Put on a red cowboy hat and a GO BIG RED button and come along now to watch the Nebraska Cornhuskers play football. Oh, it's some eye-popping scene out in the land of corn and cattle, with those crazy, loyal fans who gather on the campus in Lincoln wearing all sorts of red attire, from bow ties to shoes to underwear. When some 68,000 of them come together, as they did for last week's game with Kansas State, they turn gray Memorial Stadium into a crimson inferno. And in the middle of all this love and madness is the Big Red team, the Cornhuskers. They are unbeaten after 10 games and heading for the Orange Bowl, and now it is becoming apparent even outside Nebraska that they just might be the No. 1 team in the land.
Look what happened Saturday afternoon. Two of the teams ranked ahead of Nebraska—Ohio State and Notre Dame—struggled to 10-7 victories over the likes of Purdue and Georgia Tech. Meanwhile, on a cold and windy day in Lincoln, the Cornhuskers were, well, red-hot while whipping Kansas State and its fine quarterback, Lynn Dickey, 51-13. Afterward in the locker room Nebraska Coach Bob Devaney made himself clear when the press asked what he thought about the polls.
"Well, I know I'm going to vote for us," said Devaney, who fits right into Nebraska's color scheme with his jowly red face and thinning red hair. "I think we have as much right to be No. 1 as any team in the country. We've played some pretty good football teams and beaten them."
Then Devaney went home to wait for telephone calls from the bowls. The way the schedules worked out this season Nebraska was the first highly ranked team eligible under NCAA rules for a bowl invitation. Devaney and his players huddled on Sunday and talked over the situation, and after a vote by the seniors and all the starters it was announced that the Cornhuskers would play in the Orange Bowl. "It was the kids' choice," said Devaney. "I learned long ago that the worst thing a coach can do is take his team to a bowl the players don't want to be in."
The way Nebraska played against Kansas State it looked like a warmup for the Super Bowl. The defense, a spirited group that travels under the ominous name of Black Shirts—they wear black jerseys in practice—conceded the Wildcats' ground attack only 70 yards. They got some unexpected help from Kansas State's best runner, Mike Montgomery. After a disputed play in the second quarter Montgomery ran up to an official, gave him a forearm shot to the back that caused his cap to fall off and was promptly ejected. In their own behalf the Black Shirts intercepted seven passes off the right arm of Dickey, who is, of course, no worse than the second-best white-shoed quarterback in the world.
The Cornhusker offense was equally merciless. Its very first play from scrimmage was a tricky little counter that sprung Johnny Rodgers for 30 yards and a ridiculously easy touchdown. The Huskers did not let up until they had scored six more times. Tailback Joe Orduna, who ran for four touchdowns, might be slickest back in the Big Eight since Gale Sayers (they were graduated from the same Omaha high school, by the way), but what he really wants to be is an evangelist like Billy Graham. After the game Joe dressed quickly and took off for Schuyler, Neb., where he addressed a youth group. His topic? "Whatever the spirit of the Lord moves me to say," said Orduna, his eyes glowing earnestly.
Devaney is an evangelist of another calling. When he was hired at Nebraska eight years ago he harnessed the region's old-fashioned Americanism, dressed it up in red and put it in the stadium to cheer his teams. His success can be measured in several ways. The stadium's seating capacity has been enlarged by 34,000 seats, and still the demand for tickets is much greater than the supply. In Nebraska's Booster Club, among the country's largest, there is a plan for every pocket: one can cough up as little as $1 to get into the Extra Point Club or as much as $2,000 to qualify for Section 300 (whose members have seats in the plush new press box, with crowd noise piped in). There is even something called the Husker Beef Club, a collection of cattlemen who annually contribute some 200 prime steers for the Cornhuskers to devour at their training table. So devoted are the Nebraska fans that 15,000 went to Los Angeles to see the Huskers tie Southern California, the only blemish on their record. Kansas Coach Pepper Rodgers couldn't believe it when he saw how many followed Nebraska to Lawrence. "One of these days," he told Devaney, "I'd like to play you at home."
