Staking A Claim To Best Ever

Nebraska of '83, led by Mike Rozier (above), has the stuff to transcend Notre Dame of '24, Army of '44 and the rest
October 09, 1983

When Nebraska beat Syracuse 63-7 last Saturday in Lincoln for its fifth victory of ridiculous proportions in five games this season—the Corn-huskers have outscored their opponents 289-56—the significance was not that the Huskers proved conclusively that they are a marvelous team, although they are. And not that they will finish 13-0, although they will. And not that they will be national champions, although that is so. And not, as LSU Coach Jerry Stovall says, that Nebraska's first team should be No. 1 in the polls and the second team No. 2 with everyone else fighting for third, although that's true, too. No, the significance was that the win provided more evidence that the Huskers are—pause, please, for drum roll—the greatest college football team in history.

Indeed, what has happened is that Nebraska has lapped the field. It appears that no team is worthy of even sharing the same artificial turf with the Huskers. Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne—soft-spoken, low-key, always cautious, forever understated—allows himself a small smile when asked if this might be the greatest team ever. "Could be," he says, in what amounts to a perfectly outrageous statement for him. Monster Back Kevin Biggers is less restrained. "We're way beyond good," he says. "We're great, the greatest ever."

Biggers has support from, among others, Nebraska Athletic Director Bob Devaney, who coached the 1971 Huskers, a team considered by many observers to be the best collegiate squad ever. That outfit went 13-0, thanks in no small part to the exploits of 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers and to a 35-31 defeat of second-ranked Oklahoma in what almost everyone agrees was the Game of the Century. "This team," says Devaney of the '83 Cornhuskers, "is the finest ever offensively, but so far it's a little hard to evaluate them defensively." To help evaluate: The Huskers, while leading the nation in scoring (57.8 points a game), total offense (585.8 yards a game) and rushing (420.4 yards), are giving up an average of only 11.2 points. On Friday night former Syracuse Coach Ben Schwartzwalder confided to Devaney, "I think this is the greatest team ever." And Rodgers, now publisher of a cable magazine in San Diego, says flatly, "They're a much better team than ours was."

While Devaney concedes that trying to determine the best team in history is "like comparing Jack Dempsey with Joe Louis," numbers offer some help. For example, Nebraska Strength Coach Boyd Epley says that Husker players a decade ago weighed an average of 198.9 pounds; today, 216.02. Ten years ago they bench-pressed an average of 219.42 pounds; today, 302.24.

Of course, there are many ways of measuring greatness, and thus many contenders for best-of-all-time. Clearly, the 1901 point-a-minute Michigan squad that shut out every opponent, including Stanford in the Rose Bowl, was a truly great team. The 1924 Notre Dame bunch featuring the Four Horsemen was another. In 1932 Southern Cal went 10-0 and allowed only 13 points. And how about Army in '44 with Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis? Tom Harmon, winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1940, thinks the best ever was the '47 Michigan team that had "the damndest group of talent I've ever seen." But these are old teams from old days, and however fondly we remember them, they don't compare in any way with Nebraska '83.

More recently, the 1956 Oklahoma gang coached by Bud Wilkinson and led by Tommy McDonald was terrific by any measure. So was Alabama's 1966 team, which had Ken Stabler at quarterback. And doesn't the '69 Texas team with that funny-looking but deadly wishbone offense belong in there somewhere? And don't forget Tony Dorsett's 1976 Pitt Panthers. Glorious teams all, but, again, not one of them should be mentioned in the same breath with the '83 Huskers.

For openers, Nebraska has three certified Heisman candidates, I-Back Mike Rozier. Quarterback Turner Gill and Wingback Irving Fryar. Guard Dean Steinkuhler would be a fourth candidate if Heisman voters could be educated to cast their ballots for someone besides a back. But because they can't, the 6'3", 270-pound Steinkuhler, whose 4.67 in the 40 makes him as fast as a lot of backs, will have to settle for winning the Out-land and Lombardi awards, which go to the nation's best linemen. Steinkuhler makes trap blocking an art form, and whether he's pulling or exploding straight ahead, his blocking looks—and feels—different.

The Nebraska players have determined among themselves that they'll talk up Rozier for the Heisman. Fine. He's as good a choice as any. Says Steinkuhler, "If there's a hole, he hits it. If there's not a hole, he makes it." Last year, as a junior, Rozier rushed for a school-record 1,689 yards, breaking the 32-year-old mark of 1,342 yards set by Bobby Reynolds. Rozier ranks second in the nation this season in rushing with an average of 151.8 yards, and he's playing only 50% to 60% of the time because of the routs. "Some people," says Rozier, "have talent and waste it. I have talent and I use it." Oh, yes, and amen.

