Stryker: The 50 most significant Husker plays, Part Two

Categories: Football Top Stories

“Memories make us rich,” a wise old sportswriter once said. Cornhusker fans of a certain age have plenty of memories to draw upon. If you haven’t been around that long, I hope this column, and a rising tide of Husker excellence, inspire you to start your own list.

Talk about a rich heritage. There are far too many significant Husker plays that deserve Top 50 ranking. And I’m only going back to 1962, the start of the Devaney era, which removes plays like Bobby Reynolds’ winding, double-reversing 33-yard touchdown run against Missouri on Homecoming 1950 from consideration.

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Both Johnny Rodgers and Lyell Bremser were on top of their game Nov. 25, 1971, in Norman, Okla. Their iconic performances added up to what nearly half a century later is still the most significant play in Nebraska football history.

 

Amazingly, an unbreakable all-time Husker school and national bowl record, Tommy Armstrong’s 99-yard touchdown pass to Quincy Enunwa against Georgia in the 2014 Gator Bowl didn’t make this list. Neither did Derrie Nelson’s sack of Missouri’s Phil Bradley at NU’s 11-yard line on the final play of the 1979 game to preserve a 23-20 victory in Columbia, or Irving Fryar’s 82-yard punt return for a touchdown in a 34-14 win over Florida State in 1981, or a bunch of impressive runs by Doug DuBose, Roger Craig or I.M. Hipp.

Part One of this column (plays No. 26-50, and my definition of football significance) ran last week and can be seen here.

I think it would have been easier to compile a Top 10 list and stop there. But here goes:

25. On a big, bright day for the Blackshirts, Terry Conneally stops CU quarterback Kordell Stewart on a fourth-and-1 option play at the NU 21 in the third quarter of their 24-7 win over the No. 2-rated Buffs. It brings a huge roar from the 200th consecutive home sellout crowd, symbolizing the frustration of the powerful CU offense that day (zero-for-15 in third- and fourth-down conversions).

24. Here’s a two-for-one: on a dead calm November evening in Lincoln, sophomore Alex Henery rescues the Huskers by nailing a school-record 57-yard field goal with 1:43 left, giving Nebraska a 33-31 lead over Colorado. Five plays later, Ndamukong Suh intercepts a deflected pass and tramples CU quarterback Cody Hawkins to complete the pick-six. Besides possibly setting a Memorial Stadium record for sustained decibel levels, the two plays enable the Big Red to finish Bo Pelini’s first season on a strong 4-0 run.

23. Taylor Martinez hits Jamal Turner on a sideline pattern for a 5-yard touchdown with 6 seconds left to give NU a 28-24 win at Michigan State in 2012 and a huge boost in its run to the Big Ten Championship game.

22. Taylor Martinez eludes the Ohio State pass rush and tosses a screen to Rex Burkhead, who makes a jump cut to avoid a Buckeye defender and bolts for the pylon to complete 30-yard touchdown reception with 7:35 remaining, tying the game in an eventual 34-27 victory over Ohio State. Burkhead scores on a 17-yard toss sweep a couple of minutes later, but it’s inevitable; the crowd noise and momentum have already virtually flattened Ohio State’s defense at that point.

21. A three-for-one: Roy Helu Jr. scores thrice from long distance (66, 73 and 53 yards) as he sets the single-game NU rushing record with 307 yards on 28 carries against Missouri in 2010. He caps the day for an appreciative home crowd by spearheading an 8-minute drive where the Huskers reel off 15 consecutive running plays to slam the door in a 31-17 win.

20. Lavonte David wakes up a slumbering Cornhusker team — and crowd — with a strip and fumble recovery of Ohio State freshman Braxton Miller in 2011, giving Nebraska the short field, knocking Miller out of the game and setting up Nebraska’s biggest come-from-behind win ever (see No. 22 above).

19. Missouri natives Mike Rucker and Grant Wistrom sack Missouri quarterback Corby Jones on final play of overtime as the Huskers win 45-38 at Columbia, keeping NU undefeated on the way to the 1997 split national title (see No. 2 below).

18. On fourth and 8 from the Miami 28-yard line, Jeff Smith — filling in for injured Heisman winner Mike Rozier — takes a perfectly timed option pitch from Turner Gill to the house with 48 seconds left against Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl, culminating a courageous Husker comeback from 17 points down and setting up a fateful two-point conversion attempt for the win (see No. 9 below).

