It's not as if there's nothing in the state of Nebraska except football. You can go to a museum in Lincoln and see the fossil of the world's largest elephant. Or sit on a fence and wait for a pheasant to fly up. Or go to any town and applaud the changing traffic signal, booing when it gets stuck on yellow.
Or you can do some dull things. It's up to you. What happened, for those of you who slept through this in school, is that when God went to work creating Nebraska, He thought: "O.K., I keep giving other areas of this country mountains, beaches, stuff like that. Everywhere I look, beauty. I need a change." What resulted is a landscape of wall-to-wall dust. It's the perfect environment if you're a vacuum sweeper. To try to make up, God later gave Nebraska football.
Despite having to listen to all this verbal abuse and funning from snooty outsiders, Nebraska residents long have been able to gather themselves together and boast of the untold wonders of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers. Nobody could josh them on that. It is this understandable and justifiable love of Big Red football that made the fans nervous early this fall. For, sad to report, Nebraska is engaged in what coaches call a rebuilding year. That means stand by for losing. Nebraska coaches didn't say that but the panicky look in their eyes was clear as the season approached.
That's because 1974 was the last for the Huskers' alltime whizbang quarterback, Dave Humm; Don Westbrook, who scored 10 touchdowns; all the linebackers; both starting guards; both starting offensive tackles; and the guy who ushers in Section 14. That's a mess of folks to replace, even for Nebraska.
But people from Weeping Water to McCool Junction took heart, because they were promised this was a temporary malady that would be righted in 1976, mostly because of splendid freshmen enrolled this fall. Come next season, the word was, the Huskers would be plenty well enough to challenge for lots of things, including the national title.
Make no mistake. Even when Nebraska is rebuilding, it still has a talent overload, with more players who can play than nearly any other team in the country. The problem is that football is so much a state project and success in the endeavor so thirsted after that even nine wins out of 12 games, which is what happened in 1974, doesn't get raves. Nebraska doesn't want any old rung on the Top 10 ladder; it wants the highest.
So what has happened? At this point in the Year of the Rebuild, Nebraska is 8-0. And thinking about its chances for its first national championship since way back in 1971. Oldtimers will remember that year's Bob Devaney-coached team was voted the best in college football history. But this year's model isn't bad.
Nebraska reconfirmed its suspected wonders last Saturday when it thumped a good Missouri team in Columbia 30-7. "I'm afraid we bring out the best in Nebraska," moaned Missouri Coach Al Onofrio. The game turned on a number of flaming foul-ups involving kicking. Impressive, though, was how Nebraska went about its day's work in such a thoroughly professional—oops, excuse the term, Mr. Byers—manner.
"I thought we looked pretty good," said Coach Tom Osborne, in what amounts to an extravagant statement for him. Conversely, when he's beside himself with anger, he says, "Dad gum it." The significance of this win is that Nebraska will go into the Nov. 22 game against Oklahoma with a 10-0 record. Oh, sure, the Huskers must play Kansas State this week and Iowa State the next, but the question is not whether Nebraska will win but whether its players need bother wearing helmets.
"This team," says Osborne, "wants to win more than any team I've had. Of course, wanting to and doing it are quite different." Against Missouri, Nebraska paired these ingredients.
Missouri's Tigers should have sensed it was going to be rugged when they were penalized on their first play for delay of the game. By the end of the first quarter the Huskers had taken charge with a routine field goal and a five-yard touchdown pass from Quarterback Vince Ferragamo to Brad Jenkins set up by a blocked punt. That happened when Nebraska Defensive End Ray Phillips rolled in unmolested and unnoticed to foil the kick with his right hand. "I was the surprised one," said Phillips.
Missouri got a second-quarter touchdown from its injured star, Tailback Tony Galbreath, on a drive helped by a pass-interference call. And on the Nebraska sidelines, Osborne didn't like much of anything he was seeing.