Ah, well, Devaney has always been a powerful preacher. Heading into this season he had won or shared five Big Eight titles, gone to six bowl games in eight seasons and achieved the highest winning percentage (.785) in the country. Until recently he did it mainly with big, slow teams that won by playing defense. Says Orduna: "I hated Nebraska with a passion. It was that three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust stuff all the time. I wanted to go to Southern Cal, but Nebraska was the only doggoned school that would have me."
Now, however, nobody has a more diversified, devastating attack. Orduna is one reason, Jeff Kinney another. They are so even at tailback that the only way Devaney could pick a starter before the season was to flip a coin. They have alternated every game since, and both rank among the Big Eight's top rushers. At fullback there is Dan Schneiss, who blocks with as much authority as he runs. And at quarterback is another tandem, Jerry Tagge and Van Brownson, both juniors. Last season Tagge broke the school record for total offense, but his roommate on the road, Brownson, beat him out of the starting assignment by the season's end.
"I guess it's like fighting for a girl," says Tagge. "It's fun, but we both would like to be No. 1."
"Yeah," says Brownson, a man with shaggy good looks, "except I would win the girl every time. On the field, it's different."
All of Nebraska's backs can run and pass. Schneiss threw a 17-yard touchdown pass against Southern Cal, and Orduna threw one for 14 yards against Minnesota. "It took a minute for the ball to come down," says Orduna, "but somehow Guy Ingles was there to catch it." Ingles, the split end, is one of Devaney's sleepers. He is only 5'9" and 158 pounds, and Devaney was the only major coach willing to gamble on him. Now he is the school's alltime pass receiver but only No. 2 on the team this year, behind Rodgers, the quick little sophomore who is expert at sweeping the ends and going out for the long ones. His early touchdown run against Kansas State, following Jerry Murtaugh's interception of Dickey's first pass, gave the Huskers instant momentum.
"It was a play we had put in especially for this game," said Rodgers. "I was so happy when I got into the end zone I wanted to do it again."
"With that field position I thought we could pop one right off," said Tagge, who earned the starting nod over Brownson and quarterbacked until victory was certain. "I just told Johnny Rodgers to take it and follow Bob Newton's block."
So give the offense its due, but the game really belonged to the Black Shirts. Tackle Dave Walline, the man who put Missouri's best runner, Joe Moore, out for the season, had a lot to do with stopping Kansas State's runners. With Nebraska leading 24-7 in the third quarter, another Black Shirt, Joe Blahak, intercepted on the Nebraska 17 and returned the ball to the State 30. Seven plays later Orduna scored. On the first play after the ensuing kickoff Blahak intercepted another pass, which he returned 21 yards to the State 12. This time it took all of three plays for Nebraska to score, Tagge passing to Schneiss. By now Kansas State's Purple Pride was a purple pulp, but the Black Shirts were not finished. Early in the fourth period John Adkins' fumble recovery led to another Orduna touchdown, and on the first play after the kickoff Monster Man Dave Morock intercepted and returned the ball 43 yards for a touchdown. At this point nobody would have been surprised to see Dickey take off his white shoes and wave them in surrender.
"The Black Shirts sure took care of ol' White Shoes, didn't they," said Bob Newton.
News of the Ohio State and Notre Dame scores touched off a lot of hugging and shouts of "We're No. 1" in the dressing room, and don't snicker, maybe they are. Right now the Cornhuskers look as powerful as Texas and as quick and well balanced as Notre Dame. If they do not get to the top this season, however, wait till next year. Only Murtaugh, Walline and Morock will be lost from the Black Shirts, you see, and down on the freshman team are plenty of athletes, including a fast-dealing quarterback from Las Vegas. Which means hold onto your red cowboy hat and your GO BIG RED button. They will be in style for a long, long time.