1978 Nebraska Football: An Orange Bowl Run Ends With A Sour Taste

Nebraska last won it all when they went back-to-back in 1970-71 with Bob Devaney as the head coach. Since Tom Osborne, Devaney’s offensive coordinator, had taken over, the Cornhuskers kept winning, but had a monkey on their backs out of Oklahoma. As if to affirm that Osborne had a black cloud following him around, the 1978 Nebraska football team first exorcised their demons–then saw them return with a vengeance.

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Oklahoma was the key rival in the old Big Eight Conference (the forerunner of today’s Big 12) and Osborne had lost all five games he’d coached against the Sooners. After consecutive major bowl victories following the 1973-74 regular seasons, Nebraska had been off the New Year’s stage for two years—including in 1976 when they opened as the preseason #1. This time around, they were ranked 10th to start the year.

Nebraska ran a power-I formation that relied on a great offensive line and backs who could read holes. Rick Berns and I.M. Hipp each went for over 1,000 yards and finished 3rd and 4th  among the conference rush leaders. 

The Cornhuskers challenged themselves right away when they visited preseason #1 Alabama, and it didn’t go well, in a 20-3 loss. The pollsters didn’t penalize the Huskers for this, although they slipped to #12 a week later after surviving mediocre Cal 36-26. Then Osborne’s team started churning, blowing out Hawaii and Indiana to set the stage for conference play.

Nebraska went to Iowa State, where the Cyclones–who would eventually win eight games–were still ranked #15, and won 23-0. Nebraska blasted Kansas State and Colorado, looked pedestrian in a 22-14 win over a bad Oklahoma State team and then dropped 63 on Kansas. Nebraska was #4 in the country when the rivalry day came.

Oklahoma was #1 and the Sooners were on track to play undefeated and second-ranked Penn State in the Orange Bowl game that was always the reward for the Big Eight champ. Alabama was nestled in at #3. If Nebraska could win this game, they would wrap up the Orange Bowl spot and make a case to get a crack at Penn State. 

The battle with the Sooners didn’t start well and the Huskers fell behind 7-0. But an OU fumble set up the tying touchdown. It was the start of a pattern. Oklahoma put the ball on the ground nine times. Six times, Nebraska recovered. 

The game was tied 14-14 early in the fourth quarter when Nebraska got a field goal that marked their first fourth quarter points against Oklahoma since 1971. OU still drove down to the three-yard line with less than five minutes left and looked ready to win it. But there was one last fumble to come. Nebraska recovered.

The Orange Bowl bid was theirs and days later, the pollsters came in with good news–in spite of the head-to-head loss, the Cornhuskers vaulted Alabama for the #2 spot. Tom Osborne was positioned to play Penn State for a national championship. 

But another order of business remained—a home game with Missouri one week later. The Tigers were not only an eight-win team and bowl-bound themselves, but they had two future NFL stars—running back James Wilder and eventual Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow. Osborne was worried and he had every reason to be.

The Cornhuskers got the game off to a strong start, when Berns romped 82 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play. Berns would run for 255 yards, a single-game Nebraska record and he also became the program’s all-time rushing leader. But what should have been a day of celebration—the records and an outright Big Eight title–went off the rails.

After leading 21-7, the Nebraska defense couldn’t contain Wilder, who scored four touchdowns on the day. Winslow caught a TD pass and Missouri pulled a 35-31 upset. In the meantime, Oklahoma was taking out its frustrations by scoring 62 points against Oklahoma State.

The Sooners and Huskers were co-champs of the Big Eight. Nebraska still had the automatic bid to the Orange Bowl by virtue of the head-to-head win, but now the question of whom to invite loomed. Penn State was redirected to the Sugar Bowl, where Alabama had moved back up to #2. The Orange Bowl Committee, in a decision that justifiably enraged Nebraska, decided to invite Oklahoma and create a rematch.

The fairer solution would have been to invite seventh-ranked Clemson, with its 10-1 record and passionate fan base. Oklahoma could have gone to the Cotton Bowl over three-loss Notre Dame. But bowl politics then make today look like a golden age, and there was no way Clemson was getting anywhere on New Year’s Day ahead of the Sooners or Fighting Irish.

And there was no way anyone in the country was going to beat Oklahoma twice in a matter of six weeks. Even though Nebraska scored the game’s first touchdown, they gave up 24 unanswered points, eventually trailed 31-10 and finally scored a couple meaningless touchdowns that made the final score a respectable 31-24. 

Nebraska finished #8 in the polls. A year that should be remembered for Osborne’s long-sought victory over Oklahoma was instead remembered for the rare rematch and second chance it offered the Sooners. 

And the frustration was just beginning. Nebraska lost to Oklahoma each of the next two years. The Cornhuskers were able to own the Big Eight from 1981-83, but only won the Orange Bowl once and their 1983 loss to Miami for the national title is the most storied college football games of all-time. Osborne produced excellent teams from 1984-87–all four lost to Oklahoma. Not until 1988 did he get a win over the Sooners. And not until 1994 did the great head coach finally win it all.