for the home opener a week later. Nebraska didn’t let up and won 31-14. They hosted a subpar Wisconsin team and won 20-6, then went on the road against a pretty good Minnesota squad and won 48-7. The Cornhuskers were 4-0 as Big Eight play began in mid-October.
The conference was deep. Oklahoma was a perennial contender who was already nipping at Nebraska’s heels each year. Colorado had been nationally ranked in recent years. Missouri produced consistently good teams. Kansas had the man who would be the nation’s top quarterback in David Jayne. Oklahoma State was at least a decent team that you couldn’t overlook. In short, a gauntlet lay ahead.
That gauntlet started at Missouri, who came in ranked #12. The Cornhuskers lost 13-12. Kansas came into Lincoln. Nebraska’s defense kept Jayne in check, but the offense could not get anything going. Trailing 9-7 in the fourth quarter, the defense bailed them out—Bob Nelson intercepted a Jayne pass, which in turn set up a field goal. The Cornhuskers survived 10-9. But they had fallen from the Top 10 nationally.
A road trip to Oklahoma State ended in a 17-17 tie. With Colorado coming to town ranked #17, the season was suddenly on the line in the first week of November. Nebraska stepped up and won 28-16. They went on to beat up mediocre teams in Iowa State (31-7) and Kansas State (50-21). The Cornhuskers were back up to #10 in the polls.
Oklahoma had already clinched the Big Eight title, but the Sooners were also on probation and ineligible for a bowl game. Nebraska was in line to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl. That meant Osborne’s first season would end against both ends of the Red River Rivalry—the Sooners on the Friday prior to Thanksgiving, followed by the Longhorns on New Year’s Day.
Osborne’s first game against OU foreshadowed what would be his stumbling block for the better part of 15 years. Oklahoma also had a new coach, a promoted offensive coordinator, in Barry Switzer. Throughout much of Osborne’s tenure, he consistently produced solid, nationally ranked teams—but couldn’t beat Oklahoma.
That started on this day when the Nebraska offense was completely shut down. In fact, that may be understating the case. The Cornhuskers only crossed midfield once all day—on a play where they fumbled it away. So, they never actually snapped the football in Oklahoma territory. Suffice it to say, Nebraska lost 27-0. They were down to #12 in the rankings going into the bowls.
The Cotton Bowl offered an opportunity for some redemption. The first half was a strange combination of teams moving the ball and failing to capitalize. A lot of back-and-forth had a 3-3 tie at intermission, and the half ended with the Cornhuskers being stopped four times on the 1-yard line.
Texas got a drive going to start the second half, but Nelson again made a big play from his secondary spot. He intercepted a pass in the end zone to kill the Longhorn threat. Osborne put in Runty at quarterback, hoping to get a boost. And the backup QB ended the season as it had begun. The offense got rolling. Davis rushed for 108 yards. The Nebraska defense held Texas All-American Roosevelt Leaks to just 48 yards on the ground. The Cornhuskers pulled away to a 19-3 win.
The quality of the win pushed Nebraska to #7 in the polls. That’s clearly a successful season by most any measurement. Except if you measure it by Oklahoma, who finished #3. Thus, the debate that would surround Nebraska football until Osborne finally surpassed Switzer in 1988, and eventually won a national championship in 1994, was underway.