Tom Osborne had been the Nebraska head coach since 1973, and he came into 1987 having done most everything you could do in college football—except win a national championship. The 1987 Nebraska Cornhuskers had the look of a team that could fill in the last line of Osborne’s resume. But an all-too-familiar nemesis—Oklahoma and a bowl game—got in the way again.
Nebraska was renowned for their power-I formation running attack under Osborne and it was keyed by great lineman in the trenches. This year was no different—offensive tackle John McCormick was an All-American. Jake Young at center got honorable mention All-American recognition. They paved the way for running back Keith Jones to pile up over 1,200 yards and average better than seven a pop.
Steve Taylor was the junior quarterback, in his second year starting and his 659 yards rushing were second on the team behind Jones. Taylor only attempted 123 passes on the year and his numbers were pedestrian—46% completion rate, 902 passing yards, 7.3 yards-per-attempt. But the sheer power of the running game meant Nebraska still averaged nearly 38 points per game and finished third in the nation in scoring offense.
The defense wasn’t far behind, allowing just 14ppg and finishing eighth in the country. They had a couple terrific players on the edge in the front seven, each of whom made second-team All-American. Neil Smith was at defensive end and he eventually wound up as the second overall pick in the NFL draft. Broderick Thomas played outside linebacker and two years later would be the sixth overall choice by the pros.
Nebraska was ranked #2 in the country. The only team ahead of them was a familiar foe—Oklahoma, their chief rival in the old Big Eight. Sooner head coach Barry Switzer had also been in charge since 1973. In that same stretch, his program had three national titles, the last three conference championships in succession and an 11-4 record in the head-to-head rivalry with Nebraska. The rivalry would renew on November 21 in Lincoln and the entire season would point to that game.
Presuming of course, that both teams could take care of business and Nebraska challenged themselves in the non-conference schedule. After a 56-12 tuneup blasting of Utah State to start the season, the Cornhuskers hosted UCLA. The Bruins had Troy Aikman at quarterback, were ranked #3 in the polls and this was the first big battle that would shape the national landscape.
Nebraska fell behind 7-0 early on, but Taylor showed he could throw the ball if he had too—consecutive touchdown passes in the second quarter put the Cornhuskers up 14-10 at intermission. Then they came out blazing, with two more TDs in the first four minutes of the third quarter. Nebraska took a 42-17 lead and only a couple late UCLA touchdowns made the final score cosmetically close, 42-33.
Taylor finished the game 10/15 for 217 yards and threw for five TDs. Aikman’s numbers were good enough—14/22 for 211 yards and no interceptions. But if you had told anyone before the game that Taylor would be the quarterback making plays, while Aikman was more the game manager, everyone would have been surprised. From the vantage point of history, it looks positively shocking.
There was no time for celebration though. After a week off, Nebraska was scheduled to pay a visit to 12th-ranked Arizona State, the defending Pac-10 champ. And this game would be a dogfight.
After a scoreless first quarter, Nebraska jumped out to a 14-3 lead. They were doing their usual yeoman’s work on the ground and finished with 364 yards rushing. But the Sun Devils rallied and tied the game 14-all early in the third quarter.
The teams traded touchdowns back and forth twice and it was still tied 28-28 as the clock ticked under five minutes to go. Jones then made the game’s biggest game play. He took a handoff on his own 30-yard line and bolted 62 yards. He finished with 145 yards on 17 carries and this play set up a Taylor touchdown run with 3:37 left. Nebraska led 35-28. Arizona State got to midfield on their last drive but an interception with 2:38 to play all but sealed the game. The Cornhuskers had survived.
One week later Nebraska played another good non-conference opponent, a South Carolina team headed for eight wins. The Huskers won that game 30-21 and moved into conference play still undefeated and ranked #2 behind Oklahoma.
A 54-2 rout of lowly Kansas opened the Big Eight schedule. Nebraska traveled to face 12th-ranked Oklahoma State, one of only two teams (Colorado being the other) that were even in sniffing distance of The Big Two. The Husker defense shut out an offense that had Thurman Thomas at running back and won 35-0.
Three straight routs ensued. Nebraska beat Kansas State, Missouri and Iowa State by a combined score of 140-13. In the meantime, Oklahoma was having problems. The Sooners were still winning, but their win over Oklahoma State resulted in a season-ending injury to quarterback Jamelle Holieway. The following week, OU barely survived Missouri. The time for the head-to-head battle that the nation had waited for was at hand.
This rivalry was always about the running game. Nebraska’s power-I formation against Oklahoma’s wishbone. With the quarterback being essential to the option, OU’s loss of Holieway was seen as fatal. To say nothing of this year’s game being in Lincoln.
Pollsters flipped the two teams in the polls, putting Nebraska at #1. Betting markets installed the Cornhuskers as a seven-point favorite over the Sooners. Now Nebraska had to validate that confidence on the football field.
When Jones rumbled for a 25-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, all was well with the world in Husker Nation. But one thing that the media run-up to the game overlooked was just how good the Oklahoma defense was, a unit with three 1st-team All-Americans. Nebraska bogged down and the score stayed 7-0 into halftime.
OU pulled even in the third quarter, and then the wishbone finally sprung a big play, a 65-yard touchdown run. Nebraska was now in a 14-7 hole and were going absolutely nowhere against that great Sooner defense. They lost 17-7, the stadium fell silent and an enduring image of this game is Osborne gazing forlornly on the field as the clock ticked down.
Another national championship bid was over, but there was still the hope of salvaging some national pride. Nebraska went to Colorado and closed out the season with a 24-7 win on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The Cornhuskers were still fifth in the nation and they got a Fiesta Bowl invite to play third-ranked Florida State.
At the site of the regular season’s most compelling game, the visit to Arizona State, Nebraska played another back-and-forth duel. They jumped out to a 14-0 lead, with Dana Brinson returning a first-quarter punt for a touchdown. An explosive FSU passing attack ripped off three touchdowns and the Cornhuskers trailed 21-14 at half.
Nebraska’s running game seemed ready to get control in the second half, grinding their way to a 28-24 lead and moving the ball down to the Florida State 2-yard line in the fourth quarter. A touchdown would all but seal it.
Then Tyreese Knox fumbled on the goal line and FSU recovered. The ‘Noles drove 98 yards for a touchdown, capping the drive with a conversion on 4th-and-goal from the 15. Nebraska still had a little over three minutes to respond and they did with a 56-yard pass play to get the ball back down the Seminole 2. Only that play was nullified by illegal formation. The season ended with a 31-28 loss.
Nebraska would finish sixth in the final polls. The only thing that could lessen the sting of the way the season ended was the fact that Oklahoma lost to Miami in the Orange Bowl, a 20-14 loss not as close as the score makes it sound. Perhaps the same would have happened to the Cornhuskers.
That’s pretty minimal consolation though. The good news is that things would gradually get better for Nebraska in big games. They beat Oklahoma in 1988. In the Big Eight’s final eight years of existence, Nebraska won five outright conference titles and shared another. Even better, in that same stretch they got over the biggest hump of all–with national championships in 1994 and 1995. And one more for good measure in 1997, when the league had expanded to become the Big 12.