In front of more than 71,000 in attendance at the Rose Bowl and a national television audience on CBS, the No. 1-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers had no problem disposing of the eighth-ranked UCLA Bruins, 42-3 on September 22nd, 1984.
Nebraska came into the contest after convincing wins over Wyoming (42-7) and Minnesota (38-7), while UCLA had close calls against San Diego State (18-15) and California State-Long Beach (23-17).
No one, including the Cornhuskers themselves, expected a score similar to their first two wins.
Nebraska Sports Illustrated cover after win over UCLA
“Going out there, we felt that this game was going to be our first true test. It was a measuring stick to see where we were at early in the season,” said NU quarterback Craig Sundberg. “I think we were all pretty surprised that they weren’t a better team than that. We played a good game and executed well, but I don’t think they came to play. It was a home game for them, nationally televised in the Rose Bowl, so we didn’t expect to beat them team 42-3.”
The Huskers were making their first Rose Bowl appearance in 44 seasons, but were not intimidated by the crowd or the aura of the famous stadium.
“It wasn’t an intimidation factor playing there, but more an excitement of playing out there on the road. It was a cool place to play, it was the nicest field surface (natural grass) I’ve ever played on and it was in immaculate condition. It was the only game I remember playing out in California since I was at Nebraska. It was a gorgeous day, 80 degrees and sunny,” Sundberg said.
Nebraska’s offense featured another potent rushing attack, headed by I-back Jeff Smith. The offensive line had fifth-year seniors Mark Traynowicz, Harry Grimminger, Greg Orton, Mark Behning and junior Tom Morrow.
“Our offensive line was so great, we would run until they would stop it and then try something else like a misdirection play, which I scored on,” said wingback Shane Swanson, who led NU in receiving with three catches for 33 yards.
But the ’84 Nebraska squad didn’t have the “name” players of the year before, when Mike Rozier, Irving Fryar and Turner Gill formed the “Scoring Explosion.”
“Our team was a blue-collar type team, no nationally known type players, a lot of Nebraska walk-ons and home-grown kids,” Swanson said.
So it was fitting that the offensive line was named the offensive player of the game, as they paved the way for 364 yards on 62 rushing attempts. Smith ran for 123 yards on 20 carries until an ankle injury forced him to miss the entire second half. But fellow I-back Doug DuBose came in and rushed for 104 yards on just eight carries, highlighted by a 64-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
Swanson also rushed for a touchdown, on a wingback counter reverse.
“It was pretty smooth sailing...the split end and I-back were blocking downfield for me...I didn’t have to break any tackles,” Swanson said.
On the defensive side, NU had pretty much smooth sailing to the quarterback.
“We had a lot of success rushing the pass, and had a lot of sacks and hurries,” defensive end Bill Weber said.
Weber, the CBS co-player-of-the-game, led a Blackshirt defense that had eight sacks and limited the Bruins to 41 yards rushing and 165 yards through the air.
But to give the Bruins some benefit of the doubt, they were playing with a backup at quarterback, as Matt Stevens was filling in for Steve Bono, and wasn’t ready for the defense NU threw at him.
“They needed to have a successful passing game to beat us, and with their second-string quarterback, they didn’t have much of a chance to do that,” Weber said. “They lost their quarterback the week before to an ankle injury. Their second- team quarterback was intimidated and it just snowballed on them. Their backs also weren’t good at blocking our pass rush.”
Despite playing with a broken pinky finger and a pulled groin muscle, Weber managed to record nine tackles, a sack, broke up two passes, and blocked a punt toward the end of the first half.
“The ball seemed to come my way a lot and some good things happened. It was one of my best games in terms of tackles, and influencing plays throughout the game,” Weber said.
While the defense gave UCLA nothing to work with, the Nebraska offense methodically pounded the ball against the Bruins throughout the game. It started with a Smith touchdown in the first quarter and then followed with touchdown runs in the second half by Sundberg and full back Tom Rathman to make it a 21-0 lead at halftime for the Big Red. Even though NU led by three touchdowns and looked to be in good shape, NU suffered two key injuries on offense, losing not only Smith at I-back, but also watching Sundberg go down.
“I hurt my shoulder on the second to the last play of the first half,” the quarterback said. “I threw a little ten-yard out pass and got hit. When I went down I felt a weird feeling...I received a deep bruise on my shoulder bone. I went in at halftime, had the trainers look at it and played fine the second half.”
The Bruins showed some life early in the second half, scoring on a 34-yard field goal to close to within 21-3, but Swanson’s touchdown run later in the quarter iced the game for the Huskers.
NU later tacked on DuBose’s long TD run, then finished the scoring with reserve I-back Paul Miles running it in from four yards out.
“We spent a lot of time in the weight room and were a lot bigger than those guys, so our offense was able to move around the field,” Weber said. “Just looking at them, you could tell they hadn’t been in the weight room a whole lot and it was evident we were going to the more physical football team.
“Our style was smash-mouth, and that was not what they were used to, which was a primary reason why were able to dominate the game. We just had that feeling they hadn’t prepared over the summer like we did.”
Swanson concurred after NU handed UCLA its worst loss in 14 years. “UCLA didn’t have the defense to keep up with our front line. They were a little bit overrated to be in the top 10.”
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Shane Gilster is the Editor of Big Red Report Magazine. His stories focus mainly on catching up with former Huskers and examining Nebraska athletic history.