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The Best Nebraska Football Team to Not Win a National Championship - 1987

The Hype of the Oklahoma game was incredible, but the game itself was a huge disappointment.

Nebraska Cornhuskers vs Arizona State Sun Devils Photo by Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images

We’ve done a series on the Best Nebraska teams to not win a title. We’ve included 1982, 1983, and 1999. The last team on the slate is 1987. The 1987 is a bit different than the other three in that the 1987 Nebraska football team was not the best team in the nation that year. You could easily make an argument that in 1982, 1983, and 1999, our beloved Cornhuskers were the best, but were screwed by horrid officiating, luck, or fate.

The 1987 Nebraska football team featured quarterbacks Gerry Gdowski and Steve Taylor, both different styles but both fun to watch. Oklahoma and Nebraska spent the first eleven polls of the 1987 at #1 and #2, respectively.

Everyone knew that that the 1987 season would come down to one game - Nebraska vs Oklahoma. Months in the anticipation. It was massive. It was billed as “The Game Of The Century II”.

It wasn’t just about football. It was about cheating. It was about morality. It was about our Jesus Christ figure Tom Osborne versus that son of a bitch, bootlegger’s son” Barry Switzer, no good complete cheating bastard that he was. How dare he come into Nebraska, bringing his team with sin all over them.

The 1987 team smashed everything in its path until the Oklahoma game. They started with a 56-12 win over Utah State, then beat #3 UCLA 42-33. Next was #12 Arizona State, another win, 35-28. The non-conference season finished with a 30–21 win over South Carolina. The Big Eight conference? Nebraska scored 229 points, allowing only 15.

The ’87 Nebraska - Oklahoma game was special to me because it was my last Oklahoma game as a college student. I graduated the next May (finally) and moved to Minneapolis in search of a job. I’ve been here ever since.

Mike Babcock, who’s forgotten more about Husker football than I’ll ever know, writes this at Hail Varsity:

Even so, the Sooners were the more impressive team statistically, leading the nation in rushing offense, total defense, scoring, scoring defense and passing defense. They were second nationally in total offense, averaging 505.3 yards per game to Nebraska’s 524.6.

Oklahoma’s wishbone had averaged 420.8 yards rushing per game. But the Husker defense ranked second nationally against the run, so it seemed a good match-up.

The game started decently enough. Nebraska led 7 – 0 at the half and Oklahoma kept committing turnovers.

Lee Barfknecht’s gamer includes this:

Thanks to an Anderson fumble at the NU 8, Lashar’s field-goal miss from 44 yards, another Anderson fumble at the NU 25 and Jeff Tomjack’s interception at the NU 10, the Huskers led 7-0 at halftime.

At halftime I turned and said to my future wife the dumbest statement I’ve ever made about Nebraska football. Consider that for a moment, because I have made thousands of incredibly stupid statements, especially regarding our beloved Huskers. This one tops them all.

In reference to Oklahoma, I said, “There’s going to be no Sooner Magic today. I almost feel sorry for them.”

What an incredibly stupid line.

Oklahoma came back and kicked our ass. Their defense destroyed our offense.In one way I was right. The Sooners needed no magic at the end of the game to pull out a victory. They dominated the game. Barry Switzer said as much:

“Talk about Sooner magic we didn’t need it today,” said Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer, whose team rallied for fourth-quarter victories over Osborne-coached teams in 1977, 1980, 1984 and 1986.

“We dominated from start to finish. This was a dominating win.”

Nebraska linebacker Broderick Thomas had made the comment “NU owns the keys to our house” after the game. Many of the headlines of the day included references to Oklahoma “stealing the keys”, including this gem from the Oklahoman:

Injured OU junior quarterback Jamelle Holieway used an oversized, four-foot wooden key as a cane after the game.

“You like this? Broderick gave me this,” joked Holieway, lost for the season two weeks ago when he suffered a severe knee injury against Oklahoma State.

Nebraska finished the Big Eight schedule beating Colorado 24-7. It was a rather disappointing win after all the hype of the Sooners match up.

Oklahoma faced Miami in the Orange bowl where they lost the national title in a rare #1 versus #2 matchup, 20 – 14.

#5 Nebraska went on to lose the Fiesta Bowl to #3 Florida State, 31-28. Nebraska jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but the Seminoles put up 21 points in the second quarter. Our beloved Huskers rebounded, scoring 14 in the third, but that was all they’d score.

They had a chance to improve their lead, moving to FSU’s two-yard line, but Tyreese Knox fumbled at the goal line. The Seminoles passed their way down the field, including a 43-yard reception from Danny McManus to Dexter Carter that put Florida State at the Nebraska 2. Our beloved Huskers nearly held, but on a 4th-and-15, McManus hit Ronald Lewis in the end zone for what would be the game winner.

Nebraska quarterback Steve Taylor wasn’t finished. He came out throwing, hitting Morgan Gregory and Todd Millikan for good gains. He then hit Gregory again for a 56-yard pass but it was called back for illegal formation, not enough men on the line of scrimmage. Our beloved Huskers would get one more possession, but Taylor’s pass to fullback Micah Heibel didn’t get enough yardage on 4th and 25.

The entire game is available on Youtube. It’s a little grainy.

The Fiesta Bowl was close and a damned good game, but disappointing. Nebraska finished with a 10-2 record, finishing #6 in both polls. Husker fans today would be overjoyed with that type of season, but they weren’t then. There were complaints that Osborne “couldn’t win the big one.”

In just a few years, everyone would be wrong.