Nebraska arrived at the 1985 Sugar Bowl on a down note. LSU was thrilled to be there. Here’s a look back at the paths the Cornhuskers and Tigers took through the 1984 college football season to a New Year’s Day meeting that marked the second time in three years they played each other on January 1.
Tom Osborne’s Nebraska program was coming off the heartbreak to end all heartbreaks, when they came within one play of winning a national title in 1983 before an upset loss to Miami in the Orange Bowl, a game where Osborne eschewed playing for a tie and a sure national title to try and two-point play and go for the win.
Even with the crushing 31-30 loss ending the dream, the Cornhuskers were still riding high. After futilely chasing Oklahoma from 1974-80, Nebraska had won three straight Big Eight titles and had a 27-game conference winning streak. They were the team to beat in their own backyard and they were ranked #2 in the nation to start the 1984 season.
Nebraska had its trademark powerhouse offensive line, led by consensus All-American center Mark Traynowicz. Guard Harry Grimmings also got some All-American mention. The Cornhuskers had a 1,000-yard back in Doug DuBose, and Jeff Smith almost got there with 935 yards.
DuBose and Smith were 1-2 in the Big Eight in rushing, and their path was paved by fullback Tom Rathman, who would have a better NFL career than anyone, going to the San Francisco 49ers and playing with Joe Montana.
Osborne alternated quarterbacks, with Craig Sundberg and Travis Turner splitting duty. Sundberg was the more effective of the two, with a superior completion percentage (65-49) and yards-per-attempt (8.8 to 7.2), but Turner would step up at some key moments in the 1984 season. Defensively, Bret Clark got All-American mention in the secondary, but otherwise no one stood out.
Nebraska pounded mediocre Wyoming 42-7 to start the season and when top-ranked Miami lost at Michigan, the Cornhuskers moved to the top of the polls. They blew out subpar Minnesota 38-7, and then traveled to play eighth-ranked UCLA.
The Bruins had won the previous two Rose Bowls and would make the January 1 Fiesta Bowl this season. The Cornhuskers simply leveled them. Smith and DuBose each cleared the 100-yard threshold, the defense held UCLA to 41 rush yards, got eight quarterback sacks and the final was 42-3. It looked like another steamroller was coming out of Lincoln this season.
But the next week a letdown came and Nebraska dumped a 17-9 decision to a Syracuse team that would only win six games. The Cornhuskers were down to #8 and a coming home date with Oklahoma State to start conference play would be anything but easy.
Oklahoma State was ranked #9 and they would get into the top five and contend for the national title themselves before the season was over. Nebraska couldn’t get its offense in gear, as Sundberg threw three interceptions and was lifted for Turner. The Cornhuskers trailed 3-0 in the fourth quarter.
After a tying field goal early in the final period, punt returner Shane Swanson stepped up with a 49-yard return for a touchdown. With Nebraska playing great defense, they got the ball back and Turner threw a clinching touchdown pass. Nebraska had escaped 17-3. The following week’s 33-23 win over a poor Missouri team wasn’t impressive, but it had the Cornhuskers back in the top five.
Nebraska then rolled through three straight bad teams, Colorado, Kansas State and Iowa State, by a combined score of 130-21. The Cornhuskers then rolled an average team in Kansas—one that had already beaten Oklahoma—by a 41-7 count on November 10. The same day, top-ranked Washington lost to USC and Nebraska had returned to the #1 spot.
Only one game remained and it was with Oklahoma, ranked #6, and it would be in Lincoln. Nebraska simply did not play well on this day, missing three field goals, committing four turnovers and being stopped on 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line with 5:32 left when they trailed 10-7. Once again, the Cornhuskers went for the win and came up short, although in this case, a tie would have been fatal to their national title hopes.
Nebraska slipped to #7 in the polls and when Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State in a 2 vs. 3 battle the following week, the Sooners got the Big Eight’s Orange Bowl bid. The Cornhuskers accepted the nod for the Sugar Bowl.
LSU’s 1983 season couldn’t have gone much different from Nebraska’s. The Tigers had fallen to 4-7, crushing the optimism that had come from their run to the Orange Bowl against the Cornhuskers following the 1982 season. The result was a new head coach.