He makes all the flashy runs big backs should and has all the moves. For example, in the Huskers' 42-10 defeat of UCLA a fortnight ago, Rozier raced around the left side, collided with a Bruin defender, turned, ran back across the field, was hit three more times and still wound up in the end zone. Rozier looked as if he had swallowed a mouse. Against Syracuse, Nebraska's first touchdown came when he bolted around left end for 37 yards. No defenders were anywhere close, but several later reported seeing a blur.

Rozier will win the Heisman because of the kind of effort and talent he displayed on three third-quarter runs against the Orangemen. With 13:19 left in the quarter, Syracuse stopped him at the line of scrimmage, whereupon he bulled, dove, fought, scratched and clawed for six yards—six Heisman yards. With 10:05 to go, Rozier took a pitch and battered his way for eight Heisman yards on a play that should have produced no gain. And with 7:29 remaining on a fourth-and-one situation, he again was hit immediately but lowered his head and picked up four more Heisman yards and a first down. It's on the short runs that great backs prove their worth.

Sitting around in his apartment the other evening, considering the Heisman, Rozier suggested, "If I win it I think we should split it three ways. I should get the legs, Turner should get the head, and Irving should get the arms." That would be equitable. For Gill, who ran for three touchdowns Saturday, is as heady as any college quarterback in the country. A starter last season at shortstop for the Husker baseball team who passed up a $90,000 signing bonus with the Chicago White Sox coming out of high school, Gill runs the option just the way coaches draw it on the blackboards. However, if a team chooses to shut down the option, he'll throw to Fryar or someone else. Pick your poison. "I don't know how good we are," says Gill, "but we can beat anyone in the country."

Fryar thinks so, too. "I'd say by the end of the season we'll probably be the greatest," he says. "Our destiny is in our own hands." All Fryar does is run, catch, return punts and block furiously. An admiring Rodgers says of Fryar, "He does everything I did, plus he's bigger [6 feet, 200 pounds vs. 5'9", 173]." Husker followers think Johnny R hung the moon over Nebraska, but now, in sober moments, many are confessing that Fryar may be better. According to Epley, Fryar is the best athlete on the team, and his 4.23 speed makes him the fastest Cornhusker ever. Most of all, Fryar provides the deep-strike element in the Husker offense. He has caught 16 passes this season for a 25.9-yard average. Against Syracuse, however, he played only a few minutes before having to sit down with a minor concussion.

Says Gill, "We know what we're doing. We have three great people in the backfield, and if we do a half-decent job, the other guys will do the rest." That statement ignores Fullback Mark Schellen, who has bench-pressed a team-record 475 pounds and runs a smoldering 4.31. That's 4.31 around people or over people. He makes no distinction. He knows he's not a star in a backfield with a star overload. "I play harder trying to keep up with the other guys," says Schellen, who's a walk-on.

In addition to Steinkuhler, the starters on the offensive line are Guard Harry Grimminger, who tries to be the nastiest, orneriest, meanest guy in the valley and once went three weeks without showering; tackles John Sherlock, who overstudied his playbook and got so hopelessly confused it was taken away from him, and Scott Raridon; and Center Mark Traynowicz. Says Line Coach Milt Tenopir, "People ask how we could replace [1981 and '82 Outland winner] Dave Rimington at center. We did it." To watch these five play is to view excellence. They perform with mayhem in their hearts and love of the game in their souls, and it shows. Says Wyoming Coach Al Kincaid, "When I say this is the greatest offensive team I've ever seen, I mean it's in a class by itself. I have never seen a college offensive line with the strength, speed and pure athletic ability of Nebraska's."

More bad news for opponents who doubt the Huskers' greatness is that the second team is nearly the equal of the first. "They're like clones," says Syracuse Athletic Director Jake Crouthamel. "They all look the same, and they all play the same." Which is to say they play like there's no tomorrow. On Saturday, Nebraska dressed 103 players, and all but eight saw action. And we're not talking ragtag. Example: In the third quarter, third-team Quarterback Craig Sundberg threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to fourth-string Tight End Brian Hiemer, and in the fourth quarter he took his team 45 yards to another score.

