It was a Saturday for troublemakers, one of those fierce fall afternoons when the coaches of college football's top-ranked teams wish the world would go away and leave them to dot their T's and cross their T's. But instead the world had turned out in enormous numbers to witness their trials: 85,000 in Columbus, where Ohio State reduced No. 1 Purdue to No. 0 on the scoreboard (page 52); 81,000 at Stanford, where No. 2 USC and its O. J. Simpson were tormented to distraction before escaping by a dram of Orange Juice; and 67,000 at Nebraska (the largest crowd in Big Eight Conference history), where the most distracting and surprising troublemaker of them all was on display, the Kansas team of Pepper Rodgers.
Startled coaches throughout the Big Eight have come to know—and agonize over—Franklin Cullen Rodgers of Kansas University as an unmitigated, foursquare, upstart Apostle of the Unexpected. Why, he might lead his team onto the field with a brisk 37-year-old's version of a double somersault. He might pass on fourth and one at the 10-yard line. He might pull out his miniature chessboard without warning and challenge the nearest stranger to a game. And now, although there is no sure route through the trackless terrain of the unexpected, he just might—in his sophomore year as a head coach—have turned one of the Midwest's doormats into a conference champion and a national power.
At the very least, Rodgers and his men took a solid step in that direction on Saturday. In a rugged showdown with a typically formidable Nebraska team, KU's once-hapless Jayhawks took wing in a high-flying fourth quarter that gave them a 23-13 victory of considerable significance.
The game was the Big Eight opener for both teams, and both went into it boasting 3-0 records and a ranking in the Top 10. To Kansas' credit, the battle was met and won in Nebraska's notorious madhouse-red Memorial Stadium. Except for a teaspoonful of 5,500 brave, blue-blazered Jayhawk fans, the vast bowl overflowed with red wind-breakers, red Stetsons, red berets, red feathers, red boots, red ponchos and a distinctly blood-colored demand for revenge—last year Rodgers had gotten his maiden victory as a head coach by beating the Cornhuskers 10-0.
October 20, 1968
This year, given a dismal pregame drizzle and the seriousness of the situation, there was no somersaulting onto the field by Rodgers. "I may do the unexpected, but I do not do the suicidal," he said. "No sane man turns somersaults in the face of that many enemies."
Not entirely unexpectedly, Kansas was a slight favorite. This largely was due to the preposterous scores it had run up against Illinois (47-7), Indiana (38-20) and New Mexico (68-7), and while the Jayhawk offense had averaged 51 points a game, Nebraska had totaled only 61 in defeating Wyoming, Utah and Minnesota. But in the course of its success, Kansas had not faced a really strong opponent and some of the team's more stimulating statistics—such as an average of 6.5 yards over each of 213 offensive plays—were not likely to be repeated against the kind of defense that Nebraska Coach Bob Devaney insists upon.
Nevertheless, Rodgers is considered by many to be something of an offensive guru—last winter Texas' own bright young man, Darrell Royal, spent a week in the study and meditation of offense with Pepper—and he has constructed an impressive attack at Kansas, where a 5-5 record so startled the Big Eight in 1967 that it named him Coach of the Year.
Rodgers' most brilliant move has been the resurrection of Quarterback Bobby Douglass, a left-handed howitzer who fires the ball so hard he once split a six-stitch cut in a receiver's palm. After a dismal sophomore season Douglass responded brilliantly to Rodgers' tutoring. He became the Big Eight's Back of the Year in '67 and in his first three games this fall he completed four touchdown passes, scored four himself, and had pro scouts calling him the best prospect among the college quarterbacks.
Rodgers' mastery in the craft of quarterbacking is well known: he was a good quarterback himself at Georgia Tech 15 years ago and his work as backfield coach at Florida and UCLA was a major reason behind the Heisman Trophy successes of Steve Spurrier and Gary Beban.
But good as Douglass is, the Kansas offense does not move by quarterbacking alone, and Rodgers has plenty of runners, the most distinguished of them being Tailback Donnie Shanklin, a 5'9", 168-pound sprinter who had a 16.7-yard average in 17 carries, and a 19-year-old sophomore fullback, John Riggins. It was a lot of offense to hold in check, even for a Devaney team.
In the first quarter Kansas looked unstoppable as Douglass, Shanklin, Riggins & Co. did just about everything well. They scampered, plunged, passed and generally gained yardage almost at will as they rolled up seven first downs to the Cornhuskers' one. They failed in only one tiny detail: they did not score any points. Nebraska opponents have seen that happen to them before.
The Kansas offense was not completely to blame for this. At one point it was poised on Nebraska's 10 with fourth and a yard to go. You can bet that seven other Big Eight coaches would have gone for a field goal or at least run a power play to try for the first down. But not Pepper the Unexpectable. He calls every play from the sidelines, because, as he puts it, "It is better for team morale. If a boy thinks he isn't carrying enough, he gets mad at me, not at the quarterback."