Bill Arnsparger had been the defensive coordinator for the 1972 Miami Dolphins team that went undefeated. Arnsparger’s defenses helped the Dolphins win another Super Bowl the following year and a brief, but failed try as an NFL head coach, he had returned to the Fish as defensive coordinator and helped them win an AFC title in 1982. Now he was ready to try again as his own boss.
LSU’s offense was led by shifty Dalton Hilliard, whose 1,268 rush yards were second-most in the SEC. Wideout Eric Martin was fourth in the conference in both catches (47) and yards (668). Offensive guard Lance Smith was an All-American and there was a rising star on defense in sophomore linebacker Michael Brooks.
Jeff Wickersham was at quarterback and he threw the ball a lot—more than any other SEC team outside of Vanderbilt—but he didn’t necessarily throw it well. While the 57% completion rate was good, and the 6.9 yards-per-attempt at least decent, Wickersham’s 13 interceptions were the most among SEC quarterbacks.
LSU opened the season, as expected, unranked and started the year at Florida. The Gators were on their way to a big year and quarterback Kerwin Bell ended up as conference MVP. The fact LSU played Florida to a 21-21 tie in Gainesville was a good sign and it would loom large as the year rolled on.
After blowing out Wichita, the Tigers got ready for a Pac-10 parlay against Arizona at home and USC on the road. The Wildcats were a pretty good team that would win seven games. LSU led 3-0 early and was driving for more when an interception inside the 10-yard line got returned the other way and suddenly the Tigers were in a hole. They eventually reclaimed the lead and were hanging on 27-26 when the defense stopped a fourth-down quarterback sneak to preserve the win.
The trip to USC was even more impressive. This was a Trojan team on its way to a Rose Bowl victory and after spotting the home team an early field goal, LSU simply took over and won 23-3. They got onto the national radar, ranked #12 when the next polls came out.
A predictably high-scoring affair with Vandy followed, as LSU won 34-27 at home and nudged up to #10. The Tigers then blew out a good bowl-bound Kentucky team on the road 36-10 and moved up three spots to #7. LSU was undefeated, top teams were falling left and right in 1984 and a national title was a real possibility.
Then Notre Dame came to Baton Rouge. The Irish would end up a seven-win team and this was in the middle of the Gerry Faust era, when the program never reached a major bowl game. Faust was under constant fire, and his team responded for him at LSU’s expense. The Tigers lost 30-22 and then saw the victorious head coach end up on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They slipped to #15.
LSU bounced back with narrow road wins over Ole Miss (32-29) and Alabama (16-14). The Tide were slipping from their lofty perch of the Bear Bryant era and suffered a losing season in 1984. Even so, LSU trailed ‘Bama 14-10 when Brooks blocked a punt and set up an easy touchdown run from Hilliard. The Tigers went for two, knowing a tie would have been as damaging to their SEC title hopes as a loss.
The SEC race was tied at the top, with LSU and Florida both 4-0-1. But the Gators had been through chaos since the season-opener. NCAA violations resulted in head coach Charley Pell being fired in September and Florida would not be allowed to get the SEC’s Sugar Bowl bid. That meant the race for New Orleans was between LSU, and Auburn, who was 4-1 in conference games.
There were only six conference games on the schedule, so LSU needed only defeat a four-win Mississippi State team to secure the coveted bowl spot. They lost 16-14 and fell to #16. The Tigers closed the regular season on November 24 with a blowout win over Tulane, but their Sugar Bowl hopes were out of their hands.
Auburn and Alabama would play on December 1, and if the Tide won, LSU could still go to the Sugar Bowl, even if Florida had finished atop the league standings. Auburn trailed 17-15 in the fourth quarter and faced 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line.
For some reason, the Tigers went for the touchdown. Bo Jackson took the handoff, but ran the wrong way. The play was blown up and Arnsparger was taking his team to the New Year’s Day stage in his first season.
The way each team finished the season meant that Nebraska saw the Sugar Bowl as a consolation prize, while LSU was grateful to be here. That showed in the first half, as the Tigers stunned the Cornhuskers with 291 yards worth of total offense. But that only translated into ten points and when DuBose ripped caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Sundberg, the score was a manageable 10-7 at the half.
Nebraska found its bearings defensively in the second half, and got rolling on offense. Sundberg threw two more touchdown passes, the ground game finished with 280 yards on the night and the Cornhuskers won 28-10, securing their third straight Top 5 finish in the final polls.