BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Nebraska offense went south Saturday night. It should have stopped off in Birmingham.
The Cornhusker offense, which produced a school rushing record last year and had the major backfield components back, missed a dandy game at Legion Field.
Alas, the Alabama defense wasn’t the Husker scout team, and the top-ranked Crimson Tide showed enough offense and defense for a 20-3 season-opening victory.
With a little bit of offense, the Huskers could have ranked 1-A before a record Legion Field turnout of 77,023, a national television audience and the Goodyear blimp. But, aside from an initial thrust that produced a 48-yard field goal by Billy Todd and a 3-0 lead, the Huskers crossed over to the Tide side only three times. Briefly.
Alabama, meanwhile, displayed textbook wishbone for a 99-yards-plus touchdown drive to take the lead in the second quarter, then used an interception and a freaky pitchout theft to dent the Husker defense twice more.
The Nebraska offense, which averaged 294.5 yards rushing last year, was held to 110. I-back I.M. Hipp, who had publicly proclaimed his intentions of gaining 2,000 yards this season, still needs 1,946 after 14 carries Saturday night. Hipp, the Husker record-setting rusher last year, gained 24 of his 54 yards on two plays late in the fourth quarter and finished as the Huskers’ leading rusher.
Alabama outyarded the Huskers 318-174, and the three points were the fewest scored by a Nebraska team since the 27-0 whitewash by Oklahoma in 1973.
The Nebraska defense was expected to be improved, and it was except for Alabama’s cross-country march after Tom Ohrt curled around a Tim Smith punt inches from the ‘Bama goal midway through the second quarter.
Substitute fullback Billy Jackson made an appearance about then and ripped off gains of 14 and 10 yards on third-down plays to launch the 16-play drive that deprived the Husker offense the ball for 6:54.
Quarterback Jeff Rutledge, who has thrown a Tide record 94 passes without an interception since giving up five to Nebraska in 1977, pitched the go-ahead touchdown pass to Major Ogilvie. It was a four-yard floater over rookie cornerback Andy Means.
Rutledge, who scored the final touchdown on a 2-yard option keep with 2:17 remaining, was named the outstanding offensive player by ABC-TV. The defensive player award went to Nebraska end George Andrews, who was a demon with 17 tackles.
Starting quarterback Tom Sorley personified the Nebraska offensive miseries. He completed only nine of 21 passes for 50 yards and two interceptions. Both thefts were costly.
Nebraska was still in serious contention late in the third quarter with a 7-3 deficit when Husker punt returner Frank Lockett decided unwisely to fair catch a punt at his 8 yard line. Sorley tried to crawl out of the hole by passing deep down the right sideline to split end Smith, but cornerback Don McNeal snagged the underthrown ball on the Husker 39. Nine plays later, Tony Nathan sailed two yards into the end zone.
Sorley’s greatest embarrassment came early in the fourth quarter when he rolled to the right flank on an option play. He was pinned to the sideline and attempted to dump the ball off to wingback Kenny Brown. He shoveled it instead into the grateful arms of Tide end E.J. Junior on the Husker 34.
Nebraska worked out of that dilemma when Nathan mishandled a handoff and tackle David Clark recovered for the Huskers on the 20.
But Alabama was left with excellent field position for its final touchdown after another exchange of fumbles.
Nebraska was given a reprieve in the last four minutes when Oudious Lee claimed a Rutledge fumble on the Husker 5, but sub quarterback Jeff Quinn, in for Sorley, muffed his first snap, and Ricky Gilliland recovered to set up Rutledge’s touchdown.
Nebraska came out steaming by forcing a ‘Bama punt on the first series and marched from its 42 to the Tide 30 before Todd was summoned for his 48-yard field goal that barely crossed the south upright.
As in a similar night game in Dixie at Louisiana State two years ago, the first Husker offensive series was its best.
Nebraska reached the Alabama 44-yard line early in the second quarter. Coach Tom Osborne was set to try a scrimmage play on fourth-and-one, but a delay-of-game penalty dictated a punt.
A similar gamble in the third quarter was snuffed at the Tide 49 when Rick Berns was decked for no gain by Gilliland.
The only other time the Huskers crossed midfield was on the last play of the game when Quinn scrambled 16 yards to the Alabama 37.
And where was the much-discussed Nebraska split-back veer offense the Huskers introduced in the spring? It didn’t appear, either. Osborne scrapped it before fall camp but had kept it secret to make Alabama’s preparations more difficult.
“We decided to drop it after evaluating it in the spring,” Osborne said.
“Most of the things we were doing could be incorporated into the I-formation, like the outside veer and options. Rick Berns had made good progress at fullback in the I, and the passing game and the audible system would become so much more complicated if we used both the I and split backs.”
Osborne said he realized he was opening himself up for criticism by not using the split backs, but, he said, “We’ve got to look at what we know. We led the Big Eight in total offense by a fair amount last year by doing what we’re doing.”
Osborne said that before unveiling his new offense against Alabama.
The Huskers will try it again Saturday in Lincoln against California.
|Yards per carry||4.1||2.9|
Nebraska is 2-3 all-time against Alabama.
|Iowa State||Oct. 7|
|Kansas State||Oct. 14|
|Oklahoma State||Oct. 28|
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