The Houston Cougars and Nebraska Cornhuskers each flirted with greatness during 1979 college football season. Each “settled” for just being really good, at 10-1 before they met on New Year’s Day in the 1980 Cotton Bowl. Let’s look back on the road each team took to Dallas.
Bill Yeoman’s Houston program had already made quite an impact on the Southwest Conference. The joined the league dominated by Texas and Arkansas in 1976 and promptly won the league title and its automatic Cotton Bowl bid twice in three years. Respect was coming—despite having to replace a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, the Cougars were ranked #16 to begin the 1979 season.
The defense was anchored by linebacker David Hodge, who made All-American for the second straight year. Defensive tackle Hosea Taylor was another All-American, as was offensive tackle Melvin Jones on the other side of the ball.
Houston’s quality up front helped ease the backfield transition. Terald King rushed for over 1,000 yards and finished second in the SWC in rushing. John Newhouse was a good second option, finishing seventh in the league in rushing, as quarterback Delrick Brown ran an offense that was moderately conservative by the standards of the era.
The non-conference schedule wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Houston scheduled a trip to perennial Pac-10 power UCLA, but this turned out to be a down year for the Bruins, as they finished sub-.500. The Cougars won 24-16.
After that they hosted Florida and escaped 15-10. Florida was nowhere near the program is it today, but even by those lower standards, this was a particularly bad team. The Gators went winless, but no one knew that at the time and with their 2-0 start, Houston was moved to #8 in the rankings.
An easy win over West Texas A&M was the last tuneup for league play The opener was a tough 13-10 home win over Baylor, an up-and-comer that would claim the conference one year later. Another three-point win against a decent team followed, 17-14 at Texas A&M. The Cougars were now ranked fifth nationally and promptly blew out SMU.
October 27 sent Houston to play fourth-ranked Arkansas. Despite trailing 10-7 at the half, the Cougar defense went into lockdown mode and they were able to grind out a 13-10 win. Houston was still undefeated going into November.
The following week was a “sandwich game” at woeful TCU, and Houston was unimpressive in a 21-10 win. The other side of the Arkansas-Texas sandwich came next—a trip to Austin, where the Longhorns were ranked ninth, and very much alive in the Cotton Bowl race.
It proved to be a heartbreaker—Houston trailed just 14-13 in the fourth quarter, but Brown threw three interceptions and Texas tacked on a late touchdown to win 21-13. The SWC race was now completely up for grabs—Houston, Texas and Arkansas were in a circular three-way tie, having split amongst each other. The Cotton Bowl would get to choose if it ended that way, and it’s impossible to fathom they would have picked the Cougars.
One week later Houston didn’t play well, surviving a bad Texas Tech team 14-10, but the Coogs got the break they needed—Texas was upset by Texas A&M. Now the conference was a two-way tie and Houston had the tiebreaker on Arkansas. Yeoman’s team took full advantage in crushing lowly Rice 63-0 to secure their Cotton Bowl trip. They entered New Year’s Day ranked eighth.
Nebraska had been a consistent winner since Tom Osborne took over for the legendary Bob Devaney in 1973, but the Cornhuskers had an Oklahoma problem. Osborne lost his first five games to the Sooners. When Nebraska finally beat them and won the Big Eight’s Orange Bowl bid in 1978, they were forced into a rematch with OU—which the Cornhuskers lost decisively.
Osborne had a team that was simultaneously a respected national power, while also seen as Oklahoma’s little brother. Nebraska was ranked #8 to begin the 1979 season.
The running game was what it was about in Lincoln. Jarvis Redwine, a transfer from Oregon State, stepped into the lineup and went over 1,100 yards. He was supported by I.M. Hipp, Andra Franklin and Craig Johnson, who all cleared 500 yards and finished among the Big Eight’s top ten rushers.
When Nebraska wanted to throw, their quarterbacks, Jeff Quinn and Tim Hager, could target the nation’s best tight end in Junior Miller. His seven touchdown catches were easily the Big Eight’s best and in this offensive scheme in this era, his 23 catches marked him a modern-day Antonio Gates.
The Huskers opened the season with a 35-14 win over Utah State and then escaped a road trip to mediocre Iowa, 24-21. They were moved to #6 in time to host a nationally televised game with Penn State at the end of September.
Nebraska started poorly, with Penn State scoring the first two touchdowns, one off a Pick-6. Then the Cornhuskers got down to business. Hager connected with Miller on a short touchdown pass of 11 yards, and then hit the great tight end on a 70-yard scoring strike. Nebraska scored 28 points in the second quarter and never looked back on their way to a 42-17 win.
Even though it wasn’t a great Penn State team—Joe Paterno’s squad was ranked #18 coming in and wouldn’t make a major bowl game—it still qualified as a big-time statement win for Nebraska. They had dominated the Lions on the ground, winning rush yardage 298-160, with Redwine going for 124. When the next polls came out, Nebraska was in the top five.
There were no serious tests in October, blowing through New Mexico State, Kansas and, Oklahoma State and Colorado by a combined score of 173-10. Oklahoma State, on its way to seven wins under first-year coach Jimmy Johnson, was the only one of these teams even remotely capable of being on the same field with the Cornhuskers, who were ranked #2 in the nation by the end of the month.
Nebraska went to Missouri to open November. The Tigers were a pretty good team, and no one needed to persuade Osborne—the previous year, a loss to Mizzou cost the Huskers a chance to play for the national championship. This time Nebraska won, but it wasn’t easy in a 23-20 win. Another fairly close game, this time to a poor team at home—21-12 over Kansas State—resulted in Nebraska slipping to #3 in the polls.
The Cornhuskers blew out Iowa State to set up the season finale with Oklahoma. The Sooners had lost a non-conference game to Texas and were realistically out of the national title race. Nebraska was blocked out by fellow unbeatens Alabama and Ohio State, neither of whom they could possibly play in a bowl game.
It would take an inside straight to finish #1, but there was still an undefeated season and the not-so-small matter of simply beating Oklahoma still on the line when Nebraska went to Norman on November 24.
After taking an early 7-0 lead, the game proved to be the same-old, same-old when it came to facing Oklahoma. The Cornhusker defense, lacking All-American talent, was overrun by OU’s star running back Billy Sims. Nebraska trailed 17-7 with less than five minutes left when they scored on a trick “fumblerooski” play, where Quinn took the snap, set the ball on the ground and an offensive lineman picked up and ran for a touchdown. But the game ended at 17-14 and Nebraska settled for a Cotton Bowl date with Houston.
The Cotton Bowl itself was a good tough football game on a sunny day in Dallas. Houston led 10-7 in the fourth quarter, but a fumble on their own 31-yard line set up a Nebraska touchdown with less than four minutes left. The Cougars had lost a crusher here a year ago to Notre Dame and seemed poised to lose another heartbreaker in their league’s signature bowl game.
What’s more, Brown was out and backup quarterback Terry Elston had the task of mounting a drive against Nebraska. Elston ended up an unlikely hero. He led the team gradually down the field and faced a fourth-and-goal on the six-yard line. For the second straight year, the Cotton Bowl was coming down to one final pass into the end zone.
Wide receiver Eric Herring was well-covered and Nebraska had everyone blanketed. Elston took a chance and rifled it toward Herring. It caromed off a defender and into Herring’s hands for a 17-14 win.
The win was the high point of Yeoman’s tenure—he had also won the Cotton Bowl two years earlier, but beating Nebraska had more cache than knocking off Maryland. For Nebraska, it just added to the close-but-not-quite trend that would trail them for another fifteen years.