Turner Gill - '81 marked the beginning of the legend.
The date was Saturday, October 3, 1981. Auburn was in Lincoln, NE andthe War Eagle hit the locker room at halftime with a 3-0 on the Huskers. No big deal, except for the fact that Nebraska was already off to a 1-2 start, their worst since 1960, and appeared to be staring an unthinkable 1-3 right in the face as the offense was going nowhere again. Ugly didn't begin to describe the mood across the state.
Steve Buscemi's a little ugly. This was hungover Roseanne Barr topless in the tropics after a thorough Chuck Norris beatdown ugly.
Nebraska's 1981 non-conference schedule was one that likely hasn't been duplicated in difficulty at the D1 level since. Think of it as the anti-Snyder if you will. At Iowa, Florida St., Penn St., Auburn.
NU's season was in trouble immediately as the #7 Huskers travelled to Iowa City to play the unranked Hawkeyes. The Husker defense did its part holding Iowa to 197 yards, but the Husker offense was anemic. Starting senior QB Mark Mauer and his backup, junior Nate Mason were a combined 8-18 for 81 yards and 2 INT's, the last of which sealed the Huskers fate with 39 seconds left. A highly recruited sophomore named Gill who had scored a dramatic game-winning TD and 2-point conversion in the spring game watched from the sideline, and NU tumbled to 17th in the polls.
Next up were Bobby Bowden's #19 Seminoles. (Or as my dad calls them, the Semi-holes from Half Ass U) Nate Mason was the new starter and while he threw like Betty White (2-7 15 yds 1 Int), he contributed 63 of Nebraska's 472 rush yards andeverything was right with the world again. Gill saw his first action in mop up duty.
#3 Penn St. and Todd Blackledge, one year away from their controversial felony
victory in Happy Valley were next. NU battled evenly all afternoon and completely shut down Blackledge, but Curt Warner ran wild for 238 yards and Penn St emerged the 30-24 winner and dropped Nebraska to the aforementioned 1-2.
Which brings us back to halftime against Auburn.
At this point, strength of schedule meant nothing. NU was looking a 1-3 start dead in the eye and this was vocally being deemed completely unacceptable by a fanbase for whom 9-2 was considered a somewhat disappointing season. Tom Osborne did not trust the QB position to youngsters, but it was fast becoming apparent that Mauer and Mason could only generously be described as "serviceable" and had thrown 5 Int's vs. only 2 TD's in 57 attempts. TO made the call and Turner took over in the 2nd half as Nebraska scored 17 unanswered points, the last on an 8 yard TD run by Gill.
The numbers weren't eye-popping - 1-6 for 9 yards passing with a pick and 20 yards rushing - but the new dimension he gave to the offense was, so Osborne told him he'd be starting the Colorado game next week and the rest was history. The Huskers stormed back to win 8 in a row and rose to #4 before losing to #1 Clemson (without an injured Gill).
Disaster averted, Husker Nation lowered its alert level to Defcon 3 and a new Husker legend had begun.