Defensively the Huskers don't have stars, simply players. They lack experience—only four of this year's starters were first-teamers in 1982—but Tackle Rob Stuckey, one of the four returners, says, "We make up for what we don't know by hitting hard." The defense has been unfairly maligned for giving up 312.8 yards per game. But that's a case in which numbers have little meaning. Look at the opposing team's points on the scoreboard. "Playing defense doesn't demand a lot of skill, just a lot of desire," says Stuckey. Then he ponders the greatest-team-ever question. "We hear that stuff," says Stuckey. "But I'm playing on the team, so that means it can't be the greatest ever."

Give Stuckey credit for modesty if nothing else. A team would be lucky to land a Rozier, a Gill, a Fryar or a Steinkuhler once in a decade. To have four such performers on a single squad is downright unfair. Then, Nebraska remains one of the few places where all the little boys grow up dying to play for State U. Defensive End Scott Strasburger of Holdredge turned down financial aid at Dartmouth to pay his own way to Nebraska as a walk-on. Indeed, of the Huskers' top 44 players, 15 are walk-ons. "Nebraska has made it an honor to be a walk-on," says UCLA Offensive Coordinator Homer Smith. "It's like getting a scholarship somewhere else."

Consider the Nebraska tradition. Devaney took the Huskers from oblivion to glory—and their two national championships, in 1970 and '71—and then his longtime assistant, Osborne, continued the march, but not without some glitches. After taking over in '73, Osborne lost eight of his first nine games against Oklahoma. He now is enjoying a two-game winning streak over the Sooners. The Oklahoma defeats bugged him enormously, and after the '78 season he even considered becoming coach at Colorado. But he stayed on at Lincoln and, make no mistake, the fans deeply appreciate both Osborne and football. They dress in red, but they contribute green—legally and freely. Saturday was the 127th straight sellout at Memorial Stadium.

Oddly, all these runaway wins have a down side. ABC wants to showcase the Huskers, but it's understandably reluctant to televise a blowout. The most unpleasant sound a network executive can hear is sets being clicked off. ABC has the unhappy prospect of airing Nebraska vs. Oklahoma State, Missouri, Colorado, Kansas State, Iowa State or Kansas, the Huskers' opponents before they face Oklahoma in the Nov. 26 season finale. CBS will broadcast the Sooner game.

Osborne, too, has problems. After the Cornhuskers defeated Minnesota 84-13 three weeks ago, he said, "Those 84 points were bordering on obscenity. I know that." But what's he to do? When the reserves play, Osborne can't very well tell them to go in and flub up. At the end of the UCLA game he had Sundberg kneel with the ball on the Bruin two-yard line rather than score another touchdown. Some observers thought that gesture showed up UCLA. On Saturday some Syracuse people were grumbling about Nebraska running up the score, but that wasn't the case. In fact, three times Osborne refused to kick a field goal—which he would have done in any reasonably close game—and ran a play instead. It just so happened that on all three occasions, the Huskers ran the ball in for scores. Nine of Nebraska's first 11 possessions ended in touchdowns. "All it would take to beat Nebraska is another Nebraska," says UCLA Defensive Tackle Jeff Chaffin.

Unfortunately, on Saturday only one Nebraska was on the field, and it was one too many for Syracuse. The Orangemen could have lined up Jim Brown, Larry Csonka, Jim Nance, Floyd Little, Ernie Davis, Joe Morris, Bill Hurley, Jim Ringo, Walt Sweeney and a few of their friends and still most likely would have lost 63-7. "We're supposed to attack their weaknesses," said Syracuse Quarterback Todd Norley before the game. "We haven't found any yet." And, of course, they never did.

That's the point. Nebraska is the college equivalent of the 17-0 Miami Dolphins in 1972. Some contend that the season must be completed before the Cornhuskers are officially anointed as great, and that years must pass before they can vie for greatest-ever honors. Why? Says Minnesota Tight End Jay Carroll of the Cornhuskers, "They won't always be this good." True. However, five days before the Syracuse rout, the Nebraska freshmen beat the William Jewell junior varsity 71-7.

PHOTO TWO PHOTOSGill (above) directs an attack that simply overwhelms opponents and gives subs like Bob Kingston (37) plenty of playing time.
PHOTOAgainst Syracuse, Rozier, who ranks second in the nation in rushing, high-stepped his way to 142 yards on 19 carries and scored two TDs. THREE PHOTOSNebraska offensive linemen Traynowicz (upper left), Sherlock (left) and Raridon are about as intimidating as they come... PHOTO...but Steinkuhler is a hot candidate for the Outland Trophy. PHOTORozier (left) and Fryar are two reasons Nebraska has more than a toehold on greatness.
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