Nebraska 31
#4 Alabama 24

Sept. 17, 1977 • Memorial Stadium, Lincoln

1 2 3 4 T
Alabama 7 10 0 7 24
Nebraska 10 7 7 7 31

Believe It! A Galaxy of Tricky Stars Proves Big Red ‘Force’ Is Not Dead

Nebraska wingback Curtis Craig showed his hurdling form when guard Greg Jorgensen, who had been blocking ahead of him, looked to be a barrier between Craig and the Alabama goal line. The hurdle was successful and Craig completed a 17-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, Nebraska's third touchdown en route to a 31-24 win over the Crimson Tide. THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — It was showcase football, and, coming when it did, the 31-24 upset of Alabama Saturday ranked as one of Nebraska’s proudest moments.

Tom Osborne, the whippersnapper coaching the Cornhuskers, outfoxed the Bear.

The sometimes daring, sometimes brutal Husker offense, which had sometimes looked like a winner the week before, finished the job.

The defense, which had sprung leaks in the secondary a week earlier, gamely hung on while trying to slow down the finely-tuned Alabama wishbone, then came to the rescue of the offense with four of its five pass interceptions when they were most needed in the second half.

It was a game that kept a roaring Husker turnout of 75,899 in its seats at Memorial Stadium until the final play had ABC-TV moguls beaming about the ratings.

The ‘Force’

From the moment the hyped up Huskers and the visitors from Dixie mobbed their captains following the pregame coin toss until the locker room pandemonium finally died out afterward, there was ample proof that Nebraska football is very much alive.

What was that Washington State score?

In an emotional scene, defensive captain Jeff Carpenter presented the game ball to Osborne on behalf of the coaching staff. “They believed in us. They never gave up on us like a lot of the fans did,” he said. “But the fans sure stuck with us today.”

It had been a “quiet week” for the Huskers following the 19-10 upset by Washington State, Carpenter said, but the squad started pumping up Friday night after watching the movie “Star Wars.”

“You gotta believe in the force,” Carpenter said, referring to the movie theme.

The major force that did in the Crimson Tide, the No. 3 and 4 team in the major national polls, was an offense that hammered out 417 yards. It included 129 yards and three touchdowns by I-back Rick Berns and an 80-yard march to the winning touchdown in the final 7:12.

’Class Game’

But with Alabama’s precision attack that accounted for 430 yards, 7:12 could have been a century.

Front and center, Blackshirts.

Monster back Jimmy Pillen cut in front of Tide receivers twice in the last 4½ minutes to steal Jeff Rutledge passes to let the defense share hero honors.

“It was just a class game, very good for college football,” said Big Eight Commissioner Charles M. Neinas.

And dozens of Husker players showed their respect for their opponent by rushing to grasp the hand of Paul “Bear” Bryant, the venerable Tide coach, who stands No. 3 on the all-time coaching victory list.

The Husker victory, which evened both teams’ records at 1-1, “came at an awful good time. Our players played with confidence and poise. If you play well and lose, pretty soon you’ll keep losing. This one has to rank with our Sugar Bowl win over Florida (13-10 in 1974),” Osborne said.

Bryant was warm in his praise for the victors and saluted to his own team for refusing to fold. “Give Nebraska credit for our turnovers. We didn’t give it to them because we wanted to,” he said.

Each team came from behind twice in the first half, which ended at 17-17. And it was 24-24 when the Huskers started from their 20, for the fifth time, with 12½ minutes remaining. There was adversity along the way.

Berns had apparently picked up a first down on a swing pass from Randy Garcia, who took over in the first quarter when Tom Sorley reinjured a shoulder, but a holding penalty nullified the gain.

On third-and-12 from the N.U. 32, Garcia completed a 33-yard pass to split end Tim Smith. “That was the one that kept us going,” Osborne said.

Smith caught the ball over free safety Mike Kramer while snaking along the right sideline. Eight plays later, Berns somersaulted over the left side from the one on fourth down.

Garcia Pounded

The elated Garcia was proud that he had read the coverage so well. “They were in a ‘cloud’ coverage, with two men deep and two in the flat. Tim just made a super catch,” Garcia said.

When informed that Osborne said the Tide was in a three-deep zone, Garcia said, “They were? There you go. In the films, I might see a guy wide open up the middle.”

Whatever, it worked.

Sophomore Smith said, “I’d been blocking the guy all day on pitch plays. I just ran right at him, and he kinda froze. I just took off to the outside.”

But there was more drama before Berns rang up the final score. Garcia gained two yards to the Alabama one on third-and-three, but the Huskers got an extra play when a Tide defender was caught holding split end Jeff Lee in the end zone.

Garcia sneaked in close to set up fourth down and decision time for Osborne.

“If they (Tide) hadn’t been moving the ball so well, we might have kicked a field goal, but we figured a field goal wouldn’t hold up. And if we didn’t make it, they were on the one-foot line,” Osborne said.

Berns Sails

And Berns made the correct decision by sailing over the back of left guard Greg Jorgensen and flipping into the end zone.

The offense and defense combined for the opening score when cornerback Ted Harvey, who had been burned for two touchdowns against Washington State, intercepted Rutledge’s first pass and hiked it back 28 yards to the ‘Bama 52.

The Huskers got Billy Todd’s 29-yard field goal out of it.

Then the Bear’s guile came into play. Alabama had marched methodically to the Nebraska 40 and had a first down when Rutledge handed off to halfback Tony Nathan, who flipped the ball back to Rutledge. The quarterback then threaded a pass down the middle to superb split end Ozzie Newsome for a 33-yard gain. Rutledge scored from there on a keeper.

But Osborne wasn’t about to be outdone when it came to trickery. He won the right to “wear his spurs regular” as the Bear would say.

On the next series he called a halfback pass from Berns to wingback Curtis Craig and followed up with some dipsy-do that went Sorley-to-Berns-to-Smith-to-Sorley and finally an 11-yard pass to tight end Ken Spaeth.

But Sorley went out when he reinjured his right shoulder on the pass, and Garcia came on to finish up. From the Alabama seven, Todd came on, ostensibly to kick another field goal.

But holder Garcia suddenly straightened, stepped away from a rushing lineman and rifled a touchdown pass past diving Barry Krauss and into the arms of Berns.

Alabama went ahead, 14-7, on a one-yard pitchout to Nathan after Newsome outjumped Harvey and Larry Valasek for a 16-yard gain to the Husker three, but the Huskers took just six plays to regain the lead.

Hipp Hooray

The big gainer was a 53-yard swing pass to fleet I.M. Hipp, who filled in admirably for Berns, gaining 38 yards on six carries.

Berns picked up the last two yards, and Alabama’s Roger Chapman tied the game at the half with a 37-yard field goal in the last 10 seconds.

After linebacker Lee Kunz intercepted a screen pass early in the third quarter, the Huskers’ quick-striking offense went up by 24-17 when a 22-yard run by Berns was followed up with a 17-yard scoring dash by Craig on a wingback counter sweep.

Perhaps that was when the Huskers knew it was their day. During a TV time out, the gallery was cheering mightily, and the Nebraska players waiting on the field for the kickoff were leading the cheers.

But the everpresent Tide took over on a punt at its 45 late in the third quarter and hiked on into the end zone in 12 plays to tie again.

Following Nebraska’s eventual winning touchdown, the Blackshirts showed they learn from their experiences.

Foiled Again

Twice, Alabama called the double handoff that ended up with Rutledge throwing passes. Each time, Pillen was there with his thievery.

“Nebraska’s secondary broke on the ball better than anybody I’ve ever played against,” Newsome said.


More coverage

World-Herald post-game coverage (PDF)

Box score (PDF)

Game stats

Opp NU
Penalties-Yards 9-75
Rush yards 232 238
Rush attempts 57 50
Yards per carry 4.1 4.8
Pass yards 198 179
Comp.-Att.-Int. 13-32-5 11-17-1
Yards/Att. 6.2 10.5
Yards/Comp. 15.2 16.3
Fumbles 0 2

Series history

Nebraska is 2-3 all-time against Alabama.

See all games »

1977 season (9-3)

Washington State Sept. 10
Alabama Sept. 17
Baylor Sept. 24
Indiana Oct. 1
Kansas State Oct. 8
Iowa State Oct. 15
Colorado Oct. 22
Oklahoma State Oct. 29
Missouri Nov. 5
Kansas Nov. 12
Oklahoma Nov. 25
North Carolina Dec. 19

This day in history

Nebraska has played 10 games on Sept. 17. See them all »

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