There's a sign in one of the University of Nebraska football offices that reads: I KNOW I'M SOMEBODY 'CAUSE GOD DON'T MAKE NO JUNK. Yet for most of a chaotic Saturday night in the Orange Bowl in Miami it seemed that God had made a whole lot of junk, lumped it together, painted it red and white and called it the Nebraska football team.
All the Huskers did against LSU was fumble four times (and fail to recover any of them); see their quarterback, Turner Gill, who had only three interceptions all year, throw two passes to guys in purple and gold jerseys; try a fake punt and mess it up; try a fake field goal and mess it up; and generally watch their best-in-the-nation offense, which had averaged 41.1 points a game, go clunk in the night.
Oh yes, Nebraska won 21-20. But even Husker Coach Tom Osborne confessed afterward, "Any time you have six turnovers against a good football team, you have to expect you're going to get beat." Thus, while the Huskers richly deserved to lose, in the end their courage and tenacity carried them to victory and a 12-1 record.
By playing so poorly but winning, Nebraska may have demonstrated in a perverse way how good it really is. In fact, one afternoon several days before the game, LSU Coach Jerry Stovall was riding toward the Orange Bowl, and when it came into view, he said, with enthusiasm, "We're going to whip 'em." When a companion asked how, Stovall said, with considerably less élan, "I don't have the foggiest idea." As it turned out, the Huskers' ineptitude would be Stovall's ticket. And after the game, in the shadows of the proud bowl, Stovall lamented, correctly, "We aren't as good as they are, but we should have beaten them."
While the game turned out to be exciting at the finish, the quality of play wasn't very high, which was fitting because it just wasn't Miami's week. Civil disturbances erupted in the slum of Overtown, less than two miles from the Orange Bowl, following the fatal shooting, by a policeman, on Dec. 28 of a black youth in a video arcade, and the unrest undoubtedly contributed to an attendance of only 54,407, the smallest crowd since the 1947 Orange Bowl. No-shows totaled 14,306 on a perfect night, with temperatures in the high 70s. Too, the matchup of Nebraska, which had blown its national championship hopes by losing to Penn State, and LSU, which had been beaten by mediocre Tulane and Mississippi State, didn't generate much excitement. Even Nebraska fans, who normally would travel across the Alps on elephants to see their team, bought only about 10,000 of the 12,500 allotted Orange Bowl tickets. In fairness, earlier in the month a number of the Husker faithful had popped their financial corks traveling with the team to Honolulu for a game against Hawaii. Stovall had the most succinct answer to the question of this game's significance: "We'll be playing for a good deal of pride and for the same reason we all play football—the fun of it."
The game started just as she had been drawn on the chalkboard. LSU received, ran three futile plays and kicked. Nebraska then went 51 yards in six plays with nary a uniform being dirtied, the drive concluding when Fullback Mark Schellen crashed five yards for the score.
LSU moved the ball fitfully thereafter, finally scoring on a 35-yard field goal by Juan Betanzos, but the Tigers promptly gave back the points when they were awarded a first down on the Husker nine after Nebraska was penalized for roughing the holder. Two plays later, LSU Quarterback Alan Risher threw an interception, and the Tigers had no points instead of three.
But on the very next play, Mike Rozier, the Huskers' brilliant junior running back, fumbled, and within three minutes LSU's sensational freshman, Dalton Hilliard, ran in from the one to tie the game 7-7. Early in the second quarter, Nebraska Wingback Irving Fryar, the fastest Husker and one of the most dependable, inexplicably fumbled while returning a punt. LSU got it on the Nebraska 45, and nine plays later Hilliard again scored from a yard out.
Midway in the third quarter, Nebraska fumbled yet again, and Betanzos drilled a 28-yard field goal to make it 17-7. Suddenly LSU was on the verge of routing the Huskers; just as suddenly Nebraska turned steely. Gill, a junior who is the difference between Nebraska's being good and terrific, marched his team down the field. Rozier scored from 11 yards on a swing out that LSU had no chance of stopping; in fact, the Tiger defenders didn't seem to have so much as a clue as to where Rozier was. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Huskers struck again, thanks mainly to a 29-yard reception by Fryar. Gill blasted it in from the one to put Nebraska up 21-17.
But LSU Linebacker Lawrence Williams intercepted another Gill pass, and with 5:05 left Betanzos kicked a 49-yarder. Nebraska 21, LSU 20.
The night's most significant play came with 1:23 left and the Huskers facing a third and eight on the LSU 37. If they hadn't made it, the Tigers would have gotten the ball and might have been able to move into position for Betanzos to boot a field goal for an LSU victory. But Gill called Weak Left 79, 9 Delay, Flare Right. Fryar slanted in and then cut toward the right sideline, and Gill hit him. First down on the 24. "I didn't even know it was third down," Fryar said. "But I do know that when the ball is in the air, it's mine."
Still, while the ball belonged to Fryar and the game to Nebraska, LSU wasn't too upset. After all, in 1981 the Tigers were 3-7-1, their worst record in 25 years, and Stovall seemed to be on the way out. Thanks to Risher (who ended his career with 22 school records, some of which had been held by Bert Jones and Y.A. Tittle), the Tiger Tykes (Hilliard, who caught passes for 82 yards, and another freshman star who was troubled Saturday by a hamstring, Tailback Garry James) and few injuries (20 of 22 starters started all 12 games), LSU's 1982 souvenirs included an 8-3-1 record and a 20-10 thrashing of Alabama. And its near miss in Miami. Which isn't too shabby.
Meanwhile, Nebraska's Outland-and Lombardi trophy-winning Center Dave Rimington was admitting he hadn't had an award-winning night. "I've heard all these people tell me how good I am," he said. "Then people expect me to be as good as they said I was. And I'm not." He is, of course, plenty good enough, just like the Huskers, who proved that one man's junk is another man's treasure.