Sept. 7th, 1996
Two-time defending national champion and No. 1 Nebraska shellacked Michigan State 55-14 in their season-opener and started its quest for a third-straight national title.
Although the Husker put up 55 points, it wasn’t a typical offensive show that fans have been used to. It was the Blackshirt defense and special teams that stole the show and were responsible for the high score.
Michigan State head coach Nick Saban was thoroughly impressed by NU’s defense and special teams.
"The most impressive part of their team today was their defensive team. It was probably as good as I've ever seen," Saban said. "We thought it was really important for us to come in here today and be able to win on special teams and we obviously couldn't do that," he said. "They blocked a punt to set up a score, they had a punt return for a touchdown and another punt return set up another score.”
The score read 27-0 in favor of Nebraska at the end of the first half but its offense only scored thirteen of those points.
Granted it was Scott Frost’s first start at quarterback but Husker fans were not used to seeing their team having to punt after its first two series on offense. So its defense stepped up and helped the new quarterback lead the team for their first score.
Thanks to an interception by rover Mike Minter, which gave NU the ball at the Spartan 22-yard line, the offense only had to go two plays on their third possession, ending with an 11-yard TD run by Frost.
The Huskers then drove 63 yards in 14 plays on its next offensive series but had to settle for a 35-yard goal by Kris Brown.
Then the defense and special teams sparked a Nebraska scoring explosion.
First it was a punt return by Mike Fullman. He fielded a punt at the NU 38-yard line, ran through two Spartan defenders, ripped loose from another who had his jersey, angled left, and then turned upfield, picking up some key blocks and sailed down the sideline for the touchdown.
Then Minter struck again, but this time he finished his interception off by running 84-yards for a touchdown. That turnover ended any hope of a Michigan State comeback.
"We like to be a big-play defense and the last couple years we've been scoring a lot of points," junior rush end Grant Wistrom said. "That can really break another team's spirit. It's putting points on the board and killing the field position for them."
Wistrom also go into the Husker scoring spree when he picked off a pass and returned it nine yards for a touchdown at the end of the third quarter. It was his first career touchdown.
"I was talking the other day that if I ever scored I was going to throw the ball about 40 rows up into the stands," Wistrom said. "But I was afraid if I ever did that we wouldn't have T.O. (Tom Osborne) around coaching anymore because he'd have a heart attack or something, so I thought better of it.”
So with the defense scoring two touchdowns and with Fullman’s special teams score, the Husker offense didn’t have to score a ton. Frost ran for 58 yards with a touchdown but was only 5 of 12 passing for 74 yards and a TD. Nebraska finished with only 298 yards of offense which was their lowest output since the seventh game of the 1994 season.
"When I was coming out of the tunnel I was just thinking about trying to stay calm. It would be real easy to let your emotions get a hold of you and come out and be a little tight or tense or a little too excited, but I just stayed calm so I could go out and make the right decisions," Frost said. "We did what we had to do as an offense to win the game."
Regardless of the way the 1996 version of Nebraska played in its first game, Saban left Lincoln wanting to emulate the Husker football program.
"When you're trying to build a program, it's good to play someone who epitomizes the standard of excellence like Nebraska," Saban said. “That can show players, especially the younger players, that this is what it's all about.”