This time Rodgers called a gambling roll-out pass. It flopped, and so did the Jayhawks for the rest of the half. On the other hand, Nebraska took heart. Early in the second quarter the Cornhuskers made three quick first downs, thanks to slashing rushes by Halfback Joe Orduna, a quick, well-balanced runner who got 98 yards in 21 carries for the day, and Fullback Dick Davis. Yet Nebraska could not score either until it got a break. With less than five minutes left in the half Shanklin, a gifted punt returner who has averaged 28.7 yards per runback, fumbled a kick on the Jayhawks' 28. Orduna recovered. On the next play Orduna hit the right side of the line, made an ad lib cutback across the middle and set out on a graceful, high-horsepower touchdown run. Nebraska missed the extra point, but a barrage of red balloons rose from the stadium like spatters of blood against the overcast, and the Jayhawks were little more than walking wounded for the moment.
For all his pregame somersaults and his enthusiasm for surprise, Pepper Rodgers is no devotee of slogans, sobs and heart-string tugging in the dressing room. Like many a genial Georgia boy who masks a will of steel and a spine of ice with an easygoing drawl and a comfortable wit, he believes that cold basics are the foundation for success. During the half he made no major changes in strategy, nor did he launch into any histrionics. "Good football is good preparation," he says. "If I had to make a lot of significant alterations in one 15-minute halftime, then our practices all season were wasted. I believe in proper execution, and you don't get that at half-time. I don't go for heat 'em up talks or signs either. My old coach at Tech, Bobby Dodd, used to say, 'If you send teams on the field with tears in their eyes, they can't see who to block.' And when I was with Tommy Prothro at UCLA I learned that gimmicks don't work in football—like they don't work in chess. Tommy and I played a lot of chess. I'd try the big play approach with him sometimes and sometimes I'd win. But not very often. He just played a patient—but not a predictable—game of chess and he'd tell me, 'Just remember it's best to win the sure way.' "
After their unsure performance in the second quarter, the Jayhawks seemed sharper in the second half. They blocked a Nebraska field-goal attempt after the kickoff, took the ball briefly and gave it up when Bill Bell punted 50 yards to Nebraska's one. Devaney then called his own version of the unexpected. At fourth and four on the Nebraska six he had Quarterback Ernie Sigler take the ball from center and stroll into the end zone for a deliberate safety.
"The score was 6-0," he explained, "and I figured a six-point lead was not much better than four, and with a guy as quick as Shanklin in the game, I wanted to kick the ball to him farther down-field than we could from behind the goal line."
Sure enough, Kansas did nothing after the free kick, but a couple of minutes later Nebraska's Dick Davis fumbled a pitchout from Sigler on his own 19, tried to pick it up and had it scooped out from under his hands by Kansas Linebacker Emery Hicks. Shanklin, John Riggins and Douglass took it from there to the one, and Shanklin hurdled in for the touchdown. The extra point made it 9-6 Kansas—the Jayhawks' first lead of the game.
It did not last long. Early in the fourth quarter Nebraska churned out a typical Cornhusker drive, slow and steady, using 10 plays to cover 48 yards before Orduna went over from the one. So now, with 9:58 to go in the game and trailing 13-9, Pepper Rodgers' 1968 Jayhawks faced a hitherto unknown (if not entirely unexpected) crisis: their 51-point-a-game offense was looking suspect, and the proof of their past—as well as their future—lay in how well Douglass could attack that Nebraska defense.
No chess master could have asked for more. Starting on their own 27 after the kickoff, the Jayhawks methodically, precisely and confidently fought their way up field. Douglass looked like a Starr as well as a star. He used 13 plays—all solid, none particularly spectacular—to reach Nebraska's one, then took it in himself with 4:09 left. The Kansas defense, anchored by Linebackers Hicks, Mickey Doyle and Pat Hutchens (who weighs 167 pounds), then smothered Nebraska inside its own 30, and after a last-hope, fourth-down charge by Orduna was stopped on the Cornhusker 26, Quarterback Douglass rambled 10 yards around left end for a final touchdown that made it 23-13.
Later, in the steaming locker room under Memorial Stadium, a delighted Pepper Rodgers seemed scarcely surprised at what his team had wrought. "They were all just magnificent," he said. Yes, Pepper, but what about the unexpected? What about that cool, methodical drive for the key touchdown? Where were the surprises? "Well, it's a matter of patterns," he said. "Eventually the pattern of the unexpected really becomes the expected because you do it so consistently. Then, of course, when you switch to the expected, it becomes the unexpected. Do you follow me?"
Some may agree with the logic and some may not. But it's safe to assume that Jayhawk fans will follow Pepper Rodgers wherever he chooses to lead this season. The Apostle of the Unexpected has given rise to great expectations in Kansas.