LINCOLN — Sometimes a little bit of gingerbread can go a long way.
Nebraska’s offense awoke from a fitful slumber on a double-handoff pass midway through the second quarter against California Saturday, and the Cornhuskers suddenly remembered how to run up big numbers in a 36-26 home-opening victory.
The great awakening went from quarterback Tom Sorley to I-back I.M. Hipp and back to Sorley, who heaved a 57-yard pass to reserve wingback Maurice McCloney. The play set up the Huskers’ first touchdown in 5-½ quarters, going back through the Alabama game a week earlier. It was what Head Coach Tom Osborne calls a “gingerbread” play, the kind he hesitates to call until the Huskers have established their basic offense.
About all the Huskers had established to that point was a 7-0 deficit and an inclination to break down at the most inopportune moments.
When it was over, however, the Huskers had:
— Cranked out 492 yard to the Golden Bears’ 347.
— Survived five turnovers and three California missed field goal attempts that would have made a late surge much more difficult.
— Scored four of their five touchdowns in the last 15:49 as the Bear defense wilted under the oppressive heat and Husker pounding. The official temperature at game time was 86, and the Astroturf surface is always much hotter.
— Survived a 271-yard passing blitz by Cal sophomore Rich Campbell by playing loose and easy in the secondary and rushing with a shuttle service interior line.
— Uncovered a new hero in second-year freshman McCloney, who set up the first touchdown and provided the Huskers’ first lead at 21-14 with a 32-yard reception in the fourth quarter, much to Osborne’s surprise.
— Erased the embarrassment of an untimely timeout that prevented a field goal attempt in the final seconds of the first half.
— Paraded prize running back I.M. Hipp for 154 yards on 23 carries as he broke out of a three-game slump.
It was three quarters of squeamish tension for the bulk of a Memorial Stadium turnout of 75,980. Nebraska came back to tie at 7-7 at the half and 14-14 in the last minute of the third quarter.
A three-touchdown assault in 2:32, starting with Rick Berns’ 14-yard sprint around the right side with 49 seconds left in the third quarter, turned a 14-7 Husker deficit into a 29-14 lead. Then the Huskers sat back and waited for the inevitable Campbell passes, which finally totaled 32.
The 32-yard pass from Sorley to McCloney, with the Beaumont, Tex., freshman breaking tackles by Ron Coccimiglio and Eric McIntyre, and end L.C. Cole’s touchdown recovery of a Campbell fumble, erased Husker visions of consecutive season-opening losses for the first time since 1955.
Osborne said the Huskers “played at times like a grade school team and at other times played pretty well. They (Bears) were dying on the vine, but we kept making mistakes and letting them stay in the game.
“But we’re real pleased to win. We felt before the game that these were the toughest back-to-back opening games we’ve ever had. We felt the edge we had was that we had played a game. But it didn’t appear that we had that edge. There were a lot of silly mistakes, a great number of errors.
“I can’t imagine such gigantic mistakes time after time. It’s to their (Huskers’) credit that they came back. We couldn’t have done it against a great team...California is a good team.”
Nebraska’s Alabama-style offensive frustrations continued through the first 1-½ quarters against the debuting Bears, starting when Kenny Brown fumbled a screen pass and Cal’s Bob Rozier recovered on the Husker 21 in the second series.
Six plays later, Campbell, who completed 16 of 32 passes for 271 yards, pitched the first of his two touchdown passes. It went to to 9.4 sprinter Floyd Eddings, who welcomed sub cornerback Darrell Walton onto the field with a fancy bit of one-on-one footwork on the 12-yard reception.
Moments after Bear punter Dan Melville sailed a school record 84-yarder to Nebraska’s end, teammate Joe Cooper missed the first of three first-half field goals into the wind. The other misses came after Anthony Washington killed a Husker threat with an interception and 56-yard return, and following a Cal drive that reached the Husker 16 with the aid of a personal foul.
The Husker offensive drought ended with Sorley’s touchdown sneak at 7:46 of the second quarter after the gingerbread play to McCloney started the 71-yard drive.
Still, the Huskers were fortunate to go to the lockers tied despite holding a 240-136 yardage edge in total offense. California receivers dropped three end-zone passes late in the first quarter.
An N.U. attempt for a go-ahead field goal just before halftime failed to come off when time ran out after Sorley used the final timeout to clear up a communication problem.
