The Nebraska Cornhuskers cleared a big hurdle in 1988 when they finally defeated their archenemy, the Oklahoma Sooners after four straight years of losing, and won the championship of the old Big Eight Conference. When offseason turmoil hit Oklahoma, the Cornhuskers appeared ready for an era of dominance in this top-heavy league. But the 1989 Nebraska football season was more of the same, both good and bad. They were an outstanding team and crushed most people. But a new rival emerged and undid their national championship hopes.
It all started with a potent running game in the Tom Osborne era of Nebraska football. Ken Clark was an All-Big Eight rusher and racked up nearly 1,200 yards. Leodis Flowers and Bryan Carpenter were good change of pace backs and combined for nearly 900 yards of their own. All three backs averaged well over six yards a pop behind an offensive line that included all-conference performers in Jake Young and Doug Glaser, each of whom also got some love in the All-America voting.
Nebraska’s passing game wasn’t used a lot in this era and it’s success rate most definitely fluctuated year-to-year. Gerry Gdowski was pretty good in 1989. His 52 percent completion rate was manageable by the standards of the era. His 9.8 yard-per-attempt was excellent for any era. And the 19-2 TD/INT ratio was dazzling. The Cornhusker offense ranked second in the nation, scoring over 42 points per game.
The defense wasn’t quite as good, ranking 22nd nationally in points allowed. But they had still All-Conference players in Kent Wells up front and Jeff Mills at linebacker. The secondary was the strength of the D, with Reggie Cooper and Bruce Pickens each intercepting four passes and Cooper getting the nod for second-team All-American.
Nebraska was ranked #3 in the nation to start the year and they opened at home against Northern Illinois. NIU had a pretty good team and would win nine games against a very soft schedule. The Cornhuskers played poorly in the first half, turning the ball over five times and going to the locker room tied 17-all. They got it rolling in the second half, scoring on four straight possession. On a day when each team only threw 13 passes, Nebraska outrushed NIU 455-130 and pulled away to a 48-17 win.
Utah State was next to come into Lincoln. The Aggies were coached by Jim Fassel, who got the New York Giants to a Super Bowl eleven years later. But his ’89 Utah State team wasn’t very good and Nebraska won 42-30. The Cornhuskers followed that up by going to mediocre Minnesota and putting a 48-0 pasting on the Gophers. Nebraska closed the non-conference schedule at home against a subpar Oregon State team and won 35-7.
The Big Eight was the organizational forerunner of today’s Big 12. Oklahoma, as mentioned, had been Nebraska’s principal rival for the top for two decades, but entered the year on probation and in transition. Colorado was a contender and an up-and-comer, ranked in the preseason Top 10. Iowa State was an average team in 1989. Oklahoma State, normally pretty good, had a down year this season. Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri were all awful.
It was K-State and Mizzou that were first up for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska won the games by a combined score of 108-14. They went to Stillwater and knocked off Oklahoma State 48-23.
Iowa State came to Lincoln to close the month of October. The Cyclones had the country’s best tight end in Mike Busch and a pretty good quarterback in Brett Oberg. What they couldn’t do was stop the run. And it was Gdowski who ran wild. The quarterback took off on a 74-yard touchdown run early in the game. Before the first quarter was out, he ran in from 26 yards. Gdowski added a pair of TD runs in the third quarter and ran for 176 yards on the day. Flowers added 118 to the cause. Nebraska won easily 49-17.
Now it was time for the game all of college football was waiting for. Colorado was also undefeated and having played a better schedule, had moved past Nebraska in the polls to #2. But the Cornhuskers were still at #3 and the winner would get the Big Eight’s contractual bid in the Orange Bowl and a crack at the national championship.
Nebraska got the game’s first touchdown, but trailed 17-14 in the third quarter. They appeared to have made a big defensive stop with an interception in the end zone. But pass interference was called and replays showed that it was, to be nice, a questionable call. The Buffaloes scored and the Cornhuskers trailed 24-14. They cut the lead to 27-21 and got the ball back for one last gasp, but couldn’t quite get close enough to throw it into the end zone. Colorado would get the Orange Bowl bid.
There were still two games to play. Nebraska licked their wounds and blew out Kansas 51-14. The Cornhuskers then welcomed Oklahoma for what was the traditional season finale in this conference. OU might have taken a fall, but they still came into the game 7-3 and being on probation, this was their only chance to make any kind of national statement. For their part, the Cornhuskers had a lot of past grievances to atone for in this rivalry.
The game was tied 7-7 early when Gdowski took over and this time with his arm. He threw a 31-yard touchdown pass and a 24-yard touchdown pass. He only attempted 15 passes, but completed 12 and they went for 225 yards and three TDs. Clark ran for 91 yards and the final was 42-23.
Nebraska got a Fiesta Bowl bid to play Florida State with a national top 5 finish on the line. But the Seminoles were the hottest team in the country. Even though two early losses took them out of the national championship picture, a lot of observers believed they were the best team by the time New Year’s Day arrived. And they looked the part. The Cornhuskers were never in the game in a 41-17 loss.
They fell to #11 in the final rankings. Missing the Top 10 was a disappointment in Lincoln at this time. Perhaps more so was the fact that at a time when Nebraska had finally turned the corner on Oklahoma, a new rival had jumped up as a stumbling block.