17. Two for one: In the 1971 Nebraska-Oklahoma contest in Norman dubbed the “Game of the Century” (see No. 1, 6 and 7 below), Rich Glover and Larry Jacobson team up to stop Sooners on last two plays (Jacobson with a sack of Jack Mildren, and a pressure on the final play, a pass batted down by Glover). KFAB play-by-play announcer Lyell Bremser, himself in fine form that day, exults,“ What great play by big Larry Jake! He just won the Outland Trophy seven times over, and look at that sideline!”

16. An explosive 80-yard touchdown run by Lawrence Phillips in the 1995 season-opener at Oklahoma State is electric, but even better is his 25-yard run with an option pitch from Tommie Frazier against an a Miami defense stocked with two future All-Pros (Warren Sapp and Ray Lewis) midway through the fourth quarter of the 1995 Orange Bowl. The sophomore from West Covina, California, breaks the will of the tiring Hurricanes with a textbook display of his power, speed, balance and tackle-breaking ability, which comes just a few minutes after NBC commentator Cris Collinsworth says, “I don’t think Nebraska’s offense can afford to run any more options. … An option just takes too long to develop.” It sets up the Huskers’ tying touchdown one play later.

15. Cornerback Michael Booker’s 42-yard interception return late in the first half breaks open Nebraska’s 62-24 slaughter of Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, which puts an exclamation point on a dominating season by the best team in college football history. It’s a game filled with highlight reel moments (see No. 3 below).

14. Two for the title: Fullback Cory Schlesinger’s two fourth-quarter touchdown runs on trap plays (sandwiched around a two-point conversion pass from Tommie Frazier to Eric Alford in the same end zone where Miami had stopped Turner Gill’s conversion pass in the 1984 Orange Bowl, see No. 9 below) — provide the winning points as Nebraska defeats Miami 24-17 on its home field in the 1995 Orange Bowl to give Tom Osborne his first national title.

13. Dwayne Harris sacks Miami’s Frank Costa for a safety in the third quarter of the 1995 Orange Bowl. Harris, lining up at left end, makes a swim move to the inside and leaves Miami’s right tackle on his knees, then grabs Costa by the left shoulder pad and yanks him down at the back of the end zone, pulling Nebraska to within eight points (17-9), giving the Big Red a huge momentum boost as they rally from a 10-point deficit to win, 24-17.

12. Eric Crouch makes a quick move to escape a tackler in his own end zone, and is off to the races on a juking 95-yard touchdown run at Missouri in 2001, still the longest run from scrimmage in Husker history and one of two signature Heisman moments for the lightning-fast senior quarterback from Millard North.

11. Another two-for-one (possibly the two most memorable hits in Memorial Stadium history): After a Billy Todd field goal gives Nebraska a 17-14 lead over unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Oklahoma in 1978, heat-seeking missile John Ruud crashes into OU kick returner Kelly Phelps, knocks him cold and forces a fumble recovered by the Huskers, although game officials wrongly rule the play dead and award the ball to the Sooners. As the game winds down, Oklahoma drives for the would-be winning touchdown, but safety Jeff Hansen knocks the ball out of the hands of eventual Heisman winner Billy Sims and Jim Pillen recovers at the 3-yard line with less than four minutes remaining as Tom Osborne beats Barry Switzer for the first time.

10. Linebacker Bob Terrio’s interception of LSU’s Bert Jones at the Husker 38-yard line with 45 seconds left in the 1971 Orange Bowl clinches the first national championship for Bob Devaney and the Huskers.

9. Going for two and missing it, Turner Gill to Jeff Smith, 1984 Orange Bowl. The spine-tingling moment when the Huskers break their huddle and come up to the line of scrimmage is the most I’ve anticipated any single play in Husker history, and wins Tom Osborne nationwide admiration for his decision to go for the win instead of a tie that likely would have clinched his first national title. Ironically, it was a similar play at nearly the same spot on the field as Tagge’s successful conversion pass to Maury Damkroger following Johnny Rodgers’ 77-yard punt return against Alabama 12 years earlier in the Orange Bowl (see No. 5 below).