So on a fourth-down play late in the half, in an effort to regain momentum, he ordered a fake punt. Missouri was in a fake-punt defense, but not a defense for this fake punt. The ball was centered to Fullback Tony Davis instead of to the kicker, Randy Lessman. Davis, close behind his partner in this hoax, John O'Leary, handed the ball through O'Leary's legs to John, who never turned around. Then Davis spun as if to hand off on a reverse to Running Back Monte Anthony going around the right side. Meanwhile, O'Leary stood there, doubled over as if ready to block, hiding his secret. With all the commotion to the right, O'Leary swept left alone for 40 yards and the score, while Missouri defenders were reduced to asking people on the sidelines what had happened. What had happened is that the score had become 16-7.
In the second half Ferragamo threw his second and third touchdown passes of the day, both to Bobby Thomas. One went for 37 yards after Missouri dropped a punt, and the other for 61 yards shortly after Missouri was judged guilty of holding on a kick that would have given the Tigers the ball. All of which sent Linebacker Jim Wightman to chortling on the Husker bench, "We still ain't played nobody yet."
Thus far, Osborne has in abundance those two precious qualities that coaches wish would come out in pill form, luck and ability. Example: Osborne was counting heavily this year on Defensive Tackle Ron Pruitt. Pruitt broke his ankle. Out from behind a blocking dummy stepped Jerry Wied, who spelled his name for the coaching staff and promptly set about playing brilliantly. Example: the new linebackers quickly caught on to what this game is all about, although this still may be Nebraska's one soft spot.
Best of all, Osborne has managed to juggle two quarterbacks, both of whom view themselves as clearly the better. First there is Terry Luck, a talented thrower from Fayetteville, N.C. He of the oft-hurt knee is this year's team co-captain and it was he who directed the Huskers' Sugar Bowl win last year. The other is Ferragamo, a lasagna-loving passer who showed up in Lincoln saying he didn't like all that hippie junk at California where he had been playing. He yearned, he said, to play where fans liked football. Nebraska came to mind, sort of like come Dec. 25, Christmas does. Osborne (he has a doctorate; the university's president does not) takes the simple approach: the one who plays better gets to start the next game. But if one falters, the coach is quick to make a switch. Both quarterbacks want to play more; both think Osborne is fair. That's Osborne you see up there on the tightrope.
Osborne even can contend with his free spirit, Fullback Tony Davis, star player in Nebraska's past two bowl games. Last year the coach conned Davis into thinking it would be fun to block more and carry the ball less. Now Osborne has Davis saying he even likes to block. To get ready for his assignment, Davis says, "I don't brush my teeth the day of the game so I'll be as nasty as possible."
This is Osborne's third year at Nebraska, and it's certainly not as if he has been a failure since taking over after the fabled and successful 11 years of Devaney. But his problem is twofold: he has not yet won the Big Eight and, perhaps worse, Nebraska has developed this alarming habit of losing to Oklahoma and, heaven forbid, Missouri. Blowing Missouri out of the tub Saturday took care of some of Osborne's trouble.
The game was disappointing for Missouri, since the Tigers opened the season with an impressive win over Alabama in Birmingham. But Don Faurot, 73, who for 28 years was a college football coach (19 at Missouri), was candid: "Against Alabama, we played a little better than we could."
As for Onofrio, he doesn't plan to change everything just because Nebraska gave his team a licking. He will still, for example, give each of his players a 22-ounce porterhouse steak on the eve of Saturday's game against Iowa State, along with string beans, potato, two scoops of ice cream, two rolls, two glasses of milk, two burps, and to bed. And he'll read a bit more intensively in a thick book he has been lugging around of late, Law of Success.
Osborne won't change, either. He'll keep saying he looks ahead only to the next game while he's looking ahead three to Oklahoma. He'll follow his theory that a good football team must avoid emotional peaks and valleys. In fact, Osborne's idea of a gripping speech to his players is, "We're better than they are. Now go out there and shove it down their throats."
After the game Osborne and his wife Nancy enjoyed a quiet dinner out. "When do you celebrate?" she asked. "Well, I celebrate when I start walking off the field after the game," he answered. "And by the time I get to the locker room I'm done."
And what about 1976, the season Nebraska is now rebuilding for? Osborne says, "There's a chance we'll be pretty good." Which is like saying there's a chance you'll need an overcoat in Lincoln this winter. But Osborne's observation means the people in Weeping Water and McCool Junction can smile again. And the rest of the Big Eight can shudder and fight off the cold chills.