NU NEEDED BOWL VICTORY
By Virgil Parker, Lincoln Journal-Star Sports Editor
EL PASO, TEXAS — The Nebraska Cornhuskers, capitalizing on seven Mississippi State mistakes, capped a 10-2 season with a 31-17 victory in the 48th annual Sun Bowl here Saturday.
The game, played before a record Sun Bowl crowd of 34,723 and a nationwide television audience, was far from a thing of beauty.
Nebraska's offense, No. 1 in the nation in rushing and second in total offense, managed just 159 yards on the ground compared to a season-long average of 378.3. The total offense (318) wasn't enough to reach that figure. That average was over 500 yards a game during the regular season.
But talk about balance. Nebraska gained — to the exact yard — the same total through the air.
The Huskers, especially the seniors who had lost their last two bowl outings (against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and Houston in the Cotton Bowl), were gratified by the win.
There wasn't a lot of hoopin' and hollerin' in the dressing room, however. One reason: there wasn't enough room to take a deep breath with 120 players trying to share 50 lockers.
"The kicking game was in our favor," Cornhusker Coach Tom Osborne yelled above the din to a pack of pushing, shoving sportswriters who were seeking enough elbow room to write. His main reference was to the fumble of a Nebraska punt by Mississippi State safety Mardye McDole which led to a Nebraska touchdown in the first two-and-a-half minutes of play which gave the Huskers a momentum advantage they never lost.
But the victory belonged to the Nebraska defense. Third in the nation in both defense against the rush and total defense, the Black Shirts were superb in both categories.
NU foes had averaged just 86.4 yards per game on the ground. Mississippi State, the seventh-best rushing team in the nation, had to settle for a mere 93.
Overall, the Black Shirts were even more stingy. With 196 yards in total offense, the Bulldogs couldn't do as well as the average of Nebraska's previous 11 opponents (209.1).
"Our goal was to keep them from making the big play," NU defensive coordinator Lance Van Zandt said. "And we did a good job of that (Mississippi State averaged just 2.7 yards per play). But it was the turnovers which really made the difference."
Defensive end Jimmy Williams earned Lineman of the Game honors after recovering three of four Bulldog fumbles. Steve Davies pounced on the other while Ric Lindquist and Kris Van Norman came up with pass interceptions.
"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," Osborne said. "Mississippi State's raw personnel was as good as anybody's we played — and that includes Florida State and Oklahoma.
"We couldn't get outside on them so we had to use Andra (fullback Andra Franklin) up the middle on dives and traps a lot more than we had planned. The kind of defense they played in the secondary made it possible for us to throw long. We completed some (52- and 55-yard passes to Wingback Tim McCrady) but would have done even better if we hadn't overthrown three or four others."
Osborne, who has now coached eight straight bowl games — five wins and three losses — was surprised at the very outset when Mississippi State won the pre-game coin toss and chose to take the modest five mph wind at its back.
"They obviously had confidence in their defense," Osborne said. "If you can hold the other guy and force a punt early, it can be a good deal to be on defense first."
The Bulldog strategy appeared well founded. Nebraska managed just one first down before the drive stalled and Kevin Seibel stepped back in punt formation for the first time this season.
Nebraska's field goal and PAT kicker, Seibel boomed a smooth 40-yarder high into the cloudless sky. "I took my eye off the ball for a split second to find an open lane," State's McDole said, "and the next thing I knew I was looking for the ball."
Nebraska's Davies found it first — at the Bulldog 23.
As advertised in the "I-back controversy" of recent days, Craig Johnson replaced the benched Jarvis Redwine in the starting lineup. But Johnson carried just once — for no gain on the third play of the game — during the entire first half.
After Seibel's punt was fumbled, in came Redwine. Quarterback Jeff Quinn, who was named the Player of the Game, promptly faked a pitch to Redwine, on whom the Bulldogs were keying. Instead he tossed the ball to split end Todd Brown coming around the other way. Brown bumped into lineman Dan Hurley, recovered his balance and broke into the clear behind a super block by center Dave Rimington as he dashed the distance.
