2020 marks 50 years since Nebraska football entered the history books with its first national championship season. The 1970 Huskers, coached by the legendary Bob Devaney, broke through on a grand night that capped a grand season, giving momentum to a fan base whose fervor has barely waned to this day. Each week, through the beginning of January, The World-Herald will revisit the 1970 season, allowing readers to relive the first Husker national title and get to know — again — the players and coaches who made it happen.
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Gen. William C. Westmoreland arrived in Lincoln in 1970 seeking to win a red cowboy hat. He left 48 hours later having lost a bathrobe to Nebraska’s governor.
In between, the U.S. Army chief of staff — and former commander of U.S. troops in the Vietnam War — faced a group of 150 student protesters outside the Cornhusker Hotel, gave a Friday evening dinner speech about South Vietnam inside the hotel and watched his Army football team run the ball 36 times for all of 18 yards in a 28-0 loss to the best defense the general would see all season.
That’d be Nebraska’s defense, anchored by a middle guard — the nose tackle in a 5-2 defense — no bigger than a modern Husker running back.
Ed Periard. A total original. A 5-foot-9, 200-pound walk-on from a Michigan village called Birch Run, halfway between Saginaw and Flint.
Against Army’s diverse run game — which preferred sweeps and option pitches to the between-the-tackles brutality of the wishbone — Periard had four tackles for loss. Coach Bob Devaney compared him to former stars Ken Geddes and Wayne Meylan, who’d been the gold standard at middle guard in previous years.
“He’s a tenacious little guy,” Devaney said of Periard. “He is unlike other middle guards. He isn’t as fast and he isn’t as big. But he is as good a tackler as Geddes or Meylan. He keeps working hard in there.”
So did Periard’s teammates. The Huskers pitched their first and only shutout of the year. Good thing, too. The Nebraska offense coughed up four fumbles, losing three in the first half.
Nebraska led 7-0 at halftime and got an earful from Devaney in the locker room. Devaney was mad about the turnovers. Nothing against Army’s defense, which had given up 10 total points in its first two games, but the Huskers couldn’t afford that many turnovers and expect to win.
After all, five turnovers kept NU from beating USC instead of settling for a 21-21 tie.
In the second half, as Westmoreland ate a hot dog with then-Nebraska Gov. Norbert “Nobby” Tiemann, the Husker offense got better quickly thanks to the usual brilliance of Johnny Rodgers — who had a 38-yard punt return to set up one touchdown and caught another score from Jerry Tagge on the following drive — and solid passing from Tagge and Van Brownson.
Tiemann got an Army bathrobe for winning his wager with Westmoreland. According to a World-Herald story the next morning, “Nobby enjoyed a Saturday night bath so he could make use of the spoils of victory.”
The governor presumably helped guarantee “the greatest security measures in Memorial Stadium history” were in effect for Army’s game-day visit. The antiwar demonstration that unfolded downtown the day before didn’t repeat itself inside the stadium.
Instead, The World-Herald reported, the Nebraska card section “saluted the mini-Cadet corps with two card displays during halftime. One spelled out ‘Army,’ followed by ‘Love.’ The ‘O’ in love contained the peace symbol.”
Army coach Tom Cahill offered plenty of love for Nebraska after the game. He liked NU’s AstroTurf, for one thing, complementing its “spring.” He noted Rodgers’ play, and NU’s ability to blitz seven or eight men right at Army’s offense. The Huskers hadn’t shown that in the Wake Forest or USC games.
“I’d say it is a pretty smart thing to do,” Cahill noted.
He lamented the Cadets’ inability to score after having first-and-goal at the NU 2. But great defenses pitch shutouts with goal-line stands, and Nebraska had a great D. The Huskers would rely upon it many times in the weeks to come, especially on a 2-point conversion that changed the trajectory of Nebraska’s tightest Big Eight road game.
After the Army win, Nebraska moved up two spots to No. 6 in the AP poll as Mississippi — and senior quarterback Archie Manning — barely escaped with a 20-17 victory over Kentucky. And a stunning result happened in the mountains.
Colorado handed Penn State its first loss in nearly three years, and did so emphatically 41-13. The Nittany Lions had won 23 straight and hadn’t lost in 31 games. What PSU experienced in Boulder was similar to what NU experienced that dark night at Arizona State in 1996.
“It is not the end of the world when you get your ears pinned back,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno told reporters afterward.
True, though it would be the end of Penn State’s national title hopes in 1970.
With Penn State’s streak ending, Texas took over the nation’s longest winning streak after beating Texas Tech 35-13. Texas, coached by Darrell Royal, was in the midst of its most remarkable decade, in which it was ranked No. 1 for at least one week in seven of 10 seasons.
Surprisingly, the defending national champion Longhorns were No. 2 that week behind Ohio State. Stanford was third, Notre Dame was fourth, and USC — which had tied NU the week before — was one spot ahead of the Huskers in fifth.
At that moment, sixth had to look pretty good. Nebraska hadn’t been ranked that high since 1966. NU was finally back on Devaney’s original, meteoric trajectory before disappointments in 1967 and 1968.
And yet, as September ended, consider the mountain in front of the Huskers.
Notre Dame won the national crown in 1966, followed by USC (1967), Ohio State (1968) and Texas (1969). Those giants didn’t make a habit of losing, and that fact denied Penn State and Paterno national titles in ’68 and ’69 despite undefeated seasons.
Those four, plus Jim Plunkett’s Stanford, were still in front of NU. And somewhere along the way, all of them would have to lose.
Of course, anyone who remembers Nebraska’s 1970 season has to smile at that line. The dominoes would fall over time with such poetic perfection that NU, so long as it stayed on course, would have its opportunity at greatness.
For that Saturday in September, the Huskers settled for impressing their coach and giving the governor a new bathrobe.