8. Jerry Tagge’s 1-yard quarterback sneak gives Nebraska a 17-12 lead over LSU with 8:50 remaining in the 1971 Orange Bowl. It’s an iconic photo, a frozen-in-time moment with Tagge stretching the ball over the goal line, the winning touchdown that gives the Huskers their first national title.

7. Junior wingback Johnny Rodgers sinks to his knees and cradles a Jerry Tagge pass inches above the artificial turf in Norman, Oklahoma. The 11-yard gain on third-and-8 from the Oklahoma 46-yard line extends the game-winning touchdown drive in the Game of the Century between two 1971 unbeaten Big Eight titans.

6. Jeff Kinney, his white tear-away jersey shredded into confetti, scores on a shoulder pad-flapping, flashbulb-popping 2-yard TD run with 1:38 remaining at Oklahoma on an overcast Thanksgiving Day in 1971, sending Lyell Bremser into hysterics. (“Seventy-four yards on that drive, and Nebraska forges into the lead. Oh, man, woman and child, I never thought I would live this long to see this kind of a football game!”) No. 1 Nebraska outslugs the No. 2-rated Sooners 35-31 in one of the most hyped contests of all time.

5. Bear Bryant warns his No. 2-rated Alabama team to kick away from Johnny Rodgers (see No. 1 below), but to his dismay, Rodgers grabs a punt on an erratic bounce off the wet artificial turf, jukes three times and is gone down the right sideline for a 77-yard score, increasing the lead to 14-0 on the last play of the first quarter. Bryant knows he doesn’t have a cut dog’s chance at that point. The Huskers lead 28-0 at the half and win the 1972 Orange Bowl 38-6 after easing up in the second half, giving Devaney back-to-back national titles. It’s hard to overstate the dominance of that 1971 Husker team — which defeated the teams that finished fourth (Alabama), third (Colorado) and second (Oklahoma) in the final AP poll.

4. Eric Crouch to Thunder Collins to Mike Stuntz to Crouch — Black 41 Flash Reverse Pass against Oklahoma in 2001— goes for 63 yards and a touchdown and clinches a 20-10 win for the unbeaten, No. 3-rated Huskers over the unbeaten, No. 2-ranked Sooners. It ends a 20-game OU winning streak, clinches the Heisman Trophy for Crouch and stands as the most significant play in Memorial Stadium history.

3. Tommie Frazier’s tackle-busting 75-yard run against Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl doesn’t make a bit of difference in the 62-24 outcome, but it’s a jaw-dropping closing statement to possibly the most significant body of work by a NU quarterback in the school’s history. Add the context in which it occurs — the national title game — and it becomes a devastating summary of Husker power, toughness, relentless competitive spirit and nationwide respect.

2. Scott Frost to Shevin Wiggins to Matt Davison — the “Flea Kicker” at Missouri in 1997. With 1:02 remaining and no time outs to use, Frost moves the Huskers 67 yards in 10 plays, culminating in a 12-yard pass that could be a goal-line catch by Wiggins, who instead is jerked backward by a Tiger defender as the ball tumbles toward the turf. As he falls, Wiggins swipes at the ball with his foot and keeps it airborne long enough for freshman receiver Davison to swoop in and catch it just inches off the turf for a touchdown with the clock at 0:00. Winner of an ESPY for College Football Play of the Year, it becomes the most dramatic moment of the Huskers’ drive to a fifth national title.

1. Even before Thanksgiving Day 1971, fans in Memorial Stadium are in the habit of standing up whenever Johnny Rodgers drops back to return a punt (there is video evidence to support this), but Johnny the Jet blasts his reputation into the stratosphere — a full year before he wins the Heisman Trophy — with a twisting, darting, destiny-making 72-yard punt return on the road at Oklahoma. Backed by Lyell Bremser’s immortal call, it gives NU an early 7-0 edge and proves to be the decisive play in No. 1 Nebraska’s 35-31 victory over the undefeated and No. 2-ranked Sooners. With the stars aligning as they did that day, the pressure gets to Rodgers just a bit. According to Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins, who writes one of the best ledes in sports history after this game, Rodgers throws up when he gets back to the bench. It remains the signature moment in Nebraska football history.

And I am rich indeed.

A longtime Husker fan, sportswriter and history buff, Tad Stryker started writing for this website in 2008. You can email him at tad.stryker@gmail.com