Seibel added the extra point and the Huskers led 7-0 with 12:30 left in the first quarter.
Seibel, who took over the punting chores from Scott Gemar, admitted "the first couple were tough. But it helped that my first one went so well. My kickoffs didn't go as well as I wanted, but the punting was my main concern and I was pleased it went to well."
Seibel averaged 42 yards on eight punts. More importantly, McDole only tried to return one (he fair caught six and fumbled one) and wound up with minus three yards on that one attempt.
Mississippi State punter Dana Moore didn't fare so well on his first boot. He took his eye off the waist high snap, dropped the ball, picked it up and was nailed for a 21-yard loss. Nebraska had the ball right back again at the Bulldog 20.
"We haven't tried to block many punts this year," Van Zandt said, "but we decided to go all out on their first one."
The offense was unable to take advantage of that break and blow the game wide open. Three plays latter Quinn suffered his only pass interception of the day.
Osborne, who had closed his practice sessions in order to protect the secrets of some promised razzle dazzle, reached in his bag of tricks late in the first quarter.
Quinn tossed a short pass to Brown, who stopped and lateraled to Redwine — a la Oklahoma's "flea-flicker" play. Later, he faked the same play with split end John Noonan. But Noonan stopped just momentarily, then streaked down field, far behind any defender. But Quinn's throw was too long.
After Lindquist's pass interception, midway through the second quarter, the Huskers moved to a 10-0 lead on a 22-yard Seibel field goal. And Nebraska wasn't done yet.
The defense held and Moore boomed a mighty 58-yard punt on which NU safety Dave Liegel made one of the game's more sensational plays. He fielded the long boot over his shoulder on a dead run like a baseball center-fielder. He returned it 16 yards to the NU 37.
Two Quinn passes produced a touchdown. The first was a 55-yarder to McCrady. It first appeared the Huskers may have received some officiating help — McCrady was right at the sideline — but the TV replay showed he indeed had both feet inbounds.
On the next play, with 1:58 still remaining before the intermission break, Quinn tossed to tight end Jeff Finn for an eight-yard touchdown, 17-0.
Nebraska might have scored still another. Williams recovered a State fumble at the Bulldog 27, but after getting as close as the 16, Quinn fumbled it back while trying to pass.
Mississippi State finally got on the Scoreboard midway through the third quarter on a 47-yard Moore field goal, but Williams recovered another fumble and Franklin climaxed a 25-yard, five-play drive by crashing in from two yards out. With Seibel's PAT, that made it 24-3.
State then put together its best sustained drive of the day. The Bulldogs went 76 yards after the ensuing kickoff to score. Freshman quarterback John Bond, who was badly off target in the early going, found the range with 22- and 24-yard completions. Bond stretched his 6-4 frame to get the ball across the goal line from one yard out on fourth down for the TD. That closed the gap to 24-10.
Each team picked up one more touchdown, leaving the final spread the same — 14 points, exactly what the bookies had predicted.
Nebraska put the game safely in the win column with 3:21 left by gaining a 31-10 lead on a 52-yard bomb from Quinn to McCrady.
It was the tired and true "fake it into the line, put the ball on your hip, then throw it as far as you can" play.
Mississippi State produced the final count with a minute left when Bond and halfback Mike Haddix teamed up on an 11-yard TD pass play.
"Our defense really played well until the last few minutes," Osborne said. "Then they wilted a little. But it got hot out there (it was 61 degrees at kickoff and as high as 70 in the second half).
Nebraska had several plays in the bog of tricks. Quinn passed for a first down on a fake field goal play. Redwine and Wingback Anthony Steels were to have thrown passes, but didn't get them off. "Quinn was wide open in the end zone on Redwine's play," Osborne said, "but the defense got to him before he had a chance to throw. In Steels case, his man was covered, so he had to run."
SOURCE: 1981 NU MEDIA GUIDE