(December 27th, 1980)
EL PASO, Texas -
“I’d rather be in Miami than El Paso.”
For Husker fans, players and coaches, that thought probably crossed their minds in 1980 after Nebraska lost the Big 8 championship and Orange Bowl berth in heartbreaking fashion to Oklahoma.
Instead of South Beach and stone crab, the Huskers were sent packing to the west Texas border town for tacos. It wasn’t exactly an appealing destination for one of college football’s premier programs.
Nebraska’s opponent was a talented team from the SEC, so they needed to put their loss to the Sooners behind them. The 17th-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs, who beat then No. 1 Alabama 6-3 in conference play, looked forward to an opportunity to knock off the eighth-rated team in the country, and to move into the top 10 for the first time since 1940.
But the Big Red avoided a letdown, using an opportunistic defense to help win the field position battle in a 31-17 Sun Bowl victory.
"I thought it was a real tribute to our players to concentrate and work as hard as they did after such a disappointing loss to Oklahoma," NU head coach Tom Osborne said. "Mississippi State's raw personnel was as good as anybody's we played — and that includes Florida State and Oklahoma.”
Florida State and Oklahoma were the only teams to defeat Nebraska (by four points each time) that year, and both finished ranked in the top five.
In front of only 34,723 fans, Nebraska faced a 9-2 Bulldogs squad that featured the seventh-best rushing team in the country, led by quarterback John Bond and running backs Donald Ray King and Michael Haddix. King ended up rushing for a game-high 96 yards on 23 carries, mostly on dive plays to the left side.
“They were hurting us off-tackle, but we made an adjustment in the middle of the third quarter,” Husker defensive coordinator Lance Van Zandt said. The adjustment involved some changes in defensive alignments.”
Those adjustments worked for a Nebraska defense ranked third in the nation in both rushing defense and total defense. The Blackshirts gave up an average of just 86.4 yards per game on the ground that season, and limited Mississippi State to 93, an average of just 2.7 yards per play.
"Our goal was to keep them from making the big play," Van Zandt said. "And we did a good job of that. But it was the turnovers which really made the difference."
The Huskers forced six turnovers, four of them fumbles in Mississippi State territory, to put MSU in a hole from which they could not come back.
Nebraska defensive end Jimmy Williams recovered two fumbles
(NU Media Relations)
In the first half, the Bulldogs two lost fumbles, one on a muffed punt, and also threw an interception as the Huskers moved to a commanding 17-0 lead.
Nebraska defensive end Jimmy Williams recovered two of the four fumbles. One of the biggest came after MSU fought back to trail 24-10 in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs ran a reverse, but the pitch went awry.
“I batted the ball, it rolled on the ground, somebody tried to pick it up and I smacked it again,” Williams said. NU took over at the MSU 33 yard-line.
With the defense playing well and forcing turnovers, the Husker offense did enough to take advantage of the good field position and put some points on the board.
The Huskers’ initial score came after a muffed punt by MSU’s All-American receiver Mardye McDole. Nebraska recovered the ball on the Bulldog 23-yard line, setting up the Big Red in prime real estate.
On the first play of this possession, Nebraska ran a reverse to split end Todd Brown, who avoided an MSU player in the backfield, then followed his blocking for a 23-yard touchdown run. The extra point made it 7-0 with 12:30 left in the first quarter.
Midway through the second quarter, NU cornerback Ric Lindquist intercepted a Bulldog pass, leading to a 22-yard Kevin Seibel field goal for a 10-0 lead.
The defense held on the next Bulldog series and forced a punt. NU took over at its own 37, and needed only two plays to score.
Husker quarterback Jeff Quinn hooked up with Tim McCrady, who stayed inbounds on a 55-yard pass play down the sideline. Then, with 1:58 left in the first half, Quinn hit tight end Jeff Finn for an eight-yard touchdown to increase the lead to 17-0.
Nebraska might have scored again before the half ended. Defensive tackle Toby Williams recovered a State fumble at the Bulldog 27, but after moving the Huskers to the 16-yard line, Quinn fumbled while going back to pass.
The stat line showed the Huskers’ first-half dominance, as they held a commanding yardage edge of 175 to 63.
MSU made more of a game of it in the second half, outscoring Nebraska 17-14, but it was too little too late, as NU worked on the clock and maintained its lead. Still, Osborne and the Huskers would have liked to have closed more strongly than they did, but the weather played a role, as temperatures got as high as 70 degrees in the second half.
"Our defense really played well until the last few minutes," Osborne said. "Then they wilted a little. But it got hot out there.”
Mississippi State got into the scoring column halfway through the third quarter on a 47-yard field goal. But NU’s Jimmy Williams pounced on another fumble, and fullback Andra Franklin finished off a 25-yard, five-play drive by scoring from two yards out. The PAT made it 24-3.
The Bulldogs fought back gamely with its best drive of the day, going 76 yards after the ensuing kickoff for their first touchdown, featuring pass completions of 22 and 24 yards. The score came when Bond stretched the ball across the goal line from one yard out on fourth down for the TD. That closed the gap to 24-10.
Nebraska got the touchdown back with 3:21 left in the game, on a long touchdown pass of 52 yards from Quinn to McCrady.
Mississippi State scored once more with a minute left, when Bond and Haddix teamed up on a three-yard TD pass play to make the final tally 31-17.
Nebraska held a commanding advantage in total yardage (318-195) and with all the turnovers MSU suffered, it was a credit to the Bulldog defense that the game wasn’t a complete blowout.
“We didn't move the ball like I thought we would,” Osborne said of his offense. “I was a little disappointed in our outside running. But with their 4-3 defense, it was a little hard to get outside. The I-back plays weren't working because their tackles were giving us trouble. That's why we went with the fullback traps.”
Nebraska’s I-backs had a rough day. Starter Craig Johnson only had three yards on three carries, Jarvis Redwine had 42 yards on 13 carries and Roger Craig had five carries for 13 yards.
So NU went to Franklin, who led the Huskers with 17 carries for 67 yards and a touchdown. "We couldn't get outside on them, so we had to use Andra up the middle on dives and traps a lot more than we had planned,” Osborne said.
That opened up the passing game, as Quinn threw 19 times, completing nine for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
“The kind of defense they played in the secondary made it possible for us to throw long. We completed some, but would have done even better if we hadn't overthrown three or four others," Osborne said.
Jimmy Williams, who was named the Most Valuable Lineman for his two fumble recoveries and six tackles, praised his team’s effort.
“We had the character to lose a game to Oklahoma and come back and play like we can play. We really wanted to play. That last MSU touchdown didn't sour anything,” Williams said.
Nebraska finished 10-2 and ranked No. 7 in both polls. Oklahoma, with its win over Florida State in the Orange Bowl, finished the season ranked No. 3, behind Pittsburgh and National Champion Georgia.
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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.