“Our game plan was to score early and put the pressure on Nebraska. I thought we should have gone into the locker room 10 points up,” Cal Coach Roger Theder said.
“There was pressure, for sure,” Husker defensive tackle Bill Barnett said. “They were hanging in there with us, but I think we handled it pretty well. The defense and offense were having problems, but we hung together and came out winners. I knew we’d beat them. We were platooning our tackles, and that made a big difference. I was getting tired in the fourth quarter, and we were substituting often, so I can imagine how they were feeling."
Sorley went out in the third quarter when he was shaken by a tackle. The senior was summoned back to duty after sophomore quarterback Jeff Quinn threw an interception that set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Paul Jones and then lost a fumble.
With Sorley’s return, the Husker offense finally started cooking. An 84-yard drive in 11 plays included runs of 9 and 12 yards by Hipp and 22 by Berns. On third and four, Sorley passed 7 yards to tight end Jeff Finn. Berns scored from 14 yards.
Following a 33-yard punt return by wingback Brown, Sorley passed over the middle for the touchdown to McCloney, who was listed as the No. 3 wingback. On the second play after the kickoff, Barnett decked Campbell, and Cole recovered the ensuing fumble in the end zone for another score.
McCloney, who was granted a hardship year following a knee injury as a freshman last year, came to Nebraska with glittering credentials which included a state 440 championship in track. He had made little impression on the coaches until this fall.
“In the spring, I questioned whether he’d ever play,” Osborne said. “Somehow, over the summer, he decided he wanted to be a football player. We decided to go with him because he’s made fewer mistakes in practice than our other wingbacks. He’s made a believer out of me.”
Cole’s touchdown also was something of a vindication. He had been demoted after the Alabama game. “I just saw the ball in the end zone and hopped on it. It kinda brightened my day. It bothered me not starting, but helping the team that way brought me back to life.”
Following Cole’s touchdown, Sorley turned pass receiver on another gingerbread play for a 2-point conversion and a 29-14 lead. Berns was the passer and was true this time after misfiring on the same play earlier in the game.
“We knew they could score in a hurry. We wanted to put the game out of reach,” Osborne said, explaining his strategy.
He was prophetic.
Five plays later, Holden Smith, who has run a 9.5 100, sped past cornerback Tim Fischer, and Campbell laid the ball on his outstretched fingertips for a 72-yard touchdown play. California failed on its 2-point play, but the lead was down to 9 points.
The Huskers, however, stretched it back to 36-20 with 65-yard drive, ending with Andra Franklin’s 2-yard smash.
Cal finished scoring on Allen Blackmon’s short dive with 1:06 left after Campbell passed the Bears in close.
“They never gave up,” Barnett said. “They had a lot of pride,” defensive tackle Dan Pensick said. “But so did we.”
Middle guard Kerry Weinmaster, who was a pest for Campbell most of the afternoon, said, “That was a team that could strike from anywhere on the field. You have to play every down like it’s the last one. They’re probably headed for big things in the Pac-10. Southern Cal and UCLA better watch out.
“We got our confidence as the game wore on. George (captain Andrews) told us at halftime that they were a lot like Iowa State, kind of cocky and doing a lot of talking. He said we had to take the wood to them.”
Despite the three lost fumbles and two interceptions, the Huskers enjoyed their finest offensive showing since the Kansas game last year. Sorley completed 10 of 18 passes for 190 yards.
“The big thing is that we improved over last week. We have to do that every week. It’s been a hard week, but we did better. Without the turnovers, we’d have scored 15 to 20 more points,” offensive tackle Kelvin Clark said.
Hipp, the record setter last year whose best showing in the previous three games had been 54 yards, said the “big difference was that we just kept pushing and pushing. There was no letdown. But we’ve got to work even harder and quit making these mistakes.
“The main thing in my mind is to get the game won. If I do my job, the yards will come. There was no doubt in my mind we’d get it going.”
Osborne summarized: “You can play a lot of years and not have so many big plays and big errors and bizarre plays as we had today. We still feel we can have a fine team, and we’re happy with the improvement. We made a lot of mistakes, but we kept coming back, and that’s the mark of a good team.”
|Yards per carry||1.7||5.2|
Nebraska is 3-0 all-time against California.
|Iowa State||Oct. 7|
|Kansas State||Oct. 14|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 28|
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