Aug 28, 2013
LARAMIE, Wyo. - College football tradition has always held a special place for Nebraska.
Sure, folks talk about Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame and Texas when discussing "all-time" collegiate powerhouses, but they always include the Cornhuskers.
How could they not? The historical numbers speak for themselves. . . five national championships, 11 undefeated seasons, 43 conference championships, and 49 bowl appearances. Nebraska is ranked fourth in collegiate football history in victories. It has won 70 percent of its games as it enters its 124th season.
If you're not convinced, here's a little more. Huskers have won three Heisman Trophies, nine Outland Trophies, five Lombardi Awards, a Rimington Trophy (named after one of their own all-time centers, Dave Rimington), three Walter Camp Players of the Year, and 96 first-team All-Americas.
We haven't even talked about another amazing aspect of this football program, the Nebraska fan. Memorial Stadium has been sold out since 1962, the year Bob Devaney left Wyoming to become the Husker head coach. That's 325 consecutive sellouts--during that time the record at home is 282-43-- 100 more than the next closest school. When the legendary head coach arrived, Memorial capacity was 31,080. During Devaney's first six seasons the stadium expanded every year and seated 64,170 heading into the 1967 season. It now seats 90,000, and no other place in college football is any more impressive than the "red sea."
These are all good reasons why Nebraska has earned the right to be listed right there with the nation's collegiate elite football programs.
Six of the Huskers' 856 all-time victories have come against the Wyoming Cowboys. Three of those weren't pretty for Poke fans. Two, however, were and I'll never forget either one of them. In fact, on the list of my Wyoming memories these two games will be near the top, despite the fact they were losses. They were contests that had totally different complexions. The first in 1968 was a defensive-dominated game, and the second, in 1994, an offensive firestorm.
I was a sophomore in college for that first one in 1968 and received an opportunity to go with my dad to Lincoln for the matchup. While Nebraska was coming off a mediocre 6-4 season, the Cowboys had just produced one of the best years in program history, a 10-1 record and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl. While an underdog heading into the '68 opener, most felt the Pokes had a chance.
It was Nebraska's legendary Devaney--who had already coached six seasons and become a national name--against his prized pupil in Wyoming's head coach, Lloyd Eaton. That in itself made an interesting storyline. Eaton had been Devaney's defensive coordinator at Wyoming. By 1968 Devaney was on his way to becoming a Husker icon by posting two 10-win seasons and three nine-win campaigns.
But what I remember most about the day is Eaton in the locker room following the loss. I never saw him any more agitated after a game. The reason, a questionable--at least in his mind--pass interference call on his defense late in the game that would lead to the winning field goal. The penalty call came after a Husker incompletion which would have left Nebraska's offense with a third-and-eight. Instead it gave them a first down and an opportunity to kick the field goal. The Pokes would finish with a 7-3 record that season, but who knows what might have been had they left Lincoln with a win that day.
The 1994 matchup had a totally different feel. This one was expected to be an offensive game. The Pokes came to Lincoln with a great receiver in Marcus Harris. The Huskers countered with one of the nation's best running backs in Lawrence Phillips. The October 1 game did not disappoint any offensive-minded fan, and made every Cowboy fan proud to be one.
The 1994 team turned out to be one of the greatest in Nebraska history. It would finish the season 13-0, and defeat Miami in the Orange Bowl to win the national championship. But on that October day, in a sea of red, it was the Cowboys who stole the show for most of the afternoon. The Joe Tiller passing game totally befuddled Nebraska's vaunted defense and the Pokes gave the national champs their biggest scare of the year.
Young quarterback Jeremy Dombek would throw for 264 yards and two touchdowns before being knocked out of the game after a sack. His replacement, John Gustin, came on to throw for another score as the Cowboys finally fell 42-32. Wyoming led 14-0 and 21-7 before the stunned Huskers could get it going. They finally caught the Pokes at 21-21 early in the second half, and led by two touchdowns with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the third period. But Wyoming added a field goal right before the third quarter ended, and entered the final period down by 11.
With nine minutes left in the game, the Cowboy passing attack shredded the Husker secondary, and Gustin found tight end Jeremy Gilstrap for a touchdown bringing the Pokes to within three, 35-32. The red sea grew uncharacteristically quiet.
Down by three Wyoming's defense gave the Cowboys a chance to win the game by forcing a Nebraska punt with 5:32 remaining in the game. But disaster struck, as Wyoming fumbled the punt and the Huskers recovered on the Poke eight yard line. Phillips scored from there to finally overcome the visitors.
I will never forget how the Cowboy passing game totally confused Nebraska that day, nor will I ever forget the letdown following the fumbled punt. But maybe the most unforgettable part of that day for me was seeing the Nebraska faithful rise and give the Cowboys an ovation as they left the field for their locker room. It was a loss, but I couldn't have been more proud of the Pokes.
A different year, certainly a different time, and Wyoming returns to Lincoln and Memorial Stadium to challenge the mighty Huskers this Saturday. I hope this game has elements of those two great memories. Wouldn't it be something if, just maybe...