Excerpt: Forever Red

To celebrate the first Husker game of the season, we’re sharing an excerpt from Forever Red: More Confessions of a Cornhusker Fan (Nebraska, 2015) by Steve Smith.

Perfect

Nebraska 68, New Mexico State 0—September
18, 1982

To say that Nebraska fans have high expectations is sort of like saying Rush Limbaugh tends to lean a tad right of center. Each year, we expect the Huskers to pull down a preseason Top 10 ranking, win the conference, and challenge for the national championship. In other words, we expect them to be perfect, or darned close to it, each time they take the field.

Fans of other schools, or even Nebraskans who (gasp) aren’t fervent followers of the Big Red, might think using perfection as a standard in regard to a bunch of oversized college students is unrealistic at best. To them I say: Bullcrap. We’ve seen perfection here before.

The last time it rolled through town was 1995, when nobody came within two scores of the vicious grain thresher Osborne had assembled. Sure, in the back of our minds we suspect the untouchable 1995 team was probably the exception and not the rule, but that doesn’t stop us from believing that each week we should see that same brand of utter dominance. This is why for good chunks of the football season, Nebraska fans are in genuinely foul moods: We know what flawlessness looks like in scarlet and cream, and we know it’s possible. And when we don’t see it, we get cranky.

You want to know what a “perfect” game is like? Let me tell you:

1. The game is played at home during the daytime. This should go without saying. Also, it helps if the weather is agreeable. Say, 72 degrees with a light wind out of the northeast. I just made that up, but it sounds nice, don’t you think? We get so few of these types of days in Nebraska and even fewer of them on a home Football Saturday.

2. The outcome is quickly determined. Ask Husker fans what their favorite victories are, and they’ll immediately summon the 24–17 victory over Miami in the 1995 Orange Bowl, the 17–14 upset of top-ranked Oklahoma in 1978, and the legendary 35–31 triumph in the 1971 Game of the Century. But those are their favorite close victories, ones that required fourth-quarter heroics on the field and some serious anxiety in the stands. So while those wins were immensely satisfying, they weren’t particularly comfortable ones. And being comfortable is an important component of being a Husker fan. As the saying goes, Why bother putting away a team in the fourth quarter when you can do it in the first? Nebraskans like their games nice and neat and over within a few minutes of kickoff; if our boys quickly build a massive lead over an intimidated opponent, it means it’s going to be an easy day for us, too. The initial worry over the outcome can melt away and leave you to obsess about other, less obvious elements of the game, like whether we’re substituting enough to build sufficient depth and experience at weakside linebacker or what the starting offensive lineup will look like two years from now based on the play of the young scrubs. You know, important stuff like that.

3. The Huskers score as much as humanly possible. Coaches have an unwritten rule that says once you’ve proven your team is vastly superior and you’re ahead by, say, 35 points, you’re supposed to let up on the gas and give the other team a sporting chance to make the contest respectable. We fans, however, believe merely beating a patsy 45–7 is a sign of weakness. If the score is, say, 52–0 with a minute to play, there’s still time to make it 59–0. Or, hell, 66–0, if we can recover our own onside kick and then throw deep. The bigger the score, the better we ultimately feel.

4. The defense pitches a shutout. There’s nothing like a goose egg on the scoreboard to perpetuate the image of defensive impenetrability and strike fear into the hearts of future opponents. If a shutout isn’t possible, one score is acceptable, assuming it’s coming against the third-and fourth-string defenders. The key is to hold the opponent to single digits, thereby keeping the score sufficiently lopsided. Giving up more than 9 points can lead to questions about defensive depth. And if the game yields questions about perceived vulnerabilities, it can’t be considered “perfect.”

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5. The guest of honor gets some action. On home Saturdays there’s always a sign tacked up somewhere in Memorial Stadium from a place like Hershey, Brainard, or Imperial, lauding a homespun walk-on. This guy is usually buried deep on the depth chart and doesn’t play much. Watching him trot onto the field, with NU up 49–0 and the Huskers’ huddle getting more foot traffic than Grand Central Station, puts a sublime punctuation mark on the victory. Usually you can hear a faint buzz of approval coming from one corner of the stadium or another, which means a few people from his hometown have noticed his entry into the lineup. It’s even better if he remembers his assignment and makes a tackle.

6. The victory is achieved with the appropriate mathematical prowess. This is perhaps the most important factor of all. As Nebraska fans, we find security and comfort in the numbers of the game—350-some-odd straight sellouts, 42 consecutive non-losing seasons over four decades, 35 straight bowl appearances during that time, 3 Heisman winners, more than 300 academic all-Americans—on and on the numbers go. The strength of Nebraska’s program is its old-fashioned arithmetic. The perfect game requires four distinct numbers: 50 (points), 400 (offensive yards), 100 (players who get to see action), and 0 (major injuries). If the Huskers do that, everything else takes care of itself.

This is a daunting set of requirements. But like I said, we know that perfect storm is often within reach in Lincoln. It certainly was in 1982. Having already exacted brutal revenge by administering an opening-day, five-touchdown flogging to the Iowa Hawkeyes, the Huskers were No. 3 in the major polls and had many of us believing this was Osborne’s best team yet. Dr. Tom’s sideline was so chock-full of talent, in fact, he had to draw up new formations to get all the stars on the field. Over the summer, he created the Weak Set, a sort of offset-I without the traditional lumbering fullback, so he could get Roger Craig and Mike Rozier into the same backfield behind Turner Gill, our all-everything signal caller.

The New Mexico State Aggies, on the other hand, were possibly the worst team in America. They arrived at Memorial Stadium in mid-September fully expecting to get crushed into a fine crimson powder. The poor souls knew they were here only because their athletic director struck one of those hey-come-up-to-Lincoln-and-let-us-pound-on-you-for-three-hours-and-we’ll-write-you-a-big-fat-check-so-you-can-finally-buy-some-new-uniforms deals with Bob Devaney. It was such a mismatch, the Vegas oddsmakers refused to establish a line on the game.

We were looking for precision on this bright and sunny day at Memorial Stadium, and we got it: The weather was perfect. The Huskers jumped to a big lead. They set an NCAA record for rushing yards and first downs. The defense didn’t give up a single point. And Osborne played everybody who suited up.

Over the next two years, Nebraska and its high-powered offense would compile a 24-2 record and provide us with two of the best teams in school history. Yet during that magical stretch full of huge plays and inflated scores, there were really no other games that we could consider “perfect,” at least not to the degree that we witnessed against the Aggies. It was a memorable contest, even if it was against an unmemorable foe. I turned off the radio that afternoon feeling satisfied and fulfilled, knowing that for once the Big Red had lived up to every one of our expectations—even exceeded a few of them.

Now that was a damn rare thing.