During the summer, when all was quiet and serene around Nebraska's football facilities, only one thing was written on the meeting room chalkboard: PENN STATE, SEPT. 25. Nothing more need be written. If the Cornhuskers come away from State College that day with a win over the Nittany Lions, they will have launched a serious run for their first national championship since 1971.
Whether Nebraska finishes No. 1 or No. 30 depends on one player: Quarterback Turner Gill. After the Huskers started off 1981 with a 1-2 record—their worst start in 23 years—Gill, a sophomore from Fort Worth, came off the bench and directed them to seven straight victories.
However, in the 10th game of the season, against Iowa State, Gill suffered what was thought to be a simple bruise on his right shin. It turned out to be complicated nerve damage, and it kept him out of the Orange Bowl game, where the Huskers lost to Clemson 22-15. He then began to develop "drop foot," a paralysis of a muscle in the ankle, and couldn't walk without a brace. He had to undergo two operations, but last spring he was back at quarterback, although he took no live hits.
"I'll be in there in the thick of things this fall," says Gill.
"Well, I guess I can't say for sure."
Nobody can. Gill still can't move his big toe, and there is numbness on the top of his foot. With him, oh my. Without him, oh dear. All Gill can do is pass ("I came here instead of Oklahoma because I have an arm and I want to use it") and run and think. Proof: In Gill's seven games the Cornhuskers averaged 35.2 points a game. He reads defenses as easily as Dick and Jane, and to those who snipe that he's a trifle slow Gill says, "I'm just fast enough to get the job done. No faster."
With Gill at the controls, the Husker offense could roll over all. Leading the charge up front is Center Dave Rimington, who last year, as a junior, won the Outland Trophy as the nation's best lineman. Former Colorado Coach Chuck Fairbanks says of Rimington, "He's the most dominating lineman I've seen in college since John Hannah." It's not just that Rimington is strong—he bench-presses 420 pounds—or that he has such good balance; he's also so quick that Coach Tom Osborne can use him as an extra pulling guard. Rimington's assignment on some Nebraska plays is to take out a linebacker—an outside linebacker.
Behind this center of attention are the latest brilliant running backs in a seemingly endless line of brilliant Nebraska running backs. Their names are Roger Craig and Mike Rozier, and they are as alike as two peas in a pod. Craig, with a tad more power, had a 94-yard TD run last year among his 1,060 rushing yards; Rozier, perhaps a little shiftier, had a 93-yard scoring run in there among his 943 yards. Rozier, who last year was fresh from Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College, where he had rushed for more than 1,100 yards, has made great progress in dealing with one of his shortcomings—not listening to his coaches. "We think we know it all," he says, "but we don't." Osborne hopes Craig will make progress in a more tangible area: holding onto the football. He fumbled the ball 13 times last season, and the opposition recovered eight of them. But almost all of those miscues came in the first seven games of '81, and by the end of the year Craig appeared to have gotten a grip on things.
The defensive secondary is iffy, five of last year's seven best players having departed. Secondary Coach Bob Thornton says this year's players are "good athletes," which is what any coach says when he has his fingers crossed. "We can't cover up for them," says Osborne, "so we'll just have to send them out there and see what happens."
Clearly, Nebraska's hopes ride on one player: Gill. Husker coaches and believers are whistling past the Big Eight graveyard when they say there are lots of good guys behind Gill. Truth be told, there is no quarterback on the roster who approaches Gill in ability. What's worse is that one potential replacement, Nate Mason, suffered a sprained ankle that developed calcium deposits. The other quarterbacks on the Husker roster are Bruce Mathison, a little-used senior, and Craig Sundberg, an untried sophomore. Osborne may have said more than he intended when he noted, "The odds are pretty good that some of your best players are going to be hurt some of the time. But we have three other quarterbacks besides Turner who can compete and possibly win in the Big Eight." Whatever you say, Coach.
Winning in the Big Eight, however, is only part of the loaf around Lincoln. The people are hungry for a national championship. Nebraska opens on Sept. 11 against Iowa, a game that the Huskers will probably win by something like 57-6, since it was the Hawkeyes who upset the Huskers last year. Then comes New Mexico State and then Sept. 25. At that point, the Nebraska season boils down to two words: Turner Gill.