LINCOLN — Nebraska’s football team sauntered up to the very edge of greatness, where Missouri was waiting on a cold and gloomy Saturday afternoon to shove the Cornhuskers backward into the Orange Bowl.
The Tigers, old hands at this sort of thing, outlasted the Huskers 35-31 in an offensive slugfest that:
— Dashed Nebraska’s plans of taking the outright Big Eight championship up against Penn State for a national championship match in the Orange Bowl.
— Chased the top-ranked Nittany Lions off to the Sugar Bowl in pursuit of a more prestigious challenge.
— Arranged a unique Orange Bowl rematch between Nebraska and (gulp) Oklahoma, The New Year’s night bash in Miami will be a playoff sorts between the Big Eight co-champions and settle all those arguments about fumbles and early whistles that surfaced after the Huskers’ dramatic 17-14 triumph here a week before.
— Gave Coach Warren Powers his second straight win over his alma mater and sent 7-4 Mizzou on to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis against Louisiana State.
The Nebraska-Oklahoma get-together salvaged a touch of glamour for the Orange Bowl Committee, which had desperately urged the Huskers on during their tense-struggle Saturday. But it left Nebraska in the unenviable position of twice having to face the nation’s hottest rushing offense.
Unenviable, at least, based on its futility Saturday in trying to shackle a Missouri brute named James Wilder.
The 220-pound sophomore bruised the Husker defense for 181 yards and a school record-tying four touchdowns that took the luster off a magnificent 255-yard afternoon by Rick Berns. The senior I-back finished as Nebraska’s all-time leading rusher for a single game and a career (2,605 yards), and set off a premature celebration by romping 82-yards to a touchdown on the game’s first play.
As Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said: “We had a hard time stopping them, and they had a hard time stopping us.”
Oklahoma, which earned a piece of the title by routing Oklahoma State 62-7 Saturday, okayed the rematch earlier if Nebraska lost. Osborne, Athletic Director Bob Devaney and Chancellor Roy Young gave their blessing late Saturday afternoon.
Asked if that was such a wise decision, Osborne replied: “We’ve only beaten them once in the last seven years, so it’s a pretty tall order. But we’ll do our best.”
Nebraska’s players had dressed and left the locker room before the Miami pairing was announced.
But back to Missouri, which has monkeyed up Husker plans six of the last 11 years and three in a row here.
Each team strung together four long-distance scoring drives — 81, 61, 72 and 89 yards for the Huskers and 79, 73, 76 and 74 for the Tigers.
Nebraska led by 17-14 at the half on Billy Todd’s 27-yard field goal and went up to 24-14 in the third, allowing a Memorial Stadium turnout of 75,850 to relax momentarily.
But, as it did throughout the afternoon, Mizzou hung in with the bull-like rushes of Wilder and the passing of sophomore quarterback Phil Bradley to 6-foot-6 tight end Kellen Winslow, who somehow managed to roam the secondary undetected. Winslow snagged six passes for a career high 132 yards and a 14-yard touchdown.
Nebraska outyarded the Tigers, 517-476, not that it mattered. Mizzou picked up 74 of its yards when it counted, in seven plays starting with 5:59 remaining in the game and trailing 31-28.
The big gainer was a 33-yard pass to Winslow that carried to the Husker 15. Two plays later, Wilder, running like a man possessed, carried tacklers the last 7 yards to the winner.
Nebraska still had 3:42 to work with, and it appeared this game would be won by the team with last bats. The Huskers hit a couple of loud fouls before whiffing.
Husker quarterback Tom Sorley, who had gone to the bench in the third quarter with a pinched neck nerve, rallied his team from its 12 and threw a clutch 31-yard pass to Frank Lockett on third-and-long. Then Berns took a screen pass for 11 yards to the Missouri 39.
The drive stalled, however, and Husker hopes sailed away with Sorley’s high pass to Tim Smith on fourth down from the Tiger 33.
“If we would have had a little more time at the end, we could have been a little more patient. We just ran out of time and downs,” Osborne said.
Osborne was apologetic in the somber locker room. “I feel bad for the Orange Bowl Committee, but we’ll do the best we can.” Osborne reminded his team that they had a good season and nobody could take the Oklahoma game away from them.
“We have a talented team, and we got a lot out of them. I’m sorry this happened. It takes a lot away from what we’ve accomplished,” he said.
The players were downtrodden but complimentary toward the winners.
"Great teams have to be ready every week. I thought we were, but Missouri was better today,” defensive captain George Andrews said.
“We got the stuffings beat out of us,” middle guard Kerry Weinmaster said. “When Richard (Berns) got that first touchdown, maybe the guys thought it was going to be a cakewalk. I don’t think we played up to our ability. The underclassmen let the seniors down.”
Linebacker Lee Kunz said, “I’m sure there was a carryover from last week (Oklahoma). But they just flat-out beat us. There are no excuses.”
Berns’ records were meager consolation to the lanky Texan. “They’re certainly anticlimactic,” he said. “They would have been a lot sweeter if we had beat them. Miami would have been much more interesting.”
Berns said he had dreams about the Missouri game all week. “I saw the score every night, and they were behind. I can’t believe it. But we’re not losers by any means. That win over Oklahoma was no fluke. We’re going to bounce back from this. There will be a tomorrow.”
Across the way in the joyous Mizzou quarters, Warren Powers, the rookie Tiger coach, was accepting congratulations for returning to the stadium where he had played and worked as an assistant. He pulled a similar upset with his Washington State team last year.
This one was much sweeter, he said, “because it puts the players in a bowl game after we saw it slip out of our hands against Colorado and Oklahoma State.”
He acknowledged that the Huskers have been sapped by the effort against the Sooners and the bowl and national championship talk during the week, but beating them “made this a pretty darn good year.”
The Tigers were undaunted by Berns’ early dash, which consumed only 18 seconds after he took a pitch to his left and sailed merrily down the sideline until he encountered traffic at the Mizzou 20. He eliminated Johnnie Poe with a neat cutback and tripped into the end zone with tackle Steve Hamilton on his heels, the ball rolling free after he hit the stripe.
Missouri simply hitched up and sallied forth 79 yards on 13 plays, Wilder chugging up the middle the last 9. It was that way the rest of the afternoon.
Nebraska went up 14-7 when Sorley stepped back from the bunched-up middle at the 2-yard line and lofted a soft pass to tight end Junior Miller. The Huskers stretched the margin to 17-7 on Todd’s field goal.
Missouri charged back 73 yards, the last two plays on passes of 10 and 14 yards to Winslow, who made a slick shoe-top catch on the touchdown and backed in the final yard.
Berns made it 24-14 early in the third quarter from the 2. But here came the Tigers again, this time 76 yards. But it took four cracks from the 1 before Wilder punched in.
Missouri kept hanging in until the Huskers committed their lone turnover. Sorley’s pass was intercepted by linebacker Chris Garlich at the NU 31. Bradley romped to the 4 on a keeper, and, guess who, Wilder put it in from there for Missouri’s first lead at 28-24.
With the 99th consecutive sellout crowd imploring, pleading, Nebraska returned the favor with an 89-yard sortie without falling off a whit when junior Tim Hager replaced the injured Sorley.
Hager lost a touchdown pass to Miller because of a penalty but made good himself on a sneak from the 4 to recapture the lead going into the fourth quarter.
Nebraska, which scored 28 points driving into the stiff north wind and only 3 going the other way, staved off Missouri early in the fourth quarter when the Tigers committed their only turnover of the day. A drive from the Tiger 26 to the NU 4 ended when Earl Gant fumbled.
But then Mizzou came through with the aforementioned winning drive, and Osborne was left to say, “There’s not a whole lot to say except they beat us. We tried hard, but we weren’t as crisp and emotional as last week.”
“They were blowing us off the ball, and we weren’t tackling very well. Part of that was their excellent backs. You have to give Missouri a lot of credit. They’re better than their record. We had to play against them like we did last week, and we didn’t.”
|Yards per carry||5.3||5.2|
Nebraska is 65-36 all-time against Missouri.
|Iowa State||Oct. 7|
|Kansas State||Oct. 14|